Report written by Conrad Hughes
This was a high-level event uniting policy-makers and decision-makers in Latin America. Panellists included the ministers of education of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Chile and Paraguay; Stefania Giannini (Assistant Director General for Education at UNESCO) and Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report.
The overall pitch of the global report was on the importance of putting humanity and the socialisation of learning ahead of technology for the sake of technology. After the race into technology during the pandemic, and against a backdrop of the general exponential growth of technology in education over recent decades, this report looks at technology with some caution and balance. One of the repeated mantras at the launch was that the focus is on learning output and not technological input; another took the form of an assertion (I’m not sure who is able actually to guarantee this assertion given the ubiquitous availability of the Internet for many learners) that it would be “tech on our terms”, meaning that human beings, teachers and educators in general would curtail, master and direct the use of technology and not the other way around. Running through the report and the summit was an acceptance that technology is the “new normal”, that it can reduce learning gaps and assist learners with specific needs but that it can also exacerbate gaps. A major concern that is shared by stakeholders is the lack of consequential research behind the real long-term effects of technology on learning. In essence, its adoption needs to be slowed down, measured, re-equilibrated in some contexts and expanded and used more effectively in others.
There were more questions than answers at the various launch panels, but good and critical questions that were clearly suggesting the dangers of a frenetic and somewhat mindless adoption of technology without filters, frameworks and review systems.
The report states the paradox of technology through the following excellent questions about technology (which I intend to use with my Theory of Knowledge students and encourage any teacher to discuss with their students):
- Does it democratise knowledge by providing unfiltered access to human intelligence, or threaten democracy by allowing a select few to control information?
- Does it offer boundless opportunities or lead us towards a technology-dependent future with no return?
- Does it level the playing field or exacerbate inequality?
- Should we incorporate technology-related skills into young childrens’ education, or is there a risk to their development?
(2023 GEM Report)
The answer to most, if not all of these is probably “both” or “yes and no,” the extent and degree being the factor to consider. In any case, technocrats and technophobes are able to cherry pick studies celebrating or bemoaning technology and education: finding some middle ground is what is being sought in the report, but it’s not easy.
“Technology is a tool to be used on our terms for the sake of transforming education,” Stefania Giannini, Deputy Director General for Education at UNESCO, reminded us.
Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General (pre-recorded speech broadcast from Paris), addressed us at the opening ceremony. After the traumatic experience of the pandemic, several lessons were learnt: the social, emotional and psychological import of learning and the fact that a screen simply cannot replace a teacher; the digital divide exacerbated by access - or lack thereof - to technology (72% of the world’s poorest population is not able to access distance learning effectively). She spoke of four trade-offs when using technology in education:
- Personalisation and adaptation vs. the social dimension of education
- Inclusivity vs. exclusivity
- Commercial interest vs. the common good
- Short-term efficiency vs. long-term costs
Furthermore, when deciding to deploy technology in education, the following four questions should be considered:
- Is it scalable?
- Is it sustainable?
- Is it appropriate?
- Is it equitable?
Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO, synthesised the report with a series of fascinating facts and observations, listed below:
Speed, growth and manner of implementation
- Technology use in education has grown rapidly: MOOC enrolment has grown to 220 million in 10 years
- Education evolves faster than we can evaluate it (products change at least every 36 months)
- Higher education adopts technology the fastest and has been transformed by it the most
- Technology is often brought to plug a gap, with no view to the long term costs
- Decisions are often rushed: in the USA, only 11% of educational users requested peer-reviewed evidence prior to adoption and around 2/3 of education software licences were unused
Access to learning
- Technology transforms the educational experiences of learners with disabilities and those in emergency situations
- Use varies by income, education level and teacher preparedness (it’s worth knowing that only 50% of lower secondary schools are connected to the Internet)
- When used carefully and well, technology can increase access to learning dramatically. In China, for example, recorded lessons broadcast to 100 million students in rural areas improved learning outcomes by 32%; in India, satellite teaching in rural public secondary schools improved mathematics and science scores
- Distance teacher education can be efficient: online coaching is not as effective as face-to-face learning but it can be 80% cheaper
- Online content is mainly produced by dominant groups, affecting access to it: 92% of OER Commons content is in English
Sustainability and safety
- Report data showed that 5% of students with strong reading skills but 24% of those with the weakest reading skills were misled by phishing emails
- 89% of the products reviewed in the report collect childrens’ data
- Material and energy implications: extending the lifespan of all the laptops in the EU by a year is equivalent to almost 1 million cars off the road
Case study: Uruguay
In Uruguay, during Covid, the government leaned heavily on the CEIBAL Foundation, which provided massive online learning platforms to students and continues to enable the teaching of English. English is in the national curriculum but there aren’t enough teachers, so CEIBAL delivers online classes using high resolution CISCO Webex technology, projected into the classroom synchronously for one out of four periods while the in-class teacher (who is not an expert in English) unpacks and facilitates the learning for the other three periods.
Although we all agreed that technology-assisted teaching stepping in to ensure the continuum of learning is not as effective as a real teacher, in cases where capacity is lacking, models like CEIBAL are interesting because they allow for co-teaching, adult supervision of the use of technology and sharing of resources (in this case, teaching competence). Incidentally, and on a somewhat parallel point, the inadequate pipeline of English teachers is a worldwide problem (as is the lack of teachers in general).
Policy and innovation
I was on a panel discussing policies and innovation in the digital era and was the only school director at the conference to present the experience and reflections from that level. Drawing from our work at Ecolint concerning STEM, hybrid- and remote-learning during the pandemic, our policy on generative artificial intelligence (in process) and our guiding principles for STEM learning, I made the following points:
- Teachers are encouraged to use generative artificial intelligence in the classroom with their students (subject to age restrictions) to promote ethical, critical and creative use of this resource and to familiarise students with it so they can use it effectively in real-life scenarios.
- Teachers should discuss generative artificial intelligence with students to foster some critical appreciation of the manner in which information is gathered and distributed by it so as to understand the nature of algorithmic meaning-making, including the mistakes that it can make.
- Online learning should be adapted to the psychological and social needs of learners: shorter lesson time, project-based assessments wherever possible, synchronous learning exchanges and an emphasis on connection, sharing, checking in, mindfulness and oral exchange.
- Technology is where our thinking starts, not where it stops.
The launch was energetic and took a significant stance on the importance of a human-centred approach to learning in an age of technology. UNESCO continues to have as a central imperative all work towards SDG4 and it urges us to think critically and responsibly about corporate interests over educational interests when it comes to technology.
It was not without irony that during many of the panel discussions about how to use technology judiciously, at the back of the hall, the majority of participants were glued to their personal devices.
Here is a link to the report for further information.