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The Needs of Students and Educators Should Guide Our Use of New Classroom Technologies

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Since the start of the pandemic it’s become common to suggest that education will have to adapt to a “new normal,” with increased use of online platforms. But private tech firms risk having an oversized say in what the “new normal” is — ignoring the needs expressed by teachers and learners themselves.

The global lockdown has enforced a crisis mode of life, work, and school — something for which neither individuals nor institutions were much prepared. It is unclear when, and how it will end. If there is a widespread sense that education must adjust to a “new normality,” we ought to take a critical look at what the “new normal” really means.

Many will have valid concerns about the direction of change education is taking. Tech giants are positioning themselves as saviors by providing emergency services through their products. Research has already shown that mere access to technologies doesn’t necessary solve the issue of education. And a growing generation of granular data continues to threaten personal privacy through profiling and biased data-driven futures.

But it is essential that our thinking is not dominated entirely by those fears, inhibiting effective decision-making about the challenges the pandemic is presenting and what positive changes can be made.

Such decision-making should, however, be democratic. That means involving all learners and educators in an open discussion about what they want from education. Indeed, an inclusive debate is essential at a time when powerful business technology actors are already energetically redesigning the global education infrastructure, basing their plans less on evidence about what improves learning, than on asserting their rival claims to market share.

School is like water: it is vital but it can also be contaminated…

But however we evaluate the changes underway in education connected to the rise of digital technologies, we can set down certain key principles. In this regard, we would do well to recall the education critic Ivan Illich’s “learning webs,” essentially open online spaces for healthy debate and free exchange of knowledge. This means integrating technologies in a way that lets learning happen — breaking down barriers of inequality and access to education.

There is a tremendous amount of human work involved in providing education. One cannot simply reimagine that technologies, which often go to market with little to no pretests, will replace it all. DreamBox — an “adaptive” learning software that modifies content based on user profile and interaction with it — claims that it narrows the attainment gaps in mathematics, yet Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research concluded that “there is little evidence yet that educational software is actually helping students progress more rapidly.”

Or take Google: it has made great claims for the positive impact of its G Suite for Education on student attainment and achievement, for example, when it was introduced in 2014 into the heavily disadvantaged metropolitan school district of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, where graduation rates were historically as low as 67 percent. But the district’s superintendent reported that, independently of the Google program, graduation rates had already improved to 94 percent before the Chromebooks and G Suite.

How? Through teachers’ relentless work to help students graduate, from hiring after-school buses for students to receive extra tutoring; to teaching students “soft skills” such as persistence, collaboration, and grit. Technologies — or their owners — cannot by themselves reimagine education; at best, they can support the practice of creative and dedicated educators. Remembering this helps reframe the debate about Big Tech in education during the pandemic crisis.

Schools are powerful political instruments in any society. This is a force for good only when schools are focused on enlightening and empowering learners: when schools are used for other ends, it is very different. With most schools globally closing due to the pandemic, some “learning” has started to take place online, fueling claims that this could be the new normal.

History is littered with failed predictions of how technology will “change everything” (we still have television, for example, two to three decades after its death was announced). But the determination among large business and policy forces to shift education decisively into online spaces should not be underestimated.

School digital platforms are acting fast as the most powerful among them reimagine education through technology. Even more disconcerting, these data-hungry players are quickly forming powerful coalitions with trusted multinational organizations such as UNESCO, whose very purpose is to safeguard individuals’ rights and fundamental freedoms.

Education critics rightly warn of the implications of digitizing education, when evidence of technologies’ effects in schools remains uncertain. However, we also need to leave space for education leaders and learners themselves to develop alternative, more positive, narratives of educational change, which may draw on aspects of online education technology.

Let’s respect the personal agency of learners and educators as they appropriate technologies, and the capacity of educational institutions to provide spaces for the creative — and convivial — use of such tools. We should take notice when a school creates a new educational space, as when students from Wooranna Park Primary in Australia virtually hosted peers from Boston, Massachusetts, in the historic Dandenong Market and the Royal Society of Victoria — two spaces they had designed in Minecraft.

AI-based tools promising personalised learning depend on educators’ will and learners’ interest to use them in class or at home. There are as many learning styles as there are people, so how can a piece of software claim to improve everyone’s learning when its diagnostics measures individual learning pathways?

Whether platforms constrain learning or expand it depends on the creativity of educators and learners, alongside the limitations imposed by the design of the technology to begin with. An authoritative recent study found “minimal evidence” that machine-learning–driven interventions are effective for individual education.

At best, EdTech offers possibilities for improvements, rather than a proven landscape of delivery; at worst, EdTech risks locking in partial “solutions” which benefit particular parties, while closing off precisely the debate we need to have about what education is and can be in the twenty-first century. Educators and learners must have agency in debating and redesigning how education is going to take shape post–COVID-19.

This article first appeared in The Jacobin.

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