[an excerpt from an interview with the AEU’s ‘Professional Voice‘ magazine – full version published August 2021]
The issue of environmental and ethical impact really is the elephant in the room when it comes to thinking about how digital technology might be impacting on education over the next 30 to 40 years. At the moment we are all stuck in a mindset of ‘abundant’ tech use – we upload everything to the cloud, presume one-to-one device access in the classroom, we want to live-stream videos, replace our phones and laptops every few years, sign-up to offers for ‘unlimited data’, and generally assume that our tech use is ‘always-on’.
But there are clear signs that this way of using tech simply isn’t sustainable for a bunch of interlinked reasons. Our digital devices are built on the extraction of non-renewable minerals and rare metals that are fast running-out. Manufacturing this hardware involves massive energy expenditure, as do the data storage centres required to support software and online services. Emerging innovations such as training AI models and trading in crypto-currency incur huge carbon footprints … even running a couple of Google searches consumes the equivalent energy of boiling a kettle. The disposal of e-waste is another major environmental burden. At some point this century we will reach the point when all of this grinds to a halt.
On top of all of this, this cycle of extraction, manufacturing and disposal is reliant on exploited labour in some of the world’s poorest countries. If you don’t want to be swayed by the unfolding environmental disaster, then it is also worth reflecting on how all this tech is an unmitigated ethical disaster.
So, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that ed-tech cannot carry on as it is. We need to start to rethink how we might make use of technology in future decades in radically different ways. This doesn’t mean getting rid of digital technology altogether. And neither is this a problem that is unique to education. But schools and colleges are obvious places to start leading the way to kickstart a change in how our society looks at its tech use. This is certainly part of the climate emergency that teachers, students and schools can make a direct impact on.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions! This isn’t a problem that can be solved, but it is a predicament that we need to work out ways of being able to live with. We all need to thinking about how to make best use of our digital technologies as if they are a finite, limited resource – what I’ve been calling ‘Ed-Tech Within Limits’.
Some obvious initial steps might include teachers and students working to locally implement ideas of right to repair, with schools looking to reuse and repair existing tech where-ever possible, procuring ethically produced ‘modular’ devices, and getting ‘e-waste’ activism going in their schools.
The longer-term challenge is the huge culture change that is required in education. We need to develop a different set of values about tech use in schools – ideas of using less tech, in slower, more thoughtful and frugal ways. This might involve developing a culture of staying offline as much as possible, using the minimal bandwidth and memory as possible, having communally-owned and shared devices, looking for low-energy or no-tech alternatives.
This raises some tricky questions. For example, if tech use has to be rationed then which educational tech uses (and users) are genuinely essential and should be prioritised? What are we doing with tech that genuinely ‘adds value’ and allows teachers and students to do things that are not possible any other way? Do we prioritise tech use for certain subjects, or certain students? Do we prioritize digital education for the emergency remote education of populations displaced by climate migration?
Not allowing ourselves to continue to be dependent on digital technology already makes good sense – we are already living in times of increased power blackouts, data failures, and global shortages of microchips. This might seem like an uncomfortable way of thinking about schools and tech, but these are going to be unavoidable issues in a couple of decade’s time … so it is makes good sense to start rethinking how to change our unhealthy relationship with tech well in advance. From now on, our conversations around ed-tech need to about eco-justice just as much as efficiency and effectiveness.