Facing up to the need for less digital technology in education is the first step toward more sustainable and beneficial forms of ed-tech
The 2020s look set to mark a turning-point in our conversations around digital education – but definitely notin the pivot to full online education that some people are pushing in the wake of the COVID shutdowns. Instead, serious thought needs to be given to the need for less technology in education. This is not to contend that education needs to be totally tech-free. Yet, this is to suggest scaling back the wholesale ‘technification’ of schools and schooling that has occurred over the past 20 years – especially in high-income and (over)developed regions.
In short, we are fast approaching a point of ‘peak ed-tech’, after which education communities need to work out more refined, appropriately-focused and sustainable forms of technology use that genuinely make a difference without also causing harm. Such sentiments diverge from the ‘Ed-Tech’ hype of the 2000s and 2010s, yet are perhaps essential to making sense of what lies ahead. As the opening years of the 2020s have already demonstrated, we are living in markedly different and uncertain times … we need to adjust our approaches to education and technology accordingly
EDUCATION AND TECHNOLOGY … THE NEED TO START OVER
While corporate investments and market expectations remain buoyant, the past few years has also seen signs of push back against the relentless digitisation of education. Put bluntly, more people are coming to the conclusion that current levels of technology use in education are perhaps not wholly beneficial, and certainly not sustainable over the medium to long-term. This is reflected in recent concerns over the digitally-driven standardisation and individualisation of learning, the creeping influence of ‘Big Tech’ companies, the monetisation of student data, and a general dehumanisation of classrooms. Looking to the future, educators are also beginning to make connections between their dependence on ‘always on’ modes of digital access and the environmental and ecological costs of excessive technology consumption. If nothing else, “we need to anticipate the ongoing environmental degradation of the planet as radically up-ending existing assumptions about the continued use of digital technologies in education” (Selwyn 2021).
All told, it increasingly seems that we need to develop radically different new approaches to how technologies are designed and deployed in education. In contrast to the ‘ubiquitous’ splurging of digital technology across all aspects of education, we need to cultivate more refined, restrained and bespoke approaches. We need to talk about the future of technology use in education in terms of its quality rather than quantity; as a limited (rather than limitless) resource that needs to applied judiciously and sparingly. In short, we need to start preparing discrete forms of tech-based education that are purposeful, planned and sustainable over time.
A DECEPTIVELY DIFFICULT PROBLEM: WHAT IS ED-TECH REALLY GOOD FOR?
So, if education’s relationship with digital technology is re-set along more focused, deliberate and finite lines, then what uses and applications might merit our attention and time? This is clearly a value judgement rooted in deliberations over the genuine ‘benefit’ of technology use, while also paying heed to possible ‘second order effects’ and unintended consequences. Put simply the question of what applications of digital technology might be considered as unequivocally ‘good’ for education involves at least two different lines of questioning:
- Does this technology support something of clear benefit in education that otherwise would not be possible?
- Does deploying the technology in this way not lead to existing education processes being diminished; environmental damage, and/or people being inadvertently harmed in other ways ?
Many prominent forms of contemporary ed-tech fall well short of such scrutiny. The harms of controversial applications such as ‘online exam proctoring’ and ‘drill and practice’ tutoring have been well-documented, yet even less problematic uses of technology can come at a cost. For example, ‘personalised learning systems’ can prove liberating for confident, well-resourced students used to taking control of their learning, but can also be oppressively isolating for others. Similarly, processing large batches of student assignments through automated essay-grading software might save considerable teacher time, but might also disadvantage students writing in non-standard English, or miss out on subtleties of argument that cannot be detected by pattern-matching software.
Indeed, far too much of the technology that has pervaded into the daily routines of educators, classrooms and schools feels unsatisfactory, reductive, and often at odds with core educational values and sensibilities. Ed-tech in the 2020s is dominated by apps, software and systems that prioritise matters of efficiency and accountability above matters of genuine educational substance – such as pedagogical design, expert knowledge and equity. As such, the question of what forms of ed-tech might be deemed undeniably advantageous and beyond reproach is more tricky than might be presumed.
That said, there is a number of areas of technology use in education that many people might consider as more worthy than the standard ed-tech fare. Consider the merits of these different use cases ….
- The benefits of digital technologies to support students with mental and physical difficulties have long been reported – from assistive technologies designed for the severely physically disabled through to specialist software to support autistic and dyslexic students.
- Elsewhere, are enthusiasms for the benefits of using advanced learning technology with high-performing ‘gifted and talented’ students. Alternately, from a social justice perspective, others would argue that technology can be directed toward addressing issues of inequality – supporting students and families that otherwise are disadvantaged and struggling to engage.
- Some might contend that digital education is most impactful at advanced levels of adult education (such as university education or corporate training), or best directed toward particular ‘STEM’ subjects with a technical and computational bent. Alternately, perhaps finite digital resources and computational capacity are best taken out of the classroom and reserved for the system-wide administration and management of education.
- Thinking more broadly, some online practices might have potential to reduce the environmental impacts of face-to-face education provision. Alternately, in light of recent pandemic shutdowns and climate-related flooding and fires, an unavoidable use case for technology in education over the next few decades might well be for crisis situations – with technology underpinning efforts to provide workable forms of ‘emergency remote education’.
ED-TECH FUTURES … NO EASY ANSWERS
This list is not exhaustive, and there may well be other uses that different readers might insist are also included. Yet, it is striking how these potentially ‘good’ uses of ed-tech constitute just a small proportion of the current ed-tech enterprise. Far more common are deployments of technology that seem far less easy to portray as essential ‘goods’ that lead to clear ‘added value’, or perhaps even otherwise unachievable outcomes. Reframing ed-tech in terms of what we can largely agree on to be beneficial ‘best uses’ would radically cut back on many unhelpful and harmful uses of technology. Most importantly, the over-consumption of digital technology could be railed back toward more sustainable levels.
Precisely, how we chose to deploy technology in education during the 2020s and beyond is a value judgement. Even deciding to not change our ways and carry on regardless is itself a value judgement. Alternately, even if we agree that technology use in education needs to be more carefully directed and planned, there are no clear-cut cases that everyone would unanimously agree should be prioritised. Every educator and technologist will have their preferred ‘causes’ that will be entwined with what they personally perceive the purpose and priorities of education to be. At the same time, other stakeholders will also have their own competing agendas. For example, in contrast to any concerns for inclusive education or advanced learning, tech companies, start-ups and investors are likely to want to simply prioritise whatever products and services prove to be most profitable.
Every possible form of tech use in education will have someone willing to think that it is a good idea. Yet a laissez-faire, ‘more-tech-the-better’ approach has led to the dangerously stifling situation that education currently finds itself in. Instead, ed-tech needs to be reframed as an area of education where hard choices need to be made, and only technology uses that are both genuinely advantageous and non-harmful are considered viable. Ultimately, given the educational, social and environmental consequences of excessive tech use, we cannot afford to carry on in any other way.
Of course, the immediate problem thrown up by following this new logic is reaching acceptable consensus around any of these hard choices. Indeed, strong counter-arguments can be levelled against whatever one might personally consider to be the ‘best’ or blatantly ‘worthy’ area of tech use. For example, technology specifically designed to support ‘gifted’ students raises criticisms of elitism; focusing technology on ‘disabled’ students raises criticisms of ableism. Similarly, attempts to use technology to overcome social disadvantage might be rejected as naïve offerings that merely distract from more serious structural issues. Many attempts at ‘greening’ education provision through online practices fail to take the full energy and material costs of digital processes into account. Even focusing on forms of ‘emergency remote education’ might be seen as inappropriately rushing people back into teaching and studying and skipping over more fundamental issues of trauma and other suffering.
That said, all the possibilities listed earlier at least evoke a common spirit that might offer a starting point for discussion – i.e. broad forms of tech use and associated values that we might collectively agree are worth building into future forms of ed-tech. These are uses of technology in education that are focused, finite and strive to support specific educational contexts and circumstances. In short, these are forms of ed-tech with clear purposes, with well-defined goals, and involve technology being applied judiciously and appropriately.
The specific forms of ed-tech that we develop and deploy over the next few decades will be a matter for ongoing dialogue, and will need to remain responsive to the unforeseeable ways in which planetary events unfold. For the time being, we might at least try to collectively agree that there is a fundamental problem with the ways in which ed-tech is currently arranged, and that it is essential to find new ways of using technology in education that better fit the educational needs and constrained environmental circumstances of the next few decades. There is much work to be done!