Will Tech Save Us?

Technology alone won’t address education inequality in the digital era. We must model hybrid solutions. An edited version of this blog is available on the Open Education Europa portal.

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I had dinner with Werner Herzog the other night (for with read near). He’d just spoken at a 5×15 Stories event in Central Hall, and was expanding on one of his themes: that man would never establish a colony on Mars, would never defeat aging, would never arrive at Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Believing that technology was a panacea for the essential problems of being human (death, overpopulation, attachment to an unreliable body) was, he claimed, insane. This is an unfashionable perspective in a technocentric world. But it is one that we should pay attention too.

In education as in other areas of society, we can think uncritically that technology will cure our ills. The internet will give everyone access to the best content. Students will lead themselves through immersive game-based learning environments to unparalleled successes. National qualifications and multi-centred education practices will give way to global open education badges and virtual seminars. In all of this education outcomes will become better, and more equal. We need only stand and marvel. But the reality is less sexy and more human. Instead of sleek machines, picture legions toiling out of breath. Skynet isn’t taking over yet.

This is particularly true with regards to reducing inequality. Geoff Mulgan of Nesta this week wrote of the ‘end of another trickle-down theory’ as he highlighted in his blog the failure of innovation to reduce inequality. Innovation might be great for the knowledge and creative industries in London and Israel, but is doing nothing to improve conditions for the bottom 50% in those places. Education Week extends this critique to education, writing of their fears that with MOOCs coming to K-12 education, their “lecture-based format, inability to reach the most vulnerable populations, and low passing rates could broaden K-12 learning gaps rather than shrink them.” Adding that, “without universal access, MOOCs are pointless.”

We addressed this issue at the #EdDigEra conference in December. In order to address education inequalities in the digital era, we identified 5 key fields in which we need to operate. First, everyone must have access to broadband or wireless. Second, they need a device through which to access it. Third, they need to be able to access the best content, cheaply or for free. Fourth, support should be available to the learner to enable them to maximise engagement with content, usually in the form of a teacher. Five, the learner needs the skills, motivation and competence to log-on, interpret and persevere with the learning experience. These challenges are all tech-related, but they require hybrid solutions.

I believe that tech can save us, in the sense that it can support increased equity. But only where we are clear about the need to develop hybrid solutions, marrying digital technology to difficult footwork in the field. Professor Mandla Makhanya told us that the success of UNISA online depended in a large part on building physical infrastructure across South Africa. To facilitate quality distance learning, they constructed hubs where students could gather to access lecture content or attend virtual seminars. This in turn required broadband lines to be laid to connect these hubs to the web, and threw up the challenge of finding low-cost broadband, and the need for communications companies to stop ‘fleecing’ African institutions. It would be a mistake to see this purely as a technological success.

Caroline Jeux of Telefónica also referenced this hybrid model. She said that although Telefónica had achieved successes with its Educaterra and EducaRed e-Learning and teacher training platforms in Latin America, they now realised that a more holistic approach was required. She referenced an on-going project in La Rioja in Spain, in which Telefónica are building multi-layered support for the local education system, working with the local government administration to lay down broadband, provide content and services for schools, augment teacher training, link up to youth services and so on. To truly address inequality it is not enough simply to make available online courses and content.

We should also consider technology as a medium. Equality in education has for a long-time depended on a learner’s numeracy and literacy. In the era of the written word and printing press, your ability to use and interpret language has been crucial to your ability to succeed in the world. It follows that in the technological era, the ability to succeed in the world depends on your digital literacy – not simply your ability to use digital media, but your ability to manipulate the inner workings of technology. For that reason we should pay attention to organizations like Tech Will Save Us, which sells low-cost kits for kids to become ‘tech-makers’ who construct and code their own computers; or the Vratsa Software School, which is building a coding college and software company in Bulgaria.

For true equality all 5 of our conditions should be met for all learners, of all ages, all of the time. We won’t meet these conditions only through addressing digital inequalities. Instead, we must accept the central role that human behaviours and analogue technologies will always play in narrowing gaps and broadening access. In upcoming blogs and discussions we should focus our thinking on hybrid models that dwell in the real and virtual worlds.

The final word on this goes to Werner Herzog. He argues that technological millenarianism fails to account for the fact that human history is the “history of breath”. Asked at the end of the dinner whether he had a message for the tech community in Silicon Valley, where one of the diners worked, he said “tell them from me… Happy New Year, Losers.”

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