Implications, threats and opportunities of digital technology in the education sector

Education has been accepted as a project for social and political transformation, with the development of each individual not only for her economic gains, but also for building a just and humane society1. It also needs to promote awareness and build agency for sustainable development and harmonious co-existence. Global policy documents such as the Education for All (Jomtien 1990, Dakar 2000), Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, emphasize universal education.

Yet we are a long way from universal quality education in most of the world. While education is recognized as a public good, governments are unable and/or unwilling to make required public investments in education, in terms of ensuring universal access and quality. Per student expenditure on education is low, far below what developed countries spend, to build universal public education systems. Private expenditure on education has been increasing as a response to this shortfall. However increasing private expenditure, where individuals fund their children’s education, is leading to increased stratification of the education system, as education acquires the nature of a ‘market good’. The rich are able to afford expensive good quality private schools while the marginalized sections enroll their children in so called ‘affordable schools2’ which are too ill-resourced to be capable of providing meaningful education.

The poor investment in education also results in poor quality of teacher education, and inadequate academic infrastructure. Teachers are unable and/or unwilling to provide support to the learning processes. In this context, digital technologies (aka Information and Communication Technologies, or ICT in short), are sometimes seen as a solution that can address curricular resource shortage, teacher shortage and teacher quality. Programs that develop e-content and provide it on scale to teachers may aim to alleviate or solve the problem of quality teaching learning materials. Video recordings of teaching or on-line learning platforms are seen as reducing the need for teaching and teachers in schools. Used in this manner, ICT can de-skill education, making it poorer. In addition, ICT programs in education can end up harming the goals of education, through the two processes of ‘privatization’ and ‘centralization’3.

ICT as a threat to education

As in other socio-economic spheres, in education too, IT companies are big players in the ICT and education space. They provide ‘ICT based education services’ to schools through e-content and ICT faculty. As their digital content can be easily replicated across schools, it is seen as a solution for the large scale content needs of the public education system. .

However, this process usually results in the teacher remains a ‘consumer’ of content created elsewhere, with this ‘e-content’ joining the text book which is produced for all schools by the state education departments. In addition it also leads to privatization of the school curriculum. While text books and other state government created materials need to comply with national and state curricular frameworks and accepted educational principles, such conformance is not explicitly expected or seen in the case of e-content, whose quality is often suspect. Increasing the role of a privatized curriculum, in the absence of safeguards to ensure alignment to educational aims threatens the larger transformatory goals of education discussed earlier, as private vendors usually restrict their e-content to narrow academic areas.

Secondly the provision of such e-content is moving to the ‘cloud’, where schools need to connect to the platforms created by the companies to access resources. While the cloud alleviates the requirement of dynamic content, it can lead to centralization and ‘one-size-fits-all’ mode of content delivery.

Such centralized and privatized modes of ICT implementation in a content delivery mode is attractive to both education bureaucrats (who often have a deep distrust of the teacher) and to companies. However, they dis-empower the teacher and reduce possibilities for contextual learning. The teachers’ role is restricted to that of being a ‘user’ or ‘consumer’. The possibilities of exploring learning pathways, and addressing diverse learning needs of different students become constrained by the thinking behind the pre-packaged content.

ICT as a process of empowerment

However, ICT in education can be imagined in much more empowering ways. ICT can strengthen teacher professional development by enabling the teacher to access diverse information repositories, and make choices of what to use and adapt. . Teachers can also connect to one another through digital networks for peer learning and sharing. Digital networks are the important reason for the emergence of ‘Communities of Practice’ as a powerful tool for teacher professional development4. Larger groups of ‘professional learning communities’ across wider geographies can also serve as forums for sharing resources, experiences and ideas.

More importantly, digital applications can be used by teachers to create their own learning resources. . Seymour Papert5 popularized the idea of ‘constructionism’ in which learners can use digital tools to ‘create, learn’ and ‘learn and create’, which is a virtuous cycle of freely exploring digital applications to develop learning materials and through this process learn, both about the use of the digital tools, and the processes of material development. The process of material making also strengthens the agency of the teacher and develops her creative capacities. It enables her to envision resources that are appropriate for the specific and diverse needs of her learner cohorts.

Support large scale material development

The process of creating digital learning materials by teachers has another potentially beneficial outcome – the development of open educational resources on scale. If teachers’ capacities to use digital applications to create digital materials is developed on a large scale, and these resources are shared by teachers with one another, and published on platforms/repositories for others to use/adapt, using copyright that enables such sharing, it would be a powerful method of creating resource rich learning environments. In the context of non-English learning environments, such a model would be even more useful, as curricular resource availability in most languages in the developing countries is a fraction of what is available in English.

Professional Learning Community – Open Educational Resources (PLC-OER) model of teacher professional development

The approach of building capacities of teachers to network and and create using digital technologies on scale, has been adopted by IT for Change, the organization I am a part of, to build professional learning communities of teachers in the provinces of Karnataka and Telangana in India6. In the ‘Subject Teacher Forum’ program, initiated by the Karnataka department of school education, in collaboration with IT for Change, teachers have enjoyed learning a diverse set of digital tools (which being free and open source can be easily shared with them and by them with others), to develop digital learning materials which they have used for their practice and shared with peers7. The program has created an environment of widespread use of digital technologies by teachers for their own learning and collaborating. The ‘Professional Learning Communities - Open Educational Resources’ tool-tool-kit developed by IT for Change provides details on this model of teacher professional development.

Free and Open technologies

In order to ensure that ICTs are used to empower teachers and schools, it is essential to adopt free and open technologies. Proprietary technologies are inimical to teacher empowerment due to multiple reasons

  1. they constrict teachers agency to freely share with learners and peers

  2. as the source code is closed, they cannot be easily enhanced to meet teacher/learner requirements

  3. In contexts which are resource starved, the need to individually license proprietary technologies makes them prohibitively expensive for large scale adoption/adaptation

The use of free and open source software, open educational resources and open hardware is indispensable to building a strong and independent culture of ICT integration in the school system.

Artificial Intelligence

Digital technologies have seen rapid changes in a short period, and the latest is ‘artificial intelligence’ - the use of big data and machine learning to develop predictive models. In education, it is claimed that AI can address the diverse learning needs of learners by:

  1. teaching through personalized education where custom content, pedagogy and assessment can be derived for each student based on her/his responses to past activities and assessments

  2. self-learning through adaptive practice

  3. macro diagnostics and predictive models, across groups of learners (by geography, demographic profile, grade, medium of instruction, subject and other categories) to provide inputs for policy and program

AI can be useful if it is used to provide teachers a range of content and pedagogy possibilities, based on analyses of learning contexts. However, the danger that can and will be used to further de-skill and reduce the role of teacher is quite clear. Secondly, this ‘big data’ is being collected by companies in a ‘finder is owner’ paradigm, this has potential to make the teachers and students vulnerable to commercial exploitation and political surveillance.

More importantly perhaps, from an education perspective, the transformatory potential of education requires moving beyond the past towards the normative, whereas the essence of AI is to predict the future based on past trends. This tendency to project the past has already mired AI in controversies of bias and harm, and if unchecked, this will be even more dangerous in education, as it will tend to re-create existing socio-economic hegemonies and power disparities.

Conclusions - questions to ask

Hence in order to realize beneficial possibilities of AI in education and to avoid or minimize harm, it is essential to ask the political economy questions – who does it benefit and who controls it? More specifically,

  1. Does the use of digital technologies support the achieving of established educational aims, or is it based on technological hype of ‘simpler’, ‘faster’ etc. which hide what outcomes their use would foster. Digital technologies should be adopted only when the answer to this is clear - that the use would support the achievement of specific educational aims.

  2. Are these technologies owned by the schools and the teachers? Can they make changes or seek changes as they need? Or are the technologies owned by private and commercial entities which may respond only if there are profit making opportunities, or which may manipulate the use of technologies for surveillance of schools, teachers and learners?

  3. Who owns the data created / accessed through digital applications? Who controls its use? What should be the role of private providers of digital services in managing and controlling the data?

  4. Does the use strengthen teacher agency and school autonomy, by providing more opportunities and authority? Does it provide teachers and schools more content and pedagogy opportunities or does it narrow their possibilities? Or does it weaken schools and teachers by making them spokes of centralized / platform based hubs which have the power and control?

  5. Is the use of AI further aggravating the problems of centralization and privatization? Can the use of AI be imagined in ways as to support autonomy of the school and the agency of the teacher?

References

Advocacy networks, choice and private schooling of the poor in India, retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227733242_Advocacy_networks_choice_and_private_schooling_of_the_poor_in_India

Case study on Subject Teacher Forum,

The role of communities of practice in a digital age, retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/10/01/the-role-of-communities-of-practice-in-a-digital-age

Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. John Dewey.

Edith Ackermann. Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference? , retrieved from http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf

‘Professional Learning Communities – Open Educational Resources’ A tool-kit, retrieved from https://teacher-network.in/OER/index.php/A_Professional_Learning_Community_Approach_for_Teacher_Development_and_OER_creation_-_A_toolkit

 

 

1John Dewey. Democracy and Education

2See ‘Advocacy networks, choice and private schooling of the poor in India’

3See ‘Domination and emancipation: A framework for assessing ICT and Education programs’

4See for instance ‘The role of communities of practice in a digital age’ by Tony Bates

5Edith Ackermann. Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference? Is an interesting read, The NCERT ICT Curriculum also emphasizes that ICTs can be used by teachers and students to ‘create and learn

6The Kerala ‘IT@Schools’ program pioneered this model, which IT for Change has adapted in other states of India

7See case study on the Subject Teacher Forum program by Prof Rajaram Sharma, Joint Director NCERT (retired). This program is now being continued by the department as the ‘Technology Assisted Computer Learning’ program

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Implications, threats and opportunities of digital technology in the education sector