In the words of the famous quote, Andy Warhol (reportedly) once claimed, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
For me, this quote resonates particularly powerfully in our digital age, where learning is too often short-lived and overly focused on the latest hot takes and trends. As a result, learners miss key opportunities for growth and development as we succumb to the hype.
The publication of UNESCO’s “An Ed-Tech Tragedy?” certainly falls into this category. When it was launched in early September, the EdTech world reverberated to its review of “educational technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for the future of learning.”
But all too quickly the world moved on. Without, I’d suggest, much critical consideration of the report and its findings.
PS: For clarity, the report refers to “Ed-tech” which it defines as follows: “short for educational technology, refers to digital and other connected technologies used to conduct or support education.”
Certainly as someone who has worked in this space for over 20 years, I approached the report with a keen sense of anticipation, hoping for a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the challenges and successes of using EdTech during the pandemic. But unfortunately, that’s not what we got….
Of course, I accept that my perspective is not impartial, but the report’s portrayal of the EdTech industry feels particularly unfair and one-sided.
An entire industry is painted as a one-dimensional villain, who was only looking for profit during a global emergency.
I recognise that some of the outcomes the report identifies (e.g widening inequality and inaccessibility of resources) are problematic for the EdTech industry and require much more work to address. But what was the realistic alternative?
The emergency situation demanded a rapid response and EdTech stepped up – careful planning and deliberate choices may have come up with different approaches, but there was no time or government appetite for this. And the alternatives proposed in the report, such as keeping schools open or pausing education, appear both impractical and incredibly expensive.
Firstly, the pandemic negatively impacted family health and the well-being of teaching and support staff, both of which reduced the availability and quality of education students received. Government decision-making, inequality and family poverty (for which EdTech can hardly be held responsible) also played key roles in reducing students’ access to technology and learning resources.
Despite these challenges, EdTech played a vital role in supporting students’ pandemic learning. However, the report is quick to attribute the worrying decline in students’ well-being during the pandemic to their use of digital learning tools.
For example, it notes that: “It is impossible to pinpoint the exact role that remote learning with ed-tech might have played in the deteriorating mental health of young people, but this does not mean its impact was neutral.”
The clear implication here is, of course, anything but!
The evidence for this assertion (and others) is drawn from reports which identify correlation but not causation.
For example, a study (Papas, 2020) is cited, which found “observed correlations between screen use of more than two hours per day and depressive symptoms among children.” But the study does not prove that remote learning technologies specifically caused the stress and anxiety – the screen could have been used for any number of other purposes.
The report is on firmer ground in its conclusions on student privacy and security. Yes, of course, the industry experienced challenges in these areas during COVID and mistakes were made in the rush to shift a generation of learners online. But the idea that students’ data was treated as “new gold” doesn’t tally with my experience of the sector.
Some challenges remain (for example, around data leaks and security) despite extensive efforts by EdTech companies and governments to address them. Progress is being made, but there’s much more to do.
And this links with perhaps my biggest frustration with the report.
EdTech is negatively presented as a blunt tool, a one-size-fits-all-solution. No attempt is made to consider the adaptability and flexibility of EdTech in providing highly personalised interventions for specific subjects or for individual educators, learners and their specific circumstances.
This is just one of a number of damaging generalisations that the report makes about the EdTech industry. For example, it uses the word EdTech (or Ed-tech in the report) as a catch-all term for every participant. The report therefore applies its criticism uniformly to both smaller brands and Big Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Zoom.
Furthermore organisations like EdTech Impact and LearnPlatform are already giving educators agency to make informed decisions on “what works and does not work for their students” and to more easily identify harmful or ineffective products.
Schools are now enabled to make better, evidence-based procurement decisions to build “safe, equitable and effective edtech ecosystems.” National education evidence standards such as ESSA in the US are also increasingly important in prioritising the use of proven, quality solutions.
On a more positive note, there’s lots of common ground in the report’s conclusions that give me hope for a more collaborative future.
Whilst on collaboration, I hope that EdTech companies might, as stakeholders, be invited to contribute to the “broad consultation and deliberation” that the report suggests will be required to identify “the role ed-tech will play in education.” After all, there is plenty of evidence from EdTech companies and international surveys highlighting the transformational impact of such technologies.
These reports also clearly identify that staff and students in schools and beyond see real value in using EdTech tools and want them to be part of their teaching and learning moving forwards. Time would arguably be better spent working out how to make the best use of such solutions (and their AI-powered upgrades) moving forward, so that global education systems are better prepared for future emergencies.