More than 130 countries committed to prioritise education at the United Nation’s Transforming Education Summit (TES), a global meeting of Heads of State held in September in New York.
Amongst the many commitments and actions to transform education submitted in the TES National Statements of Commitment, 80 per cent of countries highlighted one or more aspects of digital learning. Two-thirds made financial commitments to universalise broadband internet connectivity and to expand access to devices. Countries in which overcoming access gaps represent significant financial challenges also committed to “establishing or strengthening public-private partnerships with technology providers”.
In this race to spread technology as the solution to the education crisis, shockingly absent were commitments to increase investment in the teaching profession. Measures to address the alarming teacher shortages were almost entirely lacking. We will never truly transform education if education financing is steered towards edtech companies in the misguided hope that new technologies will provide a 'magic solution' to quality education, rather than invested in teachers, to fulfil every child’s right to a trained and qualified teacher.
Teachers and the digital conundrum
With the spread of COVID, millions of teachers turned themselves into power users of various hardware and software to keep education alive for their students. However, the impact of the use of education technology at scale remains largely untested, unregulated, and its possible benefits for teaching an learning, unproven.
There is a growing need to explore and assess how digital technologies are being used across diverse contexts, and the impact this has on academic freedom, teacher well-being, terms and conditions of employment, quality education, data governance and data privacy. Furthermore, research by Education International shows that the increased and pervasive use of technology is adding to the exhaustion teachers feel, and that they are demanding their contracts address the overwhelming hours they spend online.
Within the context of major technology companies playing an increased educational role, which introduces private for-profit motives to public schooling, there is also a growing need to carefully design and implement the use of technology to support the most marginalised. Failing to do so will result in a new form of digital inequality becoming deeply ingrained in our education systems. Moreover, governments must go beyond corporate data-driven approaches to education. Data collection and research relating to teachers and students’ digital lives must respect their privacy and meet the highest ethical standards. In this respect, the funding and development of an alternative, open source, infrastructure for digital education that does not rely on significant collection of student data is essential.
We need to look past the anecdotes, and the marketing, and talk about the path and potential of education technology in our classrooms. The potential for education technologies to enhance teaching and learning is great indeed – as long as we keep our eyes on the goal: free, quality public education for every student.
Transformation starts with teachers
Technology does not equal innovation. The source of effective innovation in education is the teaching profession itself. This was demonstrated during the pandemic. A collaborative culture of innovation must be further developed. We need strong educational communities thriving in a collective setting. The use of education technology can only be as innovative as the educational community where it is implemented.
There is also a need to address the lack of structures and processes to assess the effectiveness of digital technologies in education. Teachers should be able to participate in this assessment by sharing their experiences and experimenting with different kinds of technology, including analogue and other broadly used technologies. However, 45 per cent of respondents to Education International’s survey of education unions globally said that they were not consulted at all over the selection of educational technologies.
Education unions have a key role in catalysing conversations around digital learning and inserting education technology into pedagogical practice. Only when teachers and their collective organizations are part of the technology decision-making process will it work in support of quality teaching.
To get there, teachers must be valued as the indispensable professionals at the heart of education. The goal of ensuring equity must be evident and purposeful in the technology we use, for every student, everywhere. This is how we make transformation real. True transformation requires that governments tackle the global teacher shortage head-on, making teaching a more attractive profession through decent working conditions and enhancing the status of teachers.
We call on all governments to step up and do their part: invest in teachers, involve teachers, trust and respect teachers. Scale up creative ideas, not technology distribution. Teachers, not computers, are the beating heart of education.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.