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Keep needs of learner first, says UNESCO report on technology in education

Keep needs of learner first, says UNESCO report on technology in education
  • PublishedAugust 21, 2023

A UNESCO report looks at the effectiveness of the use of digital tools in schools. They should be used to promote learning and not as a costly source of distraction, writes Laurent Soucaille.

Major technological advances, particularly in digital technologies, are transforming the world at breakneck speed. A recent report from UNESCO examines their importance for education.

The researchers point out that information and communication technology (ICT) isn’t so new. It has been used in education for a century, dating back to the use of radio in the 1920s. In Nigeria, for example, radio instruction combined with paper and audiovisual media has been used since the 1990s, reaching almost 80% of nomadic populations and improving their literacy, numeracy and life skills.

More generally, there is a lack of reliable data. There are many testimonies on the ground, but they are difficult to aggregate. According to manufacturers and private companies, enthusiasm is the order of the day; UNESCO specialists are more cautious, judging the data from professionals to be exaggerated and sometimes even falsified.

Nevertheless, even in the most remote regions of Africa, an educational technology sector has emerged, focusing successively on the development and dissemination of educational content, learning management systems, language applications, augmented and virtual reality, personalised tutoring and knowledge testing. For example, distance learning programmes have promoted teacher learning in South Africa and even proved as effective as face-to-face training in Ghana.

More recently, advances in artificial intelligence have increased the power of educational technology tools, leading to speculation that technology may even replace human interaction in education.

Progressive and uneven changes

Over the last 20 years, digital technological tools have developed at great speed. The number of students enrolled in online courses open to all has risen from 0 in 2012 to at least 220m in 2021. The language-learning application Duolingo had 20m active daily users in 2023, and Wikipedia recorded 244m consultations per day in 2021!

The results are yet to be confirmed. In Senegal, the “Reading for All” programme includes face-to-face and online support. Teachers consider face-to-face support to be more useful, and it cost 83% less and led to a significant, albeit modest, improvement in the way teachers guided pupils’ reading exercises.

The adoption of digital technologies has led to many changes in education and learning. In the richest countries, they are now part of basic skills. This increases inequalities with countries where such learning is embryonic.

The period of the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as a natural experiment in which learning went digital overnight, across all education systems. During the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria, the Technology Enhanced Learning for All programme used mobile phones and radios to ensure continuity of learning for 22,000 disadvantaged children, resulting in a documented improvement in literacy and numeracy skills.

“The changes resulting from the use of digital technologies are gradual, uneven and greater in some contexts than in others”, notes UNESCO. The application of digital technologies varies according to the socio-economic level of the community, the willingness and preparation of teachers, the level of education and national income. Except in the most technologically advanced countries, computers and other devices are not used in classrooms on a large scale.

“The use of technology is not universal and is not about to become so”, sums up UNESCO. It points in particular to sub-Saharan Africa’s difficulties in achieving universal access to electricity and the Internet.

A source of distraction

What’s more, the evidence on its impact is mixed: certain types of technology seem to be effective in improving certain types of learning. The short- and long-term costs of using digital technologies appear to be greatly underestimated. The most disadvantaged populations generally do not have the opportunity to benefit from these technologies.

In low-income countries, spending on technology rather than classrooms, teachers and textbooks for children who lack them makes it harder to achieve the goal of inclusive and equitable education for all enshrined in the UN’s SDG4, warns UNESCO.

The definition of clear objectives and principles is necessary to ensure that the use of technology is beneficial and not harmful. Among the negative, even harmful, aspects of digital technologies, UNESCO points to the risk of distraction and the absence of human contact. The organisation goes on to suggest that mobile phones should be banned from schools and that the free distribution of computers should be more strictly supervised.

Unregulated technologies even pose threats to democracy and human rights, for example by invading privacy and stirring up hatred. Education systems must be better prepared to teach about and through digital technologies. “Impartial evidence showing that technology is being used in some places to improve education, and good examples of such use, need to be shared more widely so that the optimal mode of delivery can be assured for each context”, recommends UNESCO.

Discussions about education technology should be focused on education, not technology, says the report, which examines the issue in terms of equity and inclusion, quality and efficiency.

In terms of equity and inclusion, digital technologies make it possible to reduce the cost of access to education for certain disadvantaged groups: those living in isolated areas, displaced populations, those with learning difficulties, those who lack time or those who have missed out on previous educational opportunities.

The need for vigilance

Nevertheless, although access to digital technologies has expanded rapidly, it is profoundly unequal. Disadvantaged groups own fewer devices, are less connected to the internet and have fewer resources at home. The cost of many technologies is falling rapidly, but remains too high for some. Wealthier households are able to buy technologies earlier, which gives them a greater number of advantages and widens disparities.

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced about how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” says Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO. “Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the wellbeing of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”

Written By
Laurent Soucaille

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