14 September 2023
Has EdTech improved access to education or widened the digital divide?
During UNESCO’s Digital Learning Week, the organisation released an extensive publication, mainly based on qualitative analysis, examining the “promises of educational technologies against the reality of what was delivered during periods of pandemic school closures”. The report aims to call attention to the many failures of EdTech deployments to facilitate equitable and inclusive access to educational opportunities despite the vast amount of investment and resources poured into its implementation.
Here are some key findings from the report:
No Connectivity, No (Digital) Learning
For all the good that digital learning platform promises, the reality is without internet connection platforms do not function and students are left without access to learning materials and lessons. Approximately 3.7 billion people lacked a functional internet connection in 2020. That’s roughly half of the world’s population. The United Nations estimated that nearly 500 million learners from pre-primary to upper secondary school had no access to remote learning, of which three-quarters belonged to the poorest households and/or lived in rural areas.
A “remote learning paradox”, coined by the World Bank, highlights the futility of prioritising the use of online solutions to minimise learning loss when “the students who are most at risk of learning losses cannot access online solutions”.
EdTech painted a picture of equal educational opportunities, but not without devices in the hands of educators and learners. The issue of digital gaps created by stark differences in socio-economic statuses has bled into education and EdTech. Devices are costly and are an additional expense on top of gaining access to the Internet. With schools and common public areas like community centres closed off, there were few ways disadvantaged groups could access devices.
The Dearth of Digital Capacity-Building
The distribution of teacher skills and abilities to use technology was not even across the world or even within countries themselves. School-based inequities were magnified, and even “enlarged and more severe” according to the report. The stark differences between the haves and the have-nots have never been clearer. Well-resourced institutions benefitted from early tech adoption pre-pandemic, able to equip teachers with digital skills and devices to create content suitable for remote learning.
The report also shines a light on not just the lack of digital skills in educators, but the inadequacy in students, caregivers, administrators and even policymakers. The speed at which governments have been trying to build digital capacity prior to the pandemic proved too slow, not adequate and failed to reach the ones that require it the most.
Disengaged Learners at Risk & The Falsehood of the ‘Learning Experience’
Students spent fewer hours in a day on formal education during remote learning, even in places where connectivity and device access were high. Studies showed a 50 per cent drop in formal learning task participation. This decline was sustained throughout the pandemic, even when educators and students established a more stable remote or hybrid learning environment. Institutions continue to struggle when it pertains to achieving the same learning outcomes in a different learning mode. Despite the quick innovation of EdTech tools, there continues to be a gap between integrating tech into pedagogical practices.
The ‘learning experience’ has also taken a toll, particularly in universities where value is attributed to the experience provided at the institution. Students feel they have been ‘short-changed’ and feel ‘disengaged’. In fact, more than 100,000 students in Britain are planning to sue their universities for compensation for disruptions to their learning during the pandemic, stating that the quality of teaching provided does not warrant the tuition fees charged.
UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini cautions against the dangers of pushing technology too deep and too fast in Education. Whilst it can play a role in unlocking digital promise for all, we “have to steer technology, implement it on our terms”.
Some recommendations in the report include a renewed focus on uplifting the quality of physical schools, taking a consultative approach with teachers when building educational systems online, improving digital safeguards to protect students, and continuing efforts to expand digital connectivity and digital infrastructure.
We should not discredit the benefits EdTech has brought into the realm of education. It did and will continue to open new doors for us, but there is an acute need to be aware of the shortfalls it has created and the gaps it has widened.
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