Digital technology is becoming ubiquitous in people’s daily lives. It is reaching the world’s most distant corners. It is even creating new worlds, where the lines between the real and the imaginary are harder to discern. Education cannot remain unaffected, although there are calls to protect it from the negative influences of digital technology. However, this is a major challenge, as technology appears in multiple forms in education. It is an input, a means of delivery, a skill and a planning tool, and provides a social and cultural context, all of which raise particular questions and issues.
This report’s basic premise is that technology should serve people and that technology in education should put learners and teachers at the centre. The report has tried to avoid an overly technology-centred view or the claim that technology is neutral. It also offers a reminder that, as much technology was not designed for education, its suitability and value need to be proven in relation to a human-centred vision of education. Decision makers are faced with four challenging trade-offs:
- The call for personalization and adaptation clashes with the need to maintain the social dimension of education. Those urging increased individualization may be missing the point of what education is about. Technology must be designed to respect the needs of a diverse population. An assistive teaching and learning tool for some may be a burden and distraction for others.
- There is a conflict between inclusivity and exclusivity. Technology can potentially offer an education lifeline to many. However, for many more, it raises a further barrier to equal education opportunities, with new forms of digital exclusion emerging. It is not sufficient to acknowledge that every technology has early adopters and late followers; action is also needed. The principle of equity in education and learning must be adhered to.
- The commercial sphere and the commons pull in different directions. The growing influence of the education technology industry on education policy at the national and international levels is a cause for concern. A vivid example is how the promise of open education resources and of the internet as a gateway to education content is frequently compromised. A better understanding and exposure of the interests underlying the use of digital technology in education and learning is needed so as to ensure that the common good is the priority of governments and educators.
- It is generally assumed that whatever efficiency advantage education technology offers in the short term will continue in the long term. Such technology is presented as a sound, potentially labour-saving investment that may even be able to replace teachers. However, its full economic and environmental costs are usually underestimated and unsustainable. The bandwidth and capacity of many to use technology in education are limited. And it is time to reckon with education technology’s cost in terms of environmental sustainability and question whether such technology truly strengthens education systems’ resilience.
Even more recently, a conflict between machines and humans has surfaced in the context of debates over generative AI, whose implications for education are only gradually emerging. These fault lines leave the education sector torn between hope for digital technologies’ potential and the undeniable risks and harms linked to their application. ‘It is at the level of trade-offs that a more complex and democratic debate ought to take place’.
Not all change constitutes progress. Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. Change needs to happen on learners’ terms to avoid the repeat of a scenario like the one observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when an explosion of distance learning left hundreds of millions behind.
Technology created for other uses cannot necessarily be expected to be appropriate in all education settings for all learners. Nor can regulations set outside the education sector necessarily be expected to cover all of education’s needs. What this report calls for in this debate is clear vision – as the world considers what is best for children’s learning, especially in the case of the most marginalized.
The #TechOnOurTerms campaign calls for decisions about technology in education to prioritize learner needs after assessment of whether its application would be appropriate, equitable, evidence-based and sustainable. It is essential to learn to live both with and without digital technology; to take what is needed from an abundance of information but ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant, the human connection on which teaching and learning are based.
Accordingly, the following four questions have been framed for and are directed primarily at governments, whose responsibility it is to protect and fulfil the right to education. However, the questions are also meant to be used as advocacy tools by all education actors committed to supporting progress towards SDG 4 to ensure that efforts to promote technology, including AI, take into account the need to address the main education challenges and to respect human rights.
In considering the adoption of digital techology, education systems should always ensure that learners’ best interests are placed at the centre of a framework based on rights. The focus should be on learning outcomes, not digital inputs. To help improve learning, digital technology should not substitute but instead complement face-to-face interaction with teachers.
Is this use of education technology appropriate for the national and local contexts?
Education technology should strengthen education systems and align with learning objectives.
Governments should therefore:
- Reform curricula to target the teaching of the basic skills that are best suited to those digital tools that have been proven to improve learning and are underpinned by a clear theory of how children learn, without assuming either that pedagogy can remain the same or that digital technology is suitable for all types of learning.
- Design, monitor and evaluate education technology policies with the participation of teachers and learners to draw on their experiences and contexts and ensure that teachers and facilitators are sufficiently trained to understand how to use digital technology for learning, not simply how to use a specific piece of technology.
- Ensure that solutions are designed to fit their context, and that resources are available in multiple national languages, are culturally acceptable and age-appropriate, and have clear entry points for learners in given education settings.
Is this use of education technology leaving learners behind?
Although technology use can enable access to the curriculum for some students and accelerate some learning outcomes, digitalization of education poses a risk of benefiting already privileged learners and further marginalizing others, thus increasing learning inequality.
Governments should therefore:
- Focus on how digital technology can support the most marginalized so that all can benefit from its potential, irrespective of background, identity or ability, and ensure that digital resources and devices comply with global accessibility standards.
- Set national targets on meaningful school internet connectivity, as part of the SDG 4 benchmarking process, and target investment accordingly to allow teachers and learners to benefit from a safe and productive online experience at an affordable cost, in line with the right to free education.
- Promote digital public goods in education, including free accessible e-pub formats, adaptable open education resources, learning platforms, and teacher support applications, all designed so as not to leave anyone behind.
Is this use of education technology scalable?
There is an overwhelming array of technological products and platforms in education and decisions are often made about them without sufficient evidence of their benefits or their costs.
Governments should therefore:
- Establish bodies to evaluate education technology, engaging with all actors that can carry out independent and impartial research and setting clear evaluation standards and criteria, the aim being to achieve evidence-based policy decisions on education technology.
- Undertake pilot projects in contexts that accurately reflect the total cost of ownership and implementation, taking into account the potentially higher cost of technology for marginalized learners.
- Ensure transparency on public spending and terms of agreements with private companies to strengthen accountability; evaluate performance to learn from mistakes, including on matters ranging from maintenance to subscription costs; and promote interoperability standards to increase efficiency.
Does this use of technology support sustainable education futures?
Digital technology should not be seen as a short-term project. It should be leveraged to yield benefits on a sustainable basis and not be led by narrow economic concerns and vested interests.
Governments should therefore:
- Establish a curriculum and assessment framework of digital competences that is broad, not attached to specific technology, takes account of what is learned outside school, and enables teachers and learners to benefit from technology’s potential in education, work and citizenship.
- Adopt and implement legislation, standards and agreed good practices to protect learners’ and teachers’ human rights, well-being and online safety, taking into account screen and connection time, privacy, and data protection; to ensure that data generated in the course of digital learning and beyond are analysed only as a public good; to prevent student and teacher surveillance; to guard against commercial advertising in educational settings; and to regulate the ethical use of artificial intelligence in education.
- Consider the short- and long-term implications of digital technology deployment in education for the physical environment, avoiding applications that are unsustainable in terms of their energy and material requirements.