Animation: Housatonic Design Network. Cover Image: Ismael Martínez Sánchez/ProFuturo
Good, impartial evidence on the impact of education technology is in short supply.
- There is little robust evidence on digital technology’s added value in education. Technology evolves faster than it is possible to evaluate it: Education technology products change every 36 months, on average. Most evidence comes from the richest countries. In the United Kingdom, 7% of education technology companies had conducted randomized controlled trials, and 12% had used third-party certification. A survey of teachers and administrators in 17 US states showed that only 11% requested peer-reviewed evidence prior to adoption.
- A lot of the evidence comes from those trying to sell it. Pearson funded its own studies, contesting independent analysis that showed its products had no impact.
Technology offers an education lifeline for millions but excludes many more.
- Accessible technology and universal design have opened up opportunities for learners with disabilities. About 87% of visually impaired adults indicated that accessible technology devices were replacing traditional assistive tools.
- Radio, television and mobile phones fill in for traditional education among hard-to-reach populations. Almost 40 countries use radio instruction. In Mexico, a programme of televised lessons combined with in-class support increased secondary school enrolment by 21%.
- Online learning stopped education from melting down during COVID-19 school closures. Distance learning had a potential reach of over 1 billion students; but it also failed to reach at least half a billion, or 31% of students worldwide – and 72% of the poorest.
- The right to education is increasingly synonymous with the right to meaningful connectivity, yet access is unequal. Globally, only 40% of primary, 50% of lower secondary and 65% of upper secondary schools are connected to the internet; 85% of countries have policies to improve school or learner connectivity.
Some education technology can improve some types of learning in some contexts.
- Digital technology has dramatically increased access to teaching and learning resources. Examples include the National Academic Digital Library of Ethiopia and National Digital Library of India. The Teachers Portal in Bangladesh has over 600,000 users.
- It has brought small to medium-sized positive effects to some types of learning. A review of 23 mathematics applications used at the primary level showed that they focused on drill and practice rather than advanced skills.
- But it should focus on learning outcomes, not on digital inputs. In Peru, when over 1 million laptops were distributed without being incorporated into pedagogy, learning did not improve. In the United States, analysis of over 2 million students found that learning gaps widened when instruction was exclusively remote.
- And it need not be advanced to be effective. In China, high-quality lesson recordings delivered to 100 million rural students improved student outcomes by 32% and reduced urban–rural earning gaps by 38%.
- Finally, it can have detrimental impact if inappropriate or excessive. Large-scale international assessment data, such as that provided by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), suggest a negative link between excessive ICT use and student performance. Mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries, yet less than one in four have banned smartphone use in schools.
The fast pace of change in technology is putting strain on education systems to adapt.
- Countries are starting to define the digital skills they want to prioritize in curricula and assessment standards. Globally, 54% of countries have digital skill standards but often these have been defined by non-state, mostly commercial, actors.
- Many students do not have much chance to practise with digital technology in schools. Even in the world’s richest countries, only about 10% of 15-year-old students used digital devices for more than an hour per week in mathematics and science.
- Teachers often feel unprepared and lack confidence teaching with technology. Only half of countries have standards for developing teacher ICT skills. While 5% of ransomware attacks target education, few teacher training programmes cover cybersecurity.
- Various issues impede the potential of digital data in education management. Many countries lack capacity: Just over half of countries use student identification numbers. Countries that do invest in data struggle: A recent survey among UK universities found that 43% had trouble linking data systems.
Online content has grown without enough regulation of quality control or diversity.
- Online content is produced by dominant groups, affecting access to it. Nearly 90% of content in higher education repositories with open education resource collections was created in Europe and Northern America; 92% of content in the OER Commons global library is in English. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) mainly benefit educated learners and those from richer countries.
- Higher education is adopting digital technology the fastest and being transformed by it the most. There were over 220 million students attending MOOCs in 2021. But digital platforms challenge universities’ role and pose regulatory and ethical challenges, for instance related to exclusive subscription deals and to student and personnel data.
Technology is often bought to plug a gap, with no view to the long-term costs…
- …for national budgets. The cost of moving to basic digital learning in low-income countries and connecting all schools to the internet in lower-middle-income countries would add 50% to their current financing gap for achieving national SDG 4 targets. Money is not always well spent: Around two-thirds of education software licences were unused in the United States.
- …for children’s well-being. Almost one sixth of countries have banned smartphones in schools. Children’s data are being exposed, yet only 16% of countries explicitly guarantee data privacy in education by law. One analysis found that 89% of 163 education technology products recommended during the pandemic could survey children. Further, 39 of 42 governments providing online education during the pandemic fostered uses that risked or infringed on children’s rights.
- …for the planet. One estimate of the CO2 emissions that could be saved by extending the lifespan of all laptops in the European Union by a year found it would be equivalent to taking almost 1 million cars off the road.