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Technology in Education: At What Costs, Benefits, and Effectiveness? By Kashif Mirza


Jul 31, 2023

The writer is an

economist, anchor,

analyst and the

President of All

 Pakistan Private

Schools’ Federation



Education is the key to unlocking the achievement of other development objectives, not least the goal of technological progress. Technology’s role in education has been sparking intense debate for a long time. Can technology solve the challenges in education? and at what Costs, Benefits and Effectiveness? The adoption of digital technology has resulted in many changes in education and learning, yet it is debatable whether technology has transformed education as many claim. Recently published The Global Education Monitoring Report 2023 of UNESCO recommends that technology should be introduced into education on the basis of evidence showing that it would be appropriate, equitable, scalable and sustainable. In other words, its use should be in learners’ best interests and should complement face-to-face interaction with teachers. It also underlined in the UNESCO ‘Futures of Education’ report, the relationship between teachers and technology must be one of complementarity – never of substitutability. The application of digital technology varies by community and socioeconomic level, by teacher willingness and preparedness, by education level and by country income. Except in the most technologically advanced countries, computers and devices are not used in classrooms on a large scale. Moreover, evidence is mixed on its impact. A clash between machines and humans has surfaced in the context of debates over generative artificial intelligence, 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. Change needs to happen on learners’ terms to avoid repeating 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 drawn up outside the education sector necessarily be expected to cover all of education’s needs. During the COVID pandemic, distance-learning tools – via the Internet but also via radio and television – showed just how useful and necessary they could be. Indeed, this period highlighted a deep-rooted tendency to see technological solutions as a universal tool, suitable for all situations, an inevitable form of progress. The confusion between the tool and the solution, between the means and the end, is what this report invites us to address, by highlighting the paradoxes and misconceptions. The Report shows that regulations for technology set outside of the education sector will not necessarily address education’s needs.  What this report calls for in this debate is a clear vision – as the world considers what is best for children’s learning, especially in the case of the most marginalised. 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. It’s the government’s responsibility to protect and fulfil the right to education to support progress towards SDG 4 to ensure that efforts to promote technology, including artificial intelligence, take into account the need to address the main education challenges and to respect human rights.
In considering the adoption of digital technology, 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 replace but instead complement face-to-face interaction with teachers. Does it democratise knowledge or threaten democracy by allowing a select few to control information? Does it offer boundless opportunities or lead towards a technology-dependent future with no return? Does it level the playing field or exacerbate inequality? Should it be used in teaching young children or is there a risk to their development? Are societies even asking the right questions about education before turning to technology as a solution? Are they recognising its risks as they seek out its benefits?

No doubt, information and communication technology has the potential to support equity and inclusion in terms of reaching disadvantaged learners and diffusing more knowledge in engaging and affordable formats. 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. 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 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 in 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. 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. While technology promises easier access to education, the reality is that digital divides still exist, to the point of actually increasing educational inequalities – which is the paradox that during the pandemic, almost a third of pupils did not have effective access to distance learning – unsurprisingly, since only 40% of primary schools worldwide currently have Internet access. Even if connectivity was universal, it would still be necessary to demonstrate, from a pedagogical point of view, that digital technology offers real added value in terms of effective learning, especially at a time when we are all becoming aware of the risks of excessive screen time. There is little robust evidence of 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 randomised 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%. In Pakistan and Peru, when over 2 million laptops were distributed without being incorporated into pedagogy, learning did not improve. In the United States, an 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%. The data shows that it can have a 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 94 countries, yet less than one in four have banned smartphone use in schools. Countries are starting to define the digital skills they want to prioritise in curricula and assessment standards. 

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. Governments need to ensure the right conditions to enable equitable access to education for all 

Technology in education should put learners and teachers at the centre. This technology should serve people and that technology in education should put learners and teachers at the centre to avoid an overly technology-centred view or the claim that technology is neutral. Many countries lack capacity: Just over half of countries use student identification numbers. Online content is produced by dominant groups, affecting access to it. 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. The short-and long-term costs of using digital technology appear to be significantly underestimated. The most disadvantaged are typically denied the opportunity to benefit. Nearly 90% of the content in higher education repositories with open education resource collections was created in Europe and Northern America; 92% of the 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 only 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. As per the Global Education Monitoring Report 2023 of UNESCO, It would cost USD 1 billion per day to maintain connectivity for education in poor countries. Those in decision-making positions are asked to look down at where they are, to see if technology is appropriate for their context, and learning needs, and to look back at those left behind, to make sure they are focusing on the marginalised and, to make sure their plans fit their vision for sustainable development. Governments should focus on learning outcomes, not on digital inputs. These pitfalls can be avoided, firstly, the best interests of pupils should systematically take precedence over any other consideration. Secondly, technology should be seen as a means, never an end. To make these recommendations a reality, it’s needed to ensure globally the fair, equitable and safe development of educational technologies. This means establishing appropriate normative frameworks and setting standards in terms of privacy, access to data, non-discrimination and screen time. It also means launching ambitious public action and international cooperation programmes, to support access to connectivity and open educational resources, and to train teachers on these new and constantly evolving issues. It underscores the importance of learning 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. The focus should be on learning outcomes, not digital inputs. To help improve learning, digital technology should be not a substitute for but a complement to face-to-face interaction with teachers. It is an input: Ensuring the provision, operation and maintenance of technology infrastructure in education, such as electricity, computers and internet connectivity, at school or at home, requires considerable capital investment, recurrent expenditure and procurement skills. 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. A better understanding and exposure of the interests underlying the use of digital technology in education and learning are needed so as to ensure that the common good is the priority of governments and educators. Governments need to ensure the right conditions to enable equitable access to education for all, regulate technology use so as to protect learners from its negative influences, and prepare teachers.

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