Countries need to take immediate action to ensure technology never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction, a global report urges.
UNESCO’s 2023 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, released on Wednesday, called for a worldwide ban on smartphones in schools and for governments to establish a unit that “evaluates the appropriateness, relevance and full cost of education technology applications”.
Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring Report said technology’s fast pace of change is putting strain on education systems to adapt, forcing them to take quick decisions without evidence on the short and long-term costs.
“This includes social and environmental costs, and without evidence on the benefits – epically the proof that they are relevant or suitable for learning,” Antoninis told The Educator, also noting that education technology products change on average every 36 months, which does not leave enough time to evaluate them before the next one comes along.
“No one would deny that all learners today must learn about technology, but it should not be equated with learning through technology, especially when the value of the latter has not been proven.”
Big tech has a louder voice than teachers and students in schools
Antoninis said that overall, the GEM report shows that “the voices of entrepreneurs and business tend to be louder than the voices of teachers and students” in discussions about technology in education.
“One of the challenges in a decentralised context like Australia, where a lot of decisions are taken at the school level, is that it is difficult to expect schools to make the best decisions on such a complex environment like the education technology market,” he said.
“And yet, schools are expected to invest in technology, not least as there has been strong emphasis at system level to set learning targets and monitor their achievement and that of student trajectories through learning analytics.”
Independent evaluations struggle to keep pace
Professor Sellar, Dean of Research in Education Futures and Professor of Education Policy at the University of South Australia, said the GEM report raises a critical question – Who benefits from these technologies?
“We know there is financial benefit to companies developing these technologies, but the educational benefit is unclear because we have so little evidence regarding the impact on learning,” Professor Sellar told The Educator.
“The challenge for policymakers and school leaders is avoiding the hype and overpromising that tech companies use to establish new markets for unproven products and services, while remaining open to real possibilities for transforming learning that new technologies will create.”
“Digital technology moves quickly. Independent evaluations struggle to keep pace and evidence provided by companies may be biased. We need for programs that support educators to discover how new technologies such as generative AI can be used to improve learning,” he said.
“As the report emphasises, in many cases we simply don’t know what these new technologies can do, so we need to support educators to lead the way in identifying the benefits for them and their students by experimenting and drawing on their professional expertise.”
Onus on edtech companies to prove their impact
University of Southern Cross (UniSC) Associate Professor of Education Michael Nagel is an expert in human development and the psychology of learning. He says studies like the ones from UNESCO and the OECD put on the onus on edtech companies to prove their value to schools.
“Technology is often held up as a panacea for learning, but the research evidence does not support such assertions,” he told The Educator.
“Aside from screens being tools for distraction and disengagement from focused learning tasks, there is ample evidence noting how time on devices has an adverse impact on attention, concentration, task switching, memory retention and many other important cognitive functions associated with learning.”
Associate Professor Nagel said these issues were highlighted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as far back as 2016, when the education chief Andreas Schleicher told world leaders: “The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today.”
“The OECD report noted that countries that had invested heavily in technology had shown no signs of improvement in reading, maths or science. Remember, this is the same organisation that administers the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] testing that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries,” Associate Professor Nagel said.
“PISA results turn into great political sound bites about raising standards, but paradoxically, or purposefully, many of the same politicians using soundbites about standards seldom acknowledge that the OECD found that the most frequent pattern that emerges in PISA data when computer use is related to students’ skills is a weak or sometimes negative association between investment in ICT use and performance.”
However, Associate Professor Nagel says he is by no means anti-technology.
“There is a place for technology but if it is to be brandished as something that will enhance learning outcomes then I suggest that proponents of its use must show some evidence to substantiate such claims,” he said.
“Importantly, I am not talking about a government report about how some class somewhere seemed to do better but rather a meta-analysis of data that would be at odds with the OECD’s findings or rebut the plethora of studies suggesting that over investment in technology does not bear the type of academic fruit promised by tech companies or ICT experts.”
‘New is not always better’
Interestingly, the GEM report found that low-tech tools like TV and radio are often more effective than today’s hi-tech tools in certain contexts.
For instance, high-income countries had already achieved near-universal levels of minimum proficiency in learning outcomes already before the advent of the digital era when compared to current very low levels in other countries.
“This means technology is not a prerequisite for such outcomes,” Antoninis said. “The main question to ask is what the education problem we are trying to solve is, and whether technology should be part of the range of tools that can be deployed. Strange though as it may seem, this fundamental question is rarely asked.”
Antoninis said while technologies such as Augmented and Virtual Reality have been shown to transform some vocational and technical education, “this is also a message that change needs to happen on education’s terms and in learners’ best interests”.
“We need to take claims that technology improves learning with a pinch of salt, as the research questions are often narrowly framed in ways that make it easier to support such claims and yet at the same time miss whether the wider purpose of education is achieved.”
‘Edtech is yet to live up to its promise’
Dr James Curran, Grok Academy CEO and author of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies and the Digital Literacy capability, said the company’s vision is “for everyone to have the computing skills and dispositions to achieve their goals and create a better future.”
“The GEM report identifies challenges we must overcome to achieve this, including device and internet access, educator technical skills and confidence, and digital literacy integration across disciplines,” Dr Curran told The Educator.
“We agree that edtech – and every pedagogical approach – should be subjected to rigorous, large-scale, independent evaluation across contexts. Effective education is evidence-based. To enable this, Grok provides anonymised data to educators and researchers.”
Dr Curran acknowledged that edtech “is yet to live up to its promise, or hype”, adding that many edtech tools simply deliver videos and worksheets online.
“We should demand more: interactive experiences, actual personalisation, and intelligent feedback. Edtech rarely delivers these,” he said. “The Australian Curriculum and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires students and educators to trained as effective and critical users of technology. Edtech must align to these frameworks.”
Dr Curran said students must have an opportunity to learn Digital Technologies [AC:DT], including coding, data analysis, and cyber security; and consolidate their Digital Literacy [AC:DL] capability across learning areas.
“As AC:DT/DL authors, this is our passion,” he said. “Unfortunately, edtech does not mean technology education, but the GEM report conflates these. Using edtech is rarely the same as effective DT/DL learning.”
Dr Curran said that with limited teacher expertise in DT/DL, edtech must play a critical role in developing both educator and learner technical skills and confidence.
“We will continue to work with educators and systems to achieve that.”