Tue 27th December 2016 - 13:58

For and against: Does technology increase equality?

Digital advocates believe education technology will increase equality. Most educators are not so sure. What are the arguments we’re hearing for and against?

TECHNOLOGY INCREASES EQUALITY

“Technology can play a role in increasing equality if and only if kids have access to technology, there are enabling conditions (trained teachers) and technology is put to good use (kids have a purpose).” Javier Rogla, Fundación Empieza Por Educar

Technology can make up for a lack of resources, if everyone has free and open access

Sugata Mitra’s famous hole in the wall project is the most notable example of this. Other examples such as the Open University or Khan Academy seem to favour equality. Anyone can now watch the greatest Harvard lecturers. However, accessing these resources depends on having a computer, and having the motivation to log on. If we don’t want to favour the rich and well-educated, we should give hardware and software for free. This is more than low cost, this is no cost.

Technology can lead to great outcomes by individualising learning and opening up new fields

We’re continually reminded that we’re preparing kids for a future that we cannot yet imagine. Learning in the digital era embraces this unknown. Schools like High Tech High are leading the way in teaching robotics and coding, pursuing 21st-century curriculums, using project-based learning and flipped classrooms. These approaches are available to all. For example, in Bulgaria I recently came across the Vratsa Software Community, who are running free coding classes in Europe’s poorest region with the long-term aim of staffing a sustainable software company.

Technology supports new paradigms of teaching, provided that there is good training

Since Gary Kasparov played Deep Blue, games of chess have been staged between humans and computers. Today the winners are not humans or computers, but humans and computers working together. Technology can undoubtedly catalyse teacher capacity. Eneza Education has created a virtual teacher development and coaching tool that can be deployed via simple mobile technology across the whole of Africa. But we’ll need to think differently about the role of the teacher, and radically new models of teacher training.

Technology combats inequality by enabling lifelong learning

Digitisation and open access to online content have democratised education in significant ways. As long as you can get online, you can access a world of learning. It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you live. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. Lifelong, self-directed learning pushes education beyond the temporal boundary of our ‘school years’, and gives us a whole lifetime to master the competences and skills that put us all on an equal footing.

TECHNOLOGY INCREASES INEQUALITY

“Technology at best only amplifies the pedagogical capacity of educational systems; it can make good schools better, but it makes bad schools worse.” Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information

Education outcomes are not becoming more equal as we make technological process

“Technology does not seem to be changing social mobility patterns in the UK, although we would expect it to. Maybe it's too early to see the effects, maybe technology on its own is not enough, maybe it is having an effect too late in kids' lives? I don't know, but this is a big concern for poorer students all over the world because technology is surely the most powerful and efficient tool they have at their disposal for closing achievement and opportunity gaps!”

There’s currently no macro evidence to demonstrate that technological advances at the societal level are resulting in trends towards greater overall equity in education outcomes. This may well be down to other factors (i.e. it is not the result of technological progress that we have inequality), but evidence is scarce that equality is increasing, or that technology is playing a role in that. For example, one commenter says:

“Countries that have seen improvements in terms of access to technology or broadband internet have not improved in terms of learning outcomes. Bulgaria is a case in point.”

Lack of access is more than a barrier to equality. It can actively increase inequality

As another commenter says “technology can play a role in increasing equality; but it also can play a role in increasing inequality. Actually, based on my current anecdotal evidence, I think we are closer to the latter.” The problem is that more affluent and more privileged individuals currently have better access to the technology itself and to the enabling conditions – the skills, the motivations and so on.

As ICT in Education: Benchmarking Access Use and Attitudes to Technology in Europe’s Schools shows, access is unequal within and between countries. Access is further dependent on cost and funding – and we are well aware of the current inequalities here. For example, fees and grants for students widely differ across Europe.

Teacher quality is still the deciding factor

As David Puttnam says, “without any doubt at all, teacher quality is the fundamental differentiator. Not just, incidentally, of education, but I would argue, probably the biggest single differentiator of success for the nations of the 21st Century.” Learning in the digital era still depends on teachers. Technological advances have been happening for years (people once feared TV would replace teachers). Whatever technology comes along, outcomes will remain unequal as long as teacher quality underestimated.

Conversations about technology are not focused enough on student outcomes

“The focus on technology is often self-serving,” says a commenter. We talk about technology as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end of student learning – and the equally important end of increasing equality of outcomes. Those students who are most in need of support – the ones with the lowest literacy, least socio-economic resources – are also those who are least likely to benefit from the digital era. They lack the digital skills, they have no access. It’s all very well to think of great tech solutions: but usually those solutions are for the top 75%, 50%, 10%, not for the bottom 25%.

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