In the introductory article to this series, we covered the state our current education systems are in. From failing to provide literacy skills to match the society’s needs to a rampant lack of trained teachers, the traditional way of providing schooling seems to be going through a rough patch. Facing a growing population and a system in crisis has made many experts turn to technology as the only possible solution that might scale fast and far enough to solve these problems.
But is educational technology (or EdTech) the fix we’ve all been waiting for? Or is it another technological solution that will provide as many new issues as it solves? And what are some of the effective solutions that already exist? These are the questions the second part of our Future of Learning series deals with.
EdTech fully embraced
As with all things education, there are huge differences in the levels and ways countries (and even particular schools) have adopted technology to complement their existing systems.
On one end of the spectrum, we find a country like Estonia that has wholeheartedly embraced the opportunities provided by emerging technologies. It also boasts one of the best and most equitable education systems in the world. However, the successes in Estonia derive as much from old-school factors than they do from the country’s use of technology in the classroom: free lunches keep children focused on schoolwork, a robust system of public education provides a level playing field, and the general cultural appreciation of education keeps children motivated.
But there’s no denying that the country has invested heavily in innovating its educational system and integrating tech as early as possible. Programming is taught in the first grade and educational technology receives generous government support.
A continuing struggle for adoption
Estonia is still an outlier, however. The country is known for its quick and enthusiastic implementation of any- and everything technology-related. In most other OECD countries, technology remains rather unimportant in the classroom. The UK has added some ICT-related tasks to their textbooks, while access to innovations in the US remains staggeringly unequal based on students’ economic status. But most developed countries understand the need to prepare their students for the quickly changing world.
And comparing Estonia’s technophilia with many developing countries where up to four out of five schools lack reliable access to electricity, it becomes clear that the implementation of EdTech around the world varies starkly.
However, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have placed big bets on putting these innovations to use in improving their lagging performance. Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya are particularly shining examples; together, they’re home to almost sixty percent of the innovations in the region. And money is certainly being funnelled into research and implementation both locally and internationally: the UK has recently pledged £20 million in an effort to support development.
With so much money and hope being put into innovation, it must be pretty clear that technological solutions are the way of the future, right?
Sadly, the effectiveness of EdTech is much harder to ascertain than one might think.
Does EdTech work?
So far, the evidence proving EdTech’s efficacy, or lack thereof, remains rather uncompelling.
On one side of the debate are people who claim that using technology can lead to adverse effects: children losing focus or becoming socially stunted. The other side hails the ability of tech to provide a tailored learning experience, make study material more engaging, and structure time much more efficiently.
Sadly, neither camp has been able to provide conclusive evidence to their claim.
Some studies appear to find a negative correlation between using technology and student performance, while others demonstrate how correct innovative tools can keep students engaged. Of course, context makes all the difference. Many of these studies have been carried out in rich OECD countries, where students face different challenges than their peers in developing countries. As such, these results certainly don’t translate from one environment to another.
Another issue with determining the efficacy of technology in the classroom comes from the inability to reliably collect data. Many studies depend on students self-reporting their technology-use, leading to questionable results. The alternative, collecting data on how children use their electronic tools, comes with its own set of ethical problems.
And so we find ourselves in a crisis of education, betting on a solution that doesn’t necessarily work, with few other ideas on the table. There are some promising results showing that using correct technology in an appropriate way can certainly lead to better student outcomes, but innovation alone can’t be expected to solve all of the issues facing education systems around the world. Taking a leaf from Finland and Estonia’s book, it’s clear that valuing teachers – giving them autonomy, a generous pay, and plenty of support – is another key aspect to a sustainable future. Whether it can lure enough people to the job to cover the lack of 69 million teachers, is another question.