The Needs of Students and Educators Should Guide Our Use of New Classroom Technologies

Since the start of the pandemic it’s become common to suggest that education will have to adapt to a “new normal,” with increased use of online platforms. But private tech firms risk having an oversized say in what the “new normal” is — ignoring the needs expressed by teachers and learners themselves.

Nine-year-old student takes an online class during the first week of distance learning in Las Vegas, Nevada, 2020. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

The global lockdown has enforced a crisis mode of life, work, and school — something for which neither individuals nor institutions were much prepared. It is unclear when, and how it will end. If there is a widespread sense that education must adjust to a “new normality,” we ought to take a critical look at what the “new normal” really means.

Many will have valid concerns about the direction of change education is taking. Tech giants are positioning themselves as saviors by providing emergency services through their products. Research has already shown that mere access to technologies doesn’t necessary solve the issue of education. And a growing generation of granular data continues to threaten personal privacy through profiling and biased data-driven futures.

But it is essential that our thinking is not dominated entirely by those fears, inhibiting effective decision-making about the challenges the pandemic is presenting and what positive changes can be made.

Such decision-making should, however, be democratic. That means involving all learners and educators in an open discussion about what they want from education. Indeed, an inclusive debate is essential at a time when powerful business technology actors are already energetically redesigning the global education infrastructure, basing their plans less on evidence about what improves learning, than on asserting their rival claims to market share.

But however we evaluate the changes underway in education connected to the rise of digital technologies, we can set down certain key principles. In this regard, we would do well to recall the education critic Ivan Illich’s “learning webs,” essentially open online spaces for healthy debate and free exchange of knowledge. This means integrating technologies in a way that lets learning happen — breaking down barriers of inequality and access to education.

There is a tremendous amount of human work involved in providing education. One cannot simply reimagine that technologies, which often go to market with little to no pretests, will replace it all. DreamBox — an “adaptive” learning software that modifies content based on user profile and interaction with it — claims that it narrows the attainment gaps in mathematics, yet Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research concluded that “there is little evidence yet that educational software is actually helping students progress more rapidly.”

Or take Google: it has made great claims for the positive impact of its G Suite for Education on student attainment and achievement, for example, when it was introduced in 2014 into the heavily disadvantaged metropolitan school district of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, where graduation rates were historically as low as 67 percent. But the district’s superintendent reported that, independently of the Google program, graduation rates had already improved to 94 percent before the Chromebooks and G Suite.

How? Through teachers’ relentless work to help students graduate, from hiring after-school buses for students to receive extra tutoring; to teaching students “soft skills” such as persistence, collaboration, and grit. Technologies — or their owners — cannot by themselves reimagine education; at best, they can support the practice of creative and dedicated educators. Remembering this helps reframe the debate about Big Tech in education during the pandemic crisis.

Accountability to the Future

Schools are powerful political instruments in any society. This is a force for good only when schools are focused on enlightening and empowering learners: when schools are used for other ends, it is very different. With most schools globally closing due to the pandemic, some “learning” has started to take place online, fueling claims that this could be the new normal.

History is littered with failed predictions of how technology will “change everything” (we still have television, for example, two to three decades after its death was announced). But the determination among large business and policy forces to shift education decisively into online spaces should not be underestimated.

School digital platforms are acting fast as the most powerful among them reimagine education through technology. Even more disconcerting, these data-hungry players are quickly forming powerful coalitions with trusted multinational organizations such as UNESCO, whose very purpose is to safeguard individuals’ rights and fundamental freedoms.

Education critics rightly warn of the implications of digitizing education, when evidence of technologies’ effects in schools remains uncertain. However, we also need to leave space for education leaders and learners themselves to develop alternative, more positive, narratives of educational change, which may draw on aspects of online education technology.

Let’s respect the personal agency of learners and educators as they appropriate technologies, and the capacity of educational institutions to provide spaces for the creative — and convivial — use of such tools. We should take notice when a school creates a new educational space, as when students from Wooranna Park Primary in Australia virtually hosted peers from Boston, Massachusetts, in the historic Dandenong Market and the Royal Society of Victoria — two spaces they had designed in Minecraft.

AI-based tools promising personalized learning depend on educators’ will and learners’ interest to use them in class or at home. There are as many learning styles as there are people, so how can a piece of software claim to improve everyone’s learning when its diagnostics measures individual learning pathways?

Whether platforms constrain learning or expand it depends on the creativity of educators and learners, alongside the limitations imposed by the design of the technology to begin with. An authoritative recent study found “minimal evidence” that machine-learning–driven interventions are effective for individual education.

At best, EdTech offers possibilities for improvements, rather than a proven landscape of delivery; at worst, EdTech risks locking in partial “solutions” which benefit particular parties, while closing off precisely the debate we need to have about what education is and can be in the twenty-first century. Educators and learners must have agency in debating and redesigning how education is going to take shape post–COVID-19.

Building New “Learning Webs”

New ways of providing education don’t have to be technology-controlled even if they are technology-based. Once the world became homebound during the pandemic, some proposed that online platforms like Zoom or Skype on which work, school, and relationships increasingly depended, become basic public utilities.

Yet public entities still haven’t invested in such ideas, and after forty years of neoliberalism, it’s still not clear there is a model in most countries for a public service that could encompass this. Yet we dare not leave these crucial issues to mere speculation.

Schools are not just for learning. Schools’ other purposes are to introduce and instill their own norms for discipline, evaluation of knowledge, and punishment or reward. But what happens to all these functions with schools going online? On average educators spend 30 percent of their work in class on managing discipline, yet discipline is now in the hands of home-schooling parents.

This situation presents the opportunity for learners to practice self-control and self-efficacy, but in a context where the norms of educational provision are rapidly being reset. Think of behavior control: online, the teacher can mute or sign a misbehaving student out of the online lesson, while a student can pretend to be “in class” quite easily, by disabling many of the dimensions of in-room monitoring.

Yet resources for online instruction are abundant: it can draw on anything, not only those prescribed by school. Compulsory curricula and schedules are not the only option, and creativity need not always be captured by data-hungry Big Tech actors targeting profit. By all means, let’s explore better ways of using online resources and connections in education, but from the vantage point of protecting educators and learners, and enriching their learning webs, rather than enriching platforms.

How, then, can learning webs be better sustained and governed given the new resources? Two paths are possible. The uncreative path that simply “delivers” the existing timetable more “efficiently” through monitored online platforms, with all decision-making staying within the institutional framework of schools and their platform providers. Or, the more creative path that draws on educators’ and learners’ creativity within an already established pedagogy that worked well for physical spaces and is not conditioned by the technological tool.

For example, students’ awareness of global environmental issues does not necessarily require instruction exclusively in a classroom setting, and their resulting knowledge and understanding can be articulated in multi-modal ways that work well online. Recognizing this could encourage student-driven learning and the optimization of whatever digital tools are at hand.

A new form of learning can aim for at least two things. First, creating schooling opportunities online where educational resources can be shared in new ways, and new thinking is possible about how education is provided and assessed, challenging the political and economic inequalities that closed-door schools perpetuate.

Bought educational privilege buys lifetime privilege and influence,” argue Francis Green and David Kynaston, a process that is particularly disconcerting when coupled with AI profiling and classification algorithms.

Second, as the imposed physical restrictions due to the pandemic move some education online for an indefinite period, new forms of school functionality become possible. Great examples of new forms such as hybrid learning (a combination of online and offline learning and instruction) already exist.

For instance, the Pratham hybrid learning program for local communities in rural India has operated since 1995, basing its goals on two premises: that it takes a village to teach a child, and that children have natural inclination to learn. Their digital initiative serves over 90,000 children aged ten to fourteen across 1,000 villages in India.

The program is designed in a way that gives ownership of the learning interventions to the communities themselves, while the digital infrastructure (online provision of content, speech-to-text technology, translations to local dialects, personal digital tablets) are only the enabling mechanisms for providing education.

Online learning platforms that embody the principle of Illich’s “learning webs” existed before the pandemic — and now face a greatly increased demand for online tutoring. There are cautious reasons for hope, here, provided educators and learners are leading the way, not profit-driven platforms.

Online platforms are able, if we choose, to avoid rationing educational provision by abilities, age groups, or cultural background. They can create new forms of educational encounters, if society commits to building a culture to make this work. They can keep the relationship between learner and educator at the center of the learning process if educators remain in charge.

Let people, not platforms, take control of the crisis and offer educational opportunity in radical new ways that really do draw on the possibilities of connection-at-a-distance, and, indeed, of public provision. Think of the city of West Sacramento’s recent decision to implement an automatic college acceptance to all graduating high schoolers; or, even more surprising, elite boarding school Eton College’s offer for free online courses to all British teenagers during the pandemic. Imagine if these examples were replicated and sustained permanently.

While the success of such arrangements no doubt needs to be evaluated, so too do the claims of tech entrepreneurs to offer magic formulas for a brave new education infrastructure. Surely, we would do better to entrust our hopes for a positive “new normal” in education to stakeholders with years of experience working in the field and familiarity with the endemic challenges of inequality in education.

Better this than rely on corporate entrepreneurs and their expensive lab-to-market prototypes that, by themselves, are likely only to entrench further the many deep inequalities that the COVID-19 crisis is sure to bring.