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Is Technology Good for Education?

Social disadvantages do not simply disappear when one learns through the internet.

Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock

The following is adapted from the new book Is Technology Good for Education? by Neil Selwyn (Polity, 2016).

It could be argued that a prominent good of digital technology lies in its capacity to support forms of education that are democratic and fair. This has certainly been a high-profile argument over the past few decades, not least from politicians looking to boost their reputations as socially concerned modernizers.

During the 1990s, for instance, Bill Clinton was keen to tout computers as the "great equalizer" in U.S. schools. Twenty years later, Barack Obama framed classroom Wi-Fi, laptops and mobile devices as providing otherwise disadvantaged students "with a short path to the middle class." Alongside such politicking, billions of dollars have been spent by foundations, charities and voluntary organizations on equity-related education technology projects. As the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation boasts: "we are targeting the best new ideas that hold the greatest promise for improving the odds....The power of technology is its ability to connect people, foster collaboration, empower learners and teachers, and challenge the status quo."

Few people, it would seem, speak against the democratizing potential of digital education. In contrast, there is general consensus that "traditional" forms of education are nowhere near as fair or democratic as they could be. Education systems around the world are blighted by stark disparities in terms of access, participation and outcomes. Even in prosperous countries, high schools continue to be segregated in terms of their student intakes and subsequent rates of exclusion and (non-)completion.

Similarly, the so-called "massification" of university systems seems to have done little to counter long-standing disparities in terms of who benefits most from undergraduate and postgraduate study. While greater numbers of people are now entering higher education than ever before, clear divisions persist in terms of the types of subject studied, institutions attended and quality of degrees gained. In short, the best predictors of graduate success continue to be whether someone is male, white and from a high-income background—much as has been the case throughout the history of higher education.

Educational access, participation and outcomes therefore remain divided stubbornly along a recurring set of social fault-lines. In the United States, for instance, students from lower-income backgrounds are particularly disadvantaged in terms of the education they receive and the benefits that later accrue. These disadvantages are compounded for African Americans and Latinos, alongside those living in states such as Arkansas, New Mexico and Washington, which boast some of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. These trends are by no means confined to the United States, with similar inequalities and injustices persistent throughout many national education systems. Such concerns are complicated further when one considers the basic educational inequalities that blight developing and industrializing regions. It should not be forgotten that over 50 million children of primary school age receive no schooling at all. All told, making education more democratic and fair is a pressing matter around the world.

Claims for the Digital Democratization of Education

The "unfairnesses" of education take a variety of long-standing forms. These include inequalities of access: that is, the fact that not everyone gets to participate in the education that they desire, regardless of how able and willing they might be. Of course, many forms of education are distinguished by the fact that they cannot be accessed by everybody. Selection criteria and entry requirements are a key part of education provision, from kindergarten to graduate school. In addition, there are many barriers to accessing education besides practical limits of class size and/or expected levels of "academic ability."

Education might be provided in forms that are inconvenient—or downright impossible—for particular groups of people to access. Accessing education might not be a realistic option owing to issues of cost, transport, time, cultural norms or social expectations. Conversely, educational opportunities might not be publicized widely.

Inequalities persist even for those people who do get to take part. In particular, experiences and outcomes of education differ considerably according to who someone is—what is often referred to as inequalities of participation. Much has been made, for example, of the different experiences of school and university education if one is female, black or Latino/a, physically disabled and/or working class. These inequalities are evident in the disproportionately small numbers of such students who take high-status subjects, get the highest results and top classifications and generally are seen to "succeed" in their educational endeavours. Less obvious inequalities also persist in terms of subtle discriminations, injustices and inconsistencies that some students experience because of who they are. Education can be unfair in a variety of pernicious ways.

In the minds of many people, digital technologies turn all these problems on their head. First and foremost, digital technology can offer easier and more plentiful access to education. For example, the internet is seen to have dramatically increased educational choice and diversity over the past 20 years. The online provision of classes, courses and even entire school programs has broadened the range of learning options available to people regardless of their immediate circumstances.

The continually expanding provision of online courses and other modes of e-learning now provides even the most isolated individual with the opportunity of taking a course provided by Harvard or studying a niche topic such as Sanskrit. Alternately, people have the option to simply go online and teach themselves, or else learn with groups of other like-minded individuals. Education has long been considered a conversational, communal and collaborative process. Digital technologies are seen to be ideal spaces for such conversations and collaborations to take place.

Second, technology is also seen to offer more varied, more convenient and less costly means of participating in education. In this sense, digital technologies can act to reduce—or even mitigate—barriers to educational participation amongst previously excluded groups. In basic economic terms, digital technology allows for teaching and learning to be provided at considerably reduced financial cost than would otherwise be possible. In some cases, technology-based education can be offered for no cost at all. These shifts alone are seen to constitute a radically different way of allowing people to access education.

As Kevin Carey argues: These historic developments will liberate hundreds of millions of people around the world, creating new ways of learning that have never existed before. They will also upend a cornerstone of the American meritocracy, fundamentally altering the way our society creates knowledge and economic opportunity."

***

There are numerous examples of this democratizing potential in action. One much-publicized form has been the emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses). MOOCs are university-affiliated courses offered to masses of online learners for little or no cost. Through the rise of providers such as Udacity, edX, Coursera and Futurelearn during the first half of the 2010s, MOOCs were heralded as opening up university-level education to thousands of far-flung students at a time. According to Anant Agarwal, computer science professor at MIT and president of one of the world’s largest MOOC providers:

"The MOOC movement is democratizing education. In the past, top universities had this funnel and admitted only the top few percent of applicants. From the get-go, a lot of students without the right economic or language background were not able to get in. We’re flipping the funnel. We’re saying everybody can try. If you can cut it, we’ll give you a certificate of mastery."

While generating unprecedented levels of publicity in the world of online learning, MOOCs were by no means the first instance of an "open educational resource." One notable forerunner was the Open Courseware program initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the beginning of the 2000s, MIT made the decision to provide access to its online educational materials free of charge. Thousands of education institutions have since followed this example by making their course content available freely through services such as iTunes U, Academic Earth and Udemy. After the first 10 years of its initiative, MIT reckoned that content from over two thousand of its college-level courses had been accessed by around 100 million people. The university has since set a target for a ten-fold increase by 2021, aiming to "bridge the global gap between human potential and opportunity, so that motivated people everywhere can improve their lives and change the world."

Alongside these higher education initiatives, efforts to open up compulsory schooling through the internet have also thrived. Online classes and "cyber schools" are a growing presence in compulsory school systems around the world. The majority of states in the U.S., for instance, now support individual cyber schools as well as having district-level online programs where between 20 and 80 percent of a student’s academic instruction can be delivered via the internet. It is reckoned that 315,000 US students are enrolled full-time in state-wide fully online schools, with one million taking online courses each year alongside regular classroom lessons. This online provision is seen to bring high-quality schooling to children and young people who otherwise might be unable to access it. In the words of the largest provider of online schooling in the United States: ‘We have the ability to give any student across the state regardless of where they live and regardless of their socioeconomic status the ability to access a public school. That’s why online charter schools have been described as the most public of all public schools.’

The idea that digital technology can provide accessible alternatives to conventional schooling has certainly found favour in developing regions. One celebrated example has been the work of Sugata Mitra, who rose to prominence after winning the $1 million TED prize in 2013. Mitra started his ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ project at the end of the 1990s – cementing internet-enabled computers into the walls of impoverished Indian neighbourhoods. These community computers were left unattended in the hope of giving local children the means through which to self-organize their own technology-based learning. Mitra’s initial efforts later developed into the so-called ‘School in the Cloud’ project, which made use of Skype to connect classrooms in poor communities with volunteer mentors and online resources elsewhere in the world. As the project publicity put it, ‘[C]hildren, no matter how rich or poor, can engage and connect with information and mentoring online.’

While ambitious, Mitra’s ideas have proved inspirational throughout the international development sector. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the Projects for All charity is now supporting the construction of community-built and -owned internet access kiosks (‘Hello Hubs’) to provide computers, servers and Wi-Fi access to local communities. The solar-powered hubs are designed specifically to encourage educational uses of these technologies – particularly by young people and teachers in each community.

These examples illustrate the tendency of work in the area of education equity and technology to tread a fine line between hope and hubris. This tension is perhaps most evident when digital education initiatives have been launched hurriedly in response to humanitarian disasters. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 spurred donations of OLPC laptops and numerous ‘Hack for Haiti’ initiatives amongst communities of computer programmers (what some technologists term ‘random hacks of kindness’). While less than one percent of the Haitian population were making regular use of the internet before the earthquake, a number of education technology initiatives were then established on the island – including a ‘Digital Literacy for Haiti Rebuilding’ program sponsored by Intel, and the building of 40 solar-powered computer labs by the ‘Haiti Connected Schools’ program.

Another recent example was the series of education technology projects in refugee camps established in the aftermath of conflicts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. This saw the implementation of ambitious initiatives to bring cheap mini-computer circuit-boards to Syrian refugee camps to teach programming and coding skills. Even more extraordinary was the provision of MOOCs for refugees stranded by the Somalia conflict. As such efforts illustrate, for many technologists and educators, the empowering potential of digital technology knows few limits.

Making a Significant Difference? Evidence for the Democratizing Impact of Technology

Most of these projects, programs and initiatives have been enacted with the best of intentions. It therefore feels churlish and mean-spirited to question their effectiveness. That said, proponents of digital education are quick to point to specific successes and ‘good news’ arising from such work. Many of the examples just described have well-worn success stories that accompany their promotion. Sugata Mitra is fond of recounting the instance of children from a remote fishing village in Southern India who used their local Hole-in-the-Wall to teach themselves sufficient bioscience in 75 days to gain scores of 30 percent on a university end-of-year exam.

Similarly, one of the early MOOCs offered by MIT was completed by Battushig Myanganbayar, a 15-year-old Mongolian student. Dubbed by the New York Times as the ‘boy genius of Ulan Bator,’ Battushig was said to have earned a perfect score in the MOOC, subsequently enrolling as a full-time undergraduate at MIT’s Boston campus. Not only were Battushig’s life circumstances transformed, but he was then called upon to advise MIT faculty on how to improve their MOOC provision. As such heart-warming anecdotes imply, one can easily point toward specific cases where digital provision has made a difference to education engagement.

Of course, these anecdotes are no substitute for sustained empirical evidence and analysis. Unfortunately, when digital forms of education provision and engagement are subjected to rigorous scrutiny, their democratizing ‘effects’ are less easy to identify. For example, while independent studies are scarce, the few research reports that have been conducted on OLPC programs tend to find little or no effect on children’s test scores. A few sustained studies of how the devices were being used in situ found children from relatively higher income families to be making best use of the OLPC devices. These children, it was argued, enjoyed greater support from family members when making sense of the devices and were less concerned than poorer households about damaging or breaking what were relatively expensive objects.

Similarly, independent studies in the aftermath of Hole-in-the-Wall programs have also tended to portray ‘low-level learning’, internet access that ‘rarely functioned’ and children disadvantaged by the lack of consideration for content in languages other than English – such as Hindi. As summed up by Mark Warschauer, a seasoned researcher of OLPC and one-to-one laptop programs, ‘[M]inimally invasive education was, in practice, minimally effective education.’

These disappointing outcomes extend into other forms of digital education. In the case of MOOCs, for example, analyses of learner data and enrolment analytics tend to suggest that these online courses have enforced rather than overcome educational privilege and exclusivity. Beyond the headline depictions of large classes of diverse, far-flung students, most MOOC participants turn out to be young, well-educated Europeans and North Americans with graduate and post-graduate degrees who often take these courses to gain professional skills. As the Smithsonian concluded, ‘Online courses aren’t actually democratizing education . . . 80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population.’ These patterns are exacerbated when one considers the small proportions of enrolled MOOC ‘students’ who actually remain engaged for the duration of the course. While the average MOOC has been reckoned to enrol around 43,000 students, best estimates put the proportion of those who actually complete a course to fluctuate between 4 and 8 percent. Again, these individuals are more likely to be well educated, Western and from high-income backgrounds.

The tendency for online education to attract the ‘usual suspects’ – i.e. people already involved extensively in education – is a recurring finding. One retrospective analysis of internet usage by 47,000 UK adults throughout the 2000s showed that while internet access increased by 66 percent over the decade, people’s propensity to engage in education did not. Those individuals who were using the internet to engage with formal or informal learning were most likely to be young, already engaged in some form of educational participation and from relatively advantaged backgrounds. This is not to deny that online courses and educational resources are increasing levels of participation is education. However, this is very different to claims of widening participation to individuals and groups who were previously marginalized and excluded.

There is also growing evidence that people’s experiences of digital education are patterned distinctly in terms of social class, race and disability. For example, studies are beginning to illustrate the ways in which online learning environments do not unproblematically reduce differences between individuals. The US sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has conducted research into the online learning experiences of black and ethnic minority students. This suggests that few opportunities exist for such ‘participants’ to bring their cultural backgrounds into online learning experiences as they encounter and make sense of content. Cottom argues that online systems get designed and configured to ‘the norm’ of a self-motivated, highly able individual who is ‘disembodied from place, culture, history, markets, and inequality regimes.’ When online learning systems (and, to an extent, other online students) encounter students who do not conform to this norm, they tend to find fault. Put bluntly, when learning online, it still matters very much who one is. The social disadvantages of being black, female, poor and/or having a physical or intellectual disability do not simply disappear when one learns through the internet.

Overall, then, there is little sustained evidence of any wholesale democratization of education through digital technologies. While some disadvantaged individuals undoubtedly gain much through their engagement with digital education, this is not usually replicated on a wide-scale basis across populations. Digital technologies might not be making things worse, but neither are they making things much better.

Neil Selwyn is Professor at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne.

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