Education is a form of art, but technology could become a major equalizer
In a long career in teaching, I have learned to treat it with professionalism, but not as a mere profession. Education is, after all, a form of art in which every single class requires creative adjustment to the needs of students and the unique dynamic that emerges in it.
While global perceptions have changed, and now acknowledge that it is socially necessary and morally right to expand education to every single child worldwide, preparing them for a life of learning and personal development, resources have proven to fall short of what is required to meet this objective, as articulated by Goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, of ensuring that by 2030 all girls and boys complete an inclusive, equitable and high-quality secondary education “leading to relevant and effective learning, while promoting lifelong learning opportunities.”
In more recent times, much of the discussion has revolved around the role of new technologies in education, and whether these can be a game changer in closing the gap between the “haves and have nots” in the sphere of education.
A new report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, “Time for a World Education Service: Focused, Free and for All,” suggests that to achieve this goal by 2030, the world will require an additional 272 million children in education than in 2015. Worryingly, it forecasts that on current trends this target will be missed by 110 million, with most of these children being in low-income countries.
More than two-and-a-half years of the global pandemic have slowed, and in some cases reversed, the progress made in ensuring universal education as priorities changed. But also, while medium and high-income countries have been able to transfer much of the learning experience to virtual platforms, this has not been an option for many low-income countries, which lack the required infrastructure and expertise.
Ultimately, this is a setback for a generation of students of all ages, but has a worse effect on the younger ones. For many of us who incorporated technology into our pedagogy, the transition was far from being smooth. In some countries and even some segments of affluent societies, lack of access to these technologies and training has become a major detriment to child education and development.
An equally troubling observation made by the Tony Blair Institute’s report is that the statistical data provide us only with figures for the number of children who go to school, but not with reliable information on the quality of their learning experience, which in many cases is not satisfactory and amounts to what the authors describe as “learning poverty.”
This notion was first introduced by the World Bank, and was defined as being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. To put this in context, this objective is a modest one to begin with, considering the skills required for successfully functioning and prospering in a 21st-century economy and society.
Priority should be given to a well-coordinated mechanism to ensure that all girls and boys have access to high-performance learning platforms.
All major international organizations that deal with education were warning that the world was facing learning poverty even before COVID-19 hit, and two-and-a-half years of the pandemic have only exacerbated the phenomenon. Almost 60 percent of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries, according to UNICEF, are left lagging as a result of their education. School closures and disruptions have worsened this situation, with adverse long-term effects on economic and social equality globally. It is estimated that the loss of more than two years of schooling might result in an “estimated loss of $17 trillion in lifetime earnings for those affected,” a cost that spells more misery for individuals, families and societies, and a situation that might also become politically disruptive.
The introduction of technology could serve as a catalyst for closing the gaps in access to education, but so far the opposite has happened almost everywhere, and has greatly accelerated during the pandemic. This has underlined just how disadvantaged some children are without access to technology. There is also evidence that girls in low-income communities have suffered more from inadequate schooling. Unless girls have equal access to educational opportunities, which includes access to technology, gender inequalities are bound to increase.
Technology in the classroom is changing the nature of teaching, and how the adult world interacts with children and young adults in an educational environment. It empowers educators through access to information and methods of teaching they did not have before, but without proper training, it leads them to over-concentrate on technical issues, and also to have to compete with alternative and dubious sources of information that could be damaging .
Furthermore, at times of economic crisis, as in many other segments of the economy, there is a temptation to cut education expenses by first reducing its human resources. However, teaching is a profession like no other, and this temptation should be resisted at any cost, especially with young children who require not virtual but real, physical human interaction with adults and peers, both as learners and for their healthy development as human beings. .
Currently many of those involved in education find it hard to keep up with the constant developments in technology, while working to ensure that students concentrate less on the wizardry of the equipment and more on the content that will make a difference during and beyond their years in formal education.
There is no reason for these challenges not to be resolved if those who develop technology for education work together with educators. Priority should be given to a well-coordinated and adequately funded international mechanism to ensure that all girls and boys, wherever they are in the world, will have access to high-performance learning platforms, and geography and income should not be a hindrance. This will be central to achieving not only Goal 4, but also most of the other sustainable development goals that are heavily dependent on high levels of educational attainment.
Technology in education is not an aim in itself; it is not a panacea for inadequate education, but without it being widely available, we will see elements in various societies and parts of the world condemned to much lower levels of development. The Tony Blair Institute report rightly calls for an international body to ensure free access to the best digital tools for every child. It is up to governments and international organizations to live up to this challenge.
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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