Mark West works in UNESCO’s Education Sector, where he examines how technology can improve the quality, equity, and accessibility of learning. He currently leads work to operationalize the Rewired Global Declaration on Connectivity for Education. He is also authoring a UNESCO publication called ‘An Ed-Tech Tragedy?’ about lessons learned following the global shift from school-based education to technology-based education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no denying the educational innovation and creativity, which emerged out of necessity due to the pandemic. The numbers underscored just what a mammoth task this would be: in 2020, as the globe shut down, UNESCO indicated that over 90% of the world’s student population were affected by institutional closures. That percentage represented a staggering 1.6 billion learners in over 190 countries. The largest share of those at risk of dropping out entirely were in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and West Asia.
Two years later, Mark West provides a sobering assessment on how the world has fared: “The narrative that we have seen around this pandemic is ‘education catapulted into the future’; ‘education leapfrog’; ‘thank goodness we’re finally moving away from this industrial model of schooling’; ‘education is unshackled at last.’ That is not UNESCO’s reading. Our reading is: this was again a story of exclusion, heightened inequities, diminished learning, and diminished educational experiences.”
West likened the use of technology during school closures to a ‘patch’. “It was a patch for some and no solution for many others. On the African continent, the exclusion from education when education moved to technology was mind-boggling. Huge numbers of people did not have any access to formal education, when it became reliant on Internet connected technologies.
“But there was still that perception, if you will, that education was being taken care of. And this perception may have slowed down emergency efforts to ensure schools reopened quickly. It reflected a belief that ed-tech was a good-enough solution to stand-in for schools for extended periods of time. It reflected a belief that things were working.
“These visions, very much in circulation before the pandemic – held technology and digital spaces represented a more modern or even more effective, more flexible, more agile kind of nexus for education. The idea was that ed-tech could be the core. And that maybe schools would lose their dominant perch. I think there’s been some rethinking around this and some soul searching about this, and that people suddenly saw schools as essential institutions that provide a lot more than academic and curricular learning.
“We live in societies that have really become a bit obsessed with signifiers of academic progress – how exactly are people doing in math and reading – and COVID-19 reminded us that education does a lot more than that, especially school-based education.
These are places of socialisation. These are places of culturalization, of protection, of nutrition, of health services for children. These are places where people learn to come into a community, they learn to deal with people from different backgrounds outside of the family.”
West acknowledges the need to look at how educational technologies can improve learning and efficiencies but emphasises the fundamental need for providers of education to look at how they can contribute to the holistic wellbeing of learners.
“For so long people have been talking about how technology can support the full weight of education and then, due to this global health emergency, that became a reality. Our book, An Ed-Tech Tragedy? breaks down what happened in different places, and how this was experienced by teachers, by learners, and how relationships between teachers and students, between peers, change as a result of this experience. It really helps us understand how to position educational technologies a little bit differently and a little bit better, so that they are really allies of a more human-centred educational experience.”
Further data explored in the book show the heavy reliance on private providers of education platforms and resources. “UNESCO has been really adamant that education is a human right, it doesn’t exist in a ‘commercial logic’ of profit. We saw during the pandemic it was really a sort of ‘education for me’, instead of an ethic of ‘education for us’” says West.
“We know from the past experiences, certainly the past five years, that these digital spaces can be echo chambers of polarisation. Our publication asks whether our digital spaces as they’re currently conceived are appropriate spaces for public education? They have a troubling tendency to try to squeeze profit from every interaction, often by fuelling outrage and division. We just had some meetings at UNESCO where we were trying to list public and democratically-controlled online spaces. The list is really short. Wikipedia is one of the best examples and its already 20 years old. Where are the other examples? We’ve come to accept profit, advertising and data extraction models of online development as natural and inevitable. But, in fact, there are lots of other possibilities. Public education should be a reason and a location to establish new paradigms for learning, interacting and collaborating in online environments. Our choices – and more importantly our imaginations -should not be limited to Google Classroom.”
West is forceful in his calls for a new direction for the digital transformation of education, arguing that we’re on a “troubling trajectory of greater exclusion and heightened inequality. This is not necessarily the direction we want to continue careening down” he says.
The project on The Global Rewired Declaration on Connectivity for Education which West leads offers ideas on how to reorient the digital transformation of education.
The first idea is on how to centre society’s most marginalised better. “We see lots of ed-tech initiatives that target people who are already privileged. They’ve already got devices they’ve already got good connectivity. Those are the people in the crosshairs of a lot of initiatives.”
“What about the person that doesn’t speak the language of instruction, what about the student that’s not necessarily in school right now. What about refugees, what about women and girls that don’t necessarily have access to technology. How can ed-tech initiatives centre those people? That’s the first principle.”
“The second principle just observes that we have public education, it’s compulsory and it’s supposed to be free. So where are the public spaces for public education on the Internet? In our view, there should be a clear place for people to go to access public education on the Internet so it’s about content and platforms.”
The final principle which UNESCO offers focuses on pedagogy. “We saw that classroom pedagogy is where there’s a big rush to replicate what had been happening in classrooms and digital spaces, hence the explosion of meetings in Zoom and in MS Teams and it’s not to say that this software doesn’t have a place, it very well may, but it’s also just to observe that the digital space is very different than the physical space.”
“It would be really exciting to see some more creativity and pedagogical innovation about how to use the strengths of the digital space to improve teaching and learning and also to advance this more holistic view of what education is and can be, where it includes things like wellbeing… so that it doesn’t just narrow to purely academic curricular driven learning.”
West is quick to point out that UNESCO is in no way ‘anti tech’. The organization is rather concerned about the ways technology was applied during the pandemic, the subject of An Ed-Tech Tragedy?. “The publication is a sober assessment of the evidence,” West says. “We didn’t come at this work with a thesis of ‘tragedy’. That came after months and months of observing the data and, at some point, we said, ‘my gosh’, this is really like a tragedy -tragedy in a literary sense. Technology didn’t facilitate the outcomes people wanted, us included. It often resulted in new forms of exclusion, inequity and sometimes even harm. And, like a tragedy, it started with ambition, presumption and even pride. A lot of people believed connected technologies would provide better foundations for education than schools. They thought the moment was right. Well, we’ve been humble. We can and we should come away from this experience wiser. That is a core element of tragedy – recognition and learning. Going forward, we need to be more modest about our expectations for technology and the roles it will play in human-centred education.
These are the evidence-based perspectives West looks forward to sharing at the eLearning Africa Conference but also looks forward to sharing ways in which to move forward, largely centred around the principles underpinning the Global Declaration on Connectivity for Education.
An Ed-Tech Tragedy? is due for publication under by UNESCO in September 2023.