Recently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020]. It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree! They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback. This is how I responded:
1) How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?
“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good. The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way. It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies. Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.
2) Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?
“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones! To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism. Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes. We need to begin with the education and not the technology. Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify. These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.
3) What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?
“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners. It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached. We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes. This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.
4) What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?
“Four simple things are needed:
- Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources. We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
- We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past. Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
- We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
- Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.
I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education. Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all. It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives. Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!