Category Archives: Education

Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, Asia, Development, Education, Entrepreneurship, ICT4D, India, Inequality, Rural, SDGs, Urban

Against “EdTech”…


Sitting in on a recent donor-stakeholder discussion about the use of ICTs to support education for poor people in developing countries, inspired me to formalize my critical thoughts on the increasingly common usage of the term “EdTech”.   There are three main reasons why this terminology is so problematic:

  • children-in-malawi-schoolFirst, the term EdTech places the emphasis on the technology rather than the educational and learning outcomes. Far too many initiatives that have sought to introduce technology systematically into education have failed because they have focused on the technology rather than on the the education.  The use of the term EdTech therefore places emphasis on a failed way of thinking.  Technology will only be of benefit for poor and marginalized people if it is used to deliver real learning outcomes, and this is the core intended outcome of any initiative. It is the learning that matters, rather than the technology.
  • jica-stm-ptc-computersSecond, it implies that there is such a thing as Educational Technology. The reality is that most technology that is used in schools or for education more widely has very little to do specifically with education or learning.  Word processing and presentational software, spreadsheets, and networking software are nothing specifically to do with education, although they are usually what is taught to teachers in terms of IT skills! Such software is, after all, usually called Office software, as in Microsoft Office, or Open Office. Likewise, on the hardware side, computers, mobile phones and electronic whiteboards are not specifically educational but are rather more general pieces of technology that companies produce to generate a profit.  Learning content, be it open or proprietary, is perhaps the nearest specifically educational technology that there is, but people rarely even think of this when they use the term EdTech!
  • intel-classmate-zambia-2010Third, it is fascinating to consider why the term EdTech has been introduced to replace others such as e-learning or ICT for education (ICT4E) which clearly place the emphasis on the learning and the education.  The main reason for this is that the terminology largely reflects the interests of private sector technology companies, and especially those from the US. The interests underlying the terminology are a fundamental part of the problem.  EdTech is being used and sold as a concept primarily so that companies can sell technology that has little specifically to do with education, and indeed so that researchers can be funded to study its impact!

1

Those who use the term EdTech are all conspiring to place the emphasis on the technology rather than on the education.  This is often deliberate, but always misguided!  Many of those who use the term are also concerned primarily in generating profits from education rather than delivering effective, life-changing opportunities for people to learn.  If you ever use the word again, please think twice about it, and preferably use something more appropriate!

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Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality


Shia TretOne of the most interesting aspects of my visit to Pakistan in January this year was the informal, anecdotal information that I gathered about educational change in the Punjab, and in particular DFID’s flagship Punjab Education Support Programme II.  I should declare right at the beginning here that I used to work for DFID (between 2001 and 2004), and I am a member of their Digital Advisory Panel.  I have many friends in the Department, and I admire much of the work that they do.  I was therefore indeed shocked by what I was told and what I summarise below.

When ever the subject of this particular programme came up in conversation in Pakistan, it was always greeting with severe criticism, even derision.  Most of my conversations were with educationalists, academics, landowners, and rural people in the Punjab.  I have not shared these comments before, because they were indeed anecdotal, and I did not see the evidence with my own eyes.  Nevertheless, a report that a colleague recently shared with me by Gethin Chamberlain in the Mail on Sunday (not a paper that I ever usually read!) updated on 14th April 2016,  coincides so strongly with what I was told that I do feel it is worth sharing some of my insights here.

In summary, the Mail on Sunday report commented that:

  • “Department for International Development gives £700m to Pakistan
  • In Punjab, which gets £383m, auditor general uncovered huge corruption
  • 5,000 schools and 40,000 teachers syphoning off cash in other area, Sindh
  • Rana Mashhood is under investigation for corruption”

To be sure, such allegations undoubtedly reflect internal political battles within Pakistan, and continuing complaints about corruption more generally in the administration of agriculture in Punjab (see for example, reports in the local press about matters such as laser land levelling technology, and the widespread corruption in the Agriculture Department of the Punjab Assembly). They are also intended to add fuel to the newspaper’s campaign to “end foreign aid madness”!  However, they nevertheless reflect poorly on the role of DFID and on the implementation of this particular programme.  There is an amazing dissonance between the rhetoric of success, and what I heard on the ground in Punjab.

The DFID programme is ambitious, as highlighted in a report in 2013 by Sir Michael Barbour (DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan, and Chief Education Advisor at Pearson) entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere.  In this, he says “This time it’s going to be different” (p.9).  The work of DFID is wide ranging, and has many elements to it, but one of Barber’s main contributions was to explore ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50).  The private sector is also involved heavily in other ways, with British Consultancy Firm iMC Worldwide (an International Development and Engineering Consultancy) being the main contractor in rolling out much of the school building programme on the ground, through the Humqadam initiative.  iMC maintains the rhetoric of success, claiming that “In Punjab, the programme is helping the government to meet overall provincial needs, by providing missing facilities in 16,000 schools and providing 27,000 additional classrooms”.  The Humqadam website itself provides further euphoric statements about Britain’s support for education in Pakistan, noting that “Evidence regarding Pakistan’s education opportunities comes from none other than David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.  Following a recent visit to Pakistan, he laid the foundations for the initiation of this programme by highlighting the importance of education and Great Britain’s deep commitment, the Department of International Department (DFID), to support education sector reform and the promotion of a quality education for all school age children” (sic).  Humqadam goes on to note that they are working on school construction and rehabilitation using a £184 million allocation of funding from DFID, as well as funding from the Australian DFAT.

Irrigation and peopleThe reality, as it was relayed to me, is very different. Clearly, these are anecdotes, but the following were the main points that my colleagues mentioned:

  • They felt that the project was well behind schedule, and feared that delays would mean that delivery would thus be rushed in an attempt to catch up, leading to poor quality.  The programme was frequently described as a “joke”.  In contrast, DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget.  Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2).
  • There was also a strong perception that those involved in the design of the project had not grasped the actual realities of the educational challenges on the ground in Punjab.  The truth of this is much more difficult to judge, but there was undoubtedly a feeling that the views of influential “outsiders”, who rarely visited schools and villages on the ground, but spent most of their time talking with senior government officials in offices in Lahore or Islamabad, had been prominent in shaping the programme.  Interestingly, I also overheard a fascinating conversation between two foreign aid workers over breakfast one day in a smart international hotel.  They were absolutely scathing in what they said about the programme in both design and delivery, and seemed to verify the comments that I had previously received from my Pakistani friends.  I so wanted to go over and ask them more, but I had felt guilty about listening to their conversation; in my defence, they were speaking so loudly that it was actually impossible not to hear what they were saying!
  • CowsFor me, though, the most important thing was what people said about the actual delivery of school building on the ground, and how it did little to counter the  power of landlords.  I was, for example, told on several occasions that some landowners used the newly built school buildings as cattle byres, and that the first thing that teachers had to do in the morning was to clean out all of the manure that had accumulated overnight before they could start teaching.  More worryingly, I was given one account whereby my interlocutor assured me that on more than one occasion a landlord’s thugs had beaten teachers and threatened to kill them if they ever returned to their new school buildings.  The reality and threat of rape for women teachers was a common complaint.  Again, I never witnessed this, but the assuredness of those who told me these stories, many of whom I deeply trust, makes me inclined to believe them.  This is the perceived reality of education reform on the ground in Punjab.

Even if these stories are untrue, and are themselves myths designed to undermine DFID’s important work in trying to help deliver better education in the Punjab, they are indeed damaging to DFID’s reputation.  I would love to know more about the reality of these claims, but as was pointed out to me during my time in Pakistan, it is not easy for a white European to spend time in villages, especially overnight, in the parts of Punjab where such things might be happening.

The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared.  It read:

“It is true though Tim Unwin.  What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”

This is so very sad.  We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this.   I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told.

 

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Thoughts on mobile learning for the EFA GMR 2015


GMRI was delighted to have been asked by UNESCO to write an overview of the evolution of mobile devices and their uses in learning (m-learning), focusing especially on the fifteen-year period of the first Millennium Development Goals, as a background paper for the 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and it is great that this has now been published.

I thought it might be useful to summarise some of the key points here. The paper highlights eight emerging good practices, and six significant policy implications. The emerging good practices are:

  • Focusing on learning outcomes not technology
  • Involving teachers and users at all stages from design to implementation and review
  • Involve participatory approaches in design so as to ensure that adoption of technology is user-centric
  • Consider sustainability, maintenance and financing right at the beginning
  • Think holistically and systemically
  • Ensure that all relevant government departments are involved
  • Ensure equality of access to all learners, especially those who are marginalised
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place

The policy implications identified are closely linked to these and can be summarised as:

  • Joined up approaches across Governments
  • Sharing of effective and rigorous monitoring and evaluation findings
  • Ensuring affordability
  • Providing connectivity
  • Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • Development of relevant content

Four case studies drawn from different parts of the world and at different scales were used to illustrate the considerable success that can be achieved through m-learning. These were:

  • BBC Janala in Bangladesh;
  • Red UnX: a mobile learning community for entrepreneurship in Latin America;
  • Learning on the Move in Singapore; and
  • Worldreader: making books available to primary school children in low-income countries

However, the paper also illustrates clearly that unless very considerable efforts are made to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities have access to appropriate devices, connectivity and electricity, any increased attention on digital technologies is likely to increase inequalities rather than reduce them.

It concludes that to date, great strides have been made in using the very rapid expansion of mobile devices for the benefit of education, and for those companies involved in exploiting this. However, as a review of delivery on the past EFA goals and MDGs, it is apparent that much remains to be done in using such devices to help achieve universal primary education and gender equality in education.  Looking to the future, as more and more people gain possession of, or access to, mobile devices, they will have the opportunity to use the Internet to access an ever more innovative array of learning tools and content. The challenge, particularly for governments, is how to pay for and use this potential to enable universal access, and thus equality of opportunity within the education sector. Given the central role of teachers and administrators within education, an important concluding recommendation is that much more attention should be paid to providing training, resources and support to them in the use of mobile devices. A well-equipped, knowledgeable and inspired cadre of teachers, capable of using mobile ‘phones effectively in their classes, is a crucial first-step towards delivering m-learning for all. Sadly, all too often, even in the richest countries of the world, children are told to switch off their mobile ‘phones before entering the classroom. M-learning has much potential, but we are still a long way from using it to benefit the world’s poorest and most marginalised.

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Education Fast Forward’s Eleventh Debate: Mobile Learning for the Masses


LogoEducation Fast Forward (EFF) was co-founded by Jim Wynn, formerly at Promethean and now EFF’s Chief Executive Officer, to bring together some of the world’s leading figures in the word of education to debate key issues facing governments, educators and employers. Its aim is not only just to debate these issues, but more importantly to come up with practical solutions that people can adopt, particularly in ensuring that technology is used appropriately to deliver effective solutions that will make a step change in learning experiences. EFF also ensures that it puts its body where its mouth is, so participants can engage in the debates through a variety of different modalities, including the use of Cisco’s Telepresence and WebEx environments, and also through live webstreaming, Twitter and other social media.

The Eleventh debate on 17th September, chaired by the irrepressible Gavin Dykes, was on the theme of Mobile Learning for the Masses? Realistic Expectations and Success Criteria. It began with two tone-setting presentations by Professor Miguel Nussbaum (Professor at the Computer Science Department of the School of Engineering of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and David Atchoarena (Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO).

Miguel-Nussbaum-100Miguel Nussbaum began with a summary of his long career in using technology for learning, ranging from his early experience of using netbooks and tablets in Chile, to more recent work with multiple mice and mobile devices. His main presentation focused on how technology is used in the classroom, addressing three main issues: the way we teach; how we use technology, and how we can integrate technology in the classroom so that teachers make good use of it, and that students can really learn. At the heart of his presentation were the arguments that it is not the technology that matters, but rather we should focus on how technology can be used to deliver on curriculum needs.

Daivd_Profile-100David Atchoarena then followed, emphasising once again that technology must be a means rather than an end. It has to be used to solve specific challenges and needs. Recognising that in 2014 we are nearly at the end of the period set for achieving the Education for All Goals and the Dakar Framework, he noted that whilst progress has been achieved, very real challenges still remain in three areas: literacy, gender equality and teacher shortages. In all of these areas, he argued that mobile technologies can indeed make a significant difference.

The subsequent conversation, bringing together people from across the world explored a wide range of issues related to the implications of these arguments in the context of mobile learning. For me, six main themes emerged:

  1. Relevance for the poorest people in the poorest countries. Without electricity and connectivity, the most marginalised people and communities are not going to benefit from the potential of ICTs, be they mobile or otherwise! While many argued that it is merely a matter of time before everyone everywhere is connected, Adrian Godfrey from the GSMA noted that, although there are more SIM card registrations than there are people in the world, only just under half of the world’s population have their own access to mobile devices. Against this background, David Coltart, the former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe, emphasised the critical financial and infrastructure constraints facing educationalists in many of the world’s poorest countries, especially in Africa.
  2. The need to work closely with teachers. Teachers are central to the learning process and the general consensus was that they have to be involved at the heart of initiatives designed to introduce technology into education. Whilst it was recognised that people can indeed learn using the Internet on their mobile devices without any teacher involvement, it was also argued most strongly that we have to focus on pedagogy and the role of teachers in using technology in the classroom. This is not just to do with the way we teach, but also with what we teach. As Miguel Nussbaum commented, we have to ensure that teachers are trained to be collaborative, interdependent and seeking common goals. The pedagogy has to come before the technology!
  3. The power of assessment and the curriculum. Closely linked to the discussion of the role of teachers and pedagogy were comments about the power of assessment. For some, we need to change the ways in which learning is assessed if we are truly to benefit from the opportunities offered by mobile technologies; as long as we ‘test’ in traditional ways, pupils will not be able to take advantage of all the opportunities for collaboration and interaction offered by mobiles. For others, it was the curriculum that matters most, on the grounds that assessment usually follows the requirements of the curriculum.
  4. The interests underlying the introduction of mobile technologies in the classroom. My main contribution fell largely on deaf ears, but I do believe that in understanding these processes we have to understand the interests underlying the introduction of such technologies into the classroom. This is primarily driven by the interests of capital, and the need for companies to generate the maximum profits from their investments in digital technologies. Operators need to draw traffic through their networks, and if people can be encouraged to use these to gain useful learning resources, and network better with their peers, then this has to be a good thing. For content providers, mobiles offer a huge opportunity for generating additional revenue. Until we understand these interests, and realise that they are not driven primarily by pedagogy and the learning needs of pupils, then we will continue to be bemused by the failure of ICTs to transform the learning outcomes of formal educational systems
  5. Mobile devices can transform the learning experiences of some of the world’s most marginalised people and communities. Despite all of the challenges, it was great to see a small group of participants arguing that mobile devices can have a huge impact on the learning experiences of those living in refugee camps (Eliane Metni from Lebanon) and people with disabilities. We need to do much more to ensure that this work is supported, because otherwise these communities and individuals will become even further distanced from the rich who have access to the latest digital technologies.
  6. A call for action. There is far too much talking, and not enough action! Michelle Selinger, in particular, argued that you will only get effective action through dialogue between teachers policy makers, industry and academics. She also emphasised that, while content is important, it is crucial to remember the potential of mobile devices for crafting new types of collaboration through voice, video and text.

Education Fast Forward does not just finish with the live debate itself, and the EFF website, as well as their Twitter account (see #EFF11) provide ready means through which to continue the discussion. Thanks Jim, Gavin and all of the contributors for a thought-provoking discussion.

Postscript:

There is a huge amount of ongoing work on the use of mobiles for learning, and the International Telecommunication Union’s m-Powering Development initiative has recently produced a useful report on m-learning that is highly pertinent to this debate. This highlights the following eight main conclusions about things that are essential for the success of any m-learning initiative:

  • It is essential to focus on learning outcomes not just the technology;
  • Teachers and users should be involved at all stages in the development and implementation of m-learning initiatives;
  • Sustainability, maintenance and financing should be considered right at the beginning of any initiative;
  • It is important to think holistically and systemically;
  • All relevant government departments must be involved in any m-learning initiative;
  • Equality of access to all learners must be ensured, otherwise m-learning initiatives will lead t greater inequality;
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place; and
  • Participatory approaches must be utilised in design.

Some, but not all of these issues were captured in the debate!

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The damaging mythology of “Digital Natives”


The publication of Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report, which provides interesting information about significant differences in usage of communications media, has led to a plethora of media commentaries perpetuating the mythology around the usage of the term “Digital Natives”.  A Guardian report  thus comments that “The advent of broadband in the year 2000 has created a generation of digital natives, the communication watchdog Ofcom says in its annual study of British consumers. Born in the new millennium, these children have never known the dark ages of dial up internet, and the youngest are learning how to operate smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk.”.

Ofcom summarised its report as follows: “Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. Our research on people’s digital aptitude found that:

  • We’re at our most tech savvy between 14 – 15 years old – with an average score of 113
  • Over 60% of people aged over 55 score below average
  • Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”

In this short post, I do three things: first, highlight the damaging effects that over-simplistic usage of terms such as “Digital Natives” can cause;  second, explore why such terms persist, and hence the notion of mythology; and third, point to  problems with the data upon which the Ofcom report’s conclusions are drawn.

Against the notion of “Digital Natives”
I had thought that the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives” had long been debunked, especially by the really excellent arguments propounded by my good friend Mark Weber, in his presentation on “Fear and Awe of the Digital Native“.  For anyone who has not read it, I strongly urge you to do so!  Rather than repeat all of Mark’s arguments, let me merely highlight four of the reasons why he suggests that it is a dangerous concept:

  • “Generational division simplifies picture
  • Assumes that ‘just because’ someone is young they have the necessary skill set to deal with modern economy
  • Presumes a level playing field for the young, ignores economic and social problems & differences
  • Places unwanted pressure on the young”

These are critical issues that must not be ignored, but I would like briefly here to develop four particular points that are in part alluded to by Mark:

  • Not everyone who is young is digitally literate, nor is everyone who is old digitally incompetent! Simply to categorise people in this way can be hugely damaging, not least to their self esteem.  If we wish to encourage older people to use technology, because of its assumed benefits to them, it is decidedly unhelpful to castigate them as being resistant to technology, or unable to learn about it.  Many older people are hugely competent at using digital technologies, and indeed teach younger people how to use them! Using Ofcom’s sample question test, for example, I scored more than 55% above the average score for people my age!!!
  • These differences are in large part structurally determined, rather than merely a factor of age.  Much more research needs to be done on reasons why people use digital technologies in particular ways, but there are very many structural reasons why people in particular age groups might respond to such surveys in particular ways (see below for problems with the actual questions asked in the Ofcom survey).  There are clear reasons why older people might not be as familiar with digital technologies as younger ones, not least because they may consider that they have better things to do with their time!  Moreover, not having access to the technologies, not being able to afford them, or their design being difficult to use can all affect such usage.  Elderly people with visual impairments or motility challenges find small digital devices difficult to use.  Most, although definitely not all, common digital technologies are not designed for use by people with disabilities, and similarly as people become older they too are often actually specifically marginalised by the technologies.
  • It implies that digital technologies are on the whole “good” and “beneficial”; we should all want to be natives! This again is part of the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives”.  However, as needs to be repeated over and over again, digital technologies have both positive and negative effects.  The word “native” is generally seen as being positive, and therefore it focuses attention mainly on the positive aspects of  the use of such technologies.  Sadly, the term “Digital Immigrants”, which is often used to refer to those older people learning how to use the technologies, has become associated with the more widely pejorative usage of the word “Immigrant”.  This is extremely unfortunate, because immigrants are actually often the people who bring in new ideas, and lead to changes for the better in a society! The notion that all digital technologies are definitely good must be debunked.  One need only think of the challenges of cybercrime, child online pornography, or the increased work load cause by e-mails to realise that being a “Digital Native” can actually be hugely damaging and dehumanising!
  • The notion of “Digital Natives” is a simple concept, that is easily remembered, but it is therefore highly dangerous because it implies some kind of causative power. There is nothing necessarily about young people that makes them any more adept at using digital technologies than older people.  The Ofcom report emphasises that, based on their survey, “Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”, but this merely expresses confidence rather than ability.  If six-year-olds regularly play with digital technologies more than do older people, then it is hardly surprising that they have more confidence in their usage.  This does not mean that they are necessarily better at using the technology, or that older people cannot learn how to use it.  Persistence in the use of the term will only encourage older people to think that they are less able to use the technologies than they actually are, and might therefore further limit their potential benefit gains from digital technologies.  This is not to deny the considerable evidence that humans have greater difficulty remembering things, or learning new things as they get older, but it is to decry the arguments that suggest that there is something particularly about digital technologies that makes them harder than other new things for older people to learn.

Why do people still persist in using the term “Digital Native”?
The idea of students as “Digital Natives” and teachers as “Digital Immigrants” as first postulated by Mark Prensky in 2001 is indeed catchy, and it is not surprising that it became popular.  Like many popular concepts, it has an element of truth in it, and it appeals to those who like binary divides and simplicity.  Prensky’s paper concluded, “So if Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change. It’s high time for them to stop their grousing, and as the Nike motto of the Digital Native generation says, “Just do it!” They will succeed in the long run – and their successes will come that much sooner if their administrators support them”.  As founder and CEO of a game-based learning company, Prensky was  eager to encourage as many teachers as possible to adopt digital technologies in their learning, and this has been at the heart of the ‘interests’ that have subsequently underlain much use of the terminology.

Those who advocate the use of the term “Digital Natives” do so very specifically, so as to encourage even greater adoption of digital technologies, not only in the field of learning, but also more widely.  “Immigrants” are encouraged to adopt ever more technology so that they can become as proficient and ‘naturalised’ as are the “Digital Natives”.  Hence, a fundamental driver for use of this terminology is the profit motive of global ICT corporations, eager to ensure that as many people as possible are locked in to the new digital world that they are creating.

In the field of e-learning, a fear that teachers often have, especially in some of the poorer countries of the world, is that their role will be usurped by the machine, and that as “Digital Immigrants” they will be left behind by their students, the “Digital Natives”.  The traditional role of the teacher, as someone with knowledge to impart, rather than as someone helping others to learn, is thus seen as being fundamentally undermined by the use of digital technologies such as computers, the Internet and mobile ‘phones.  In such contexts, the use of an overly simple divide between Natives and Immigrants can be hugely damaging.  Instead, a more sophisticated approach to incorporating digital technologies in learning is required, recognising that it is a transformation for both teachers and students, and that only by working together can they develop a shared appreciation of the benefits that such technologies can bring.

Problems with research based on self-reporting
Interestingly, the Ofcom report itself does not actually use the words “Digital Natives”, but it does provide interesting information about how different age groups self-report on technology usage. Herein, though, lies a fundamental problem with the report, which is that the age-related conclusions are largely based on simple self-reporting questions that do not actually provide a reliable basis for the conclusions drawn.  As the sample questions indicate, the responses to one section require the person completing the questionnaire to give one of the following five answers to the question “Thinking about the following gadgets and services – which statement best describes your knowledge and understanding?”:

  • I use them
  • I know a lot about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I know a bit about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I’ve heard of them but don’t know much about them
  • I’ve never heard of them.

This relies on those responding to differentiate between “not much”, “a bit”, and “a lot”; one person’s “not much” could be another’s “a lot”.  Moreover, there is an inbuilt bias in such questions, because the same amount of knowledge abut technology is actually a much smaller percentage of an older person’s overall knowledge than it would be of a child’s knowledge.  This would tend to lead to younger people thinking that their digital knowledge about something was actually “a lot”, whereas an older person might see this as actually being “not much”!  The gadgets chosen are also somewhat problematic, including smart glasses such as Google Glass, smart watches, and 3D printers, not least because very few people actually use them as yet, and so the results will be biased to particular age groups that use them.

Another set of questions requires respondents to answer whether they “agree strongly”, “agree”, “disagree” or “disagree strongly” with a set of statements that include:

  • I like working out how to use different gadgets
  • My friend and family ask what I think about new gadgets
  • I know how to use lots of gadgets
  • I wouldn’t know what to do without technology

These questions are likely to be more comparable and reliable than the first batch discussed above, but similar challenges of interpretation can be found with most of them.  How, for example, does one quantify “lots of gadgets”? Moreover, agreeing strongly with the last of these would presumably lead to a high score, whereas only some reflection is required to suggest that it is actually deeply worrying for anyone to answer anything other than “strongly disagree”!

A further set of questions invites respondents to describe usage in terms of “regularly”, “sometimes”, “hardly ever” and “never” with respect to technologies such as online TV and text messaging:

  • I watch TV shows online (e.g. BBC iPlayer, 4OD)
  • I prefer to contact friends by text message than by phone call (e.g. by SMS, BBM, iMessage)

Again, these assume that all groups of respondents will differentiate between categories in the same way.  “Regularly”, for example, could be interpreted as “regularly, once a week”, whereas it would seem to be meant to mean very frequently!  Likewise, the difference between “sometimes” and “hardly ever” is not easy to define.

The Ofcom report has certainly provided interesting data about the use of communication technologies in Britain today, and it must be stressed once again it did not specifically use the words “Digital Natives”.  However, it must be emphasised that much of the data upon which it is based is somewhat problematic, and focused very much on perceptions rather than actually how people use technologies.  These are, though, clearly related, and there is no question that people from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicity, gender and age all use devices in different ways.  The way on which journalists have picked up on the term “Digital Native” is, though, disappointing, and continues to promote what I see as a damaging mythology.  It is great to know I am not alone, and that today “The Herald” in Scotland also runs an article called “Myth of the digital native”!

 

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Education Fast Forward – 10th Debate


Education Fast Forward is a great initiative that brings together leading global experts and change agents from the world of education to debate key topics in contemporary education. The forum addresses many of the challenges facing governments, educators and employers both now and in the future, and aims to find practical resolutions.

Today’s debate (June 25, 2014 at 1pm BST) is entitled Better teaching for better learning: Results of the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).

The lead debaters will be the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, Acting Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General and Professor Michael Fullan former dean of the Ontario Institute of Education Studies in Education. Plus specially invited guests.  Andreas will be revealing the results of the TALIS survey and looking at what conditions teachers face and how this data can influence policy to make sure that teachers have the best environment possible to create effective learning environments.

The debate will be live streamed at www.PrometheanPlanet.com/EFF  – there is no need to register, just click to view. The debate can also be followed on Twitter @effdebate and  questions and comments can be posted to #EFF10.

 EFF10

 So sorry that I cannot be there personally! Hoping that the debate goes really well, and looking forward to following up on the outcomes.

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