Category Archives: ICT4D

The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D


I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

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Why we shouldn’t use terms such as “bridging the digital divide” or “digital leapfrogging”


Writing a short encyclopedia entry for a revised edition of Elsevier’s International Encyclopedia of Human Geography has provided me with an opportunity to write very succinctly about something dear to my heart – why we should not use terms such as “bridging the digital divide” and “digital leapfrogging”.  These are part of the problem and not of the solution.  Our use of language really matters.  So, here is the draft:

“The latest technologies are almost always designed for advanced markets and the rich who live in them, and are well beyond the means of the poorest.  Hence, if these technologies do indeed have benefits associated with them, these will accrue disproportionately to the rich.  Poor countries and people are either left to pick up the scraps of remaining older technologies, or have to purchase inferior products at the lower end of the market.  The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are going to be used in the so-called Smart Cities of the developed world long before they are used at all widely in remote rural villages in Africa or Asia; big data are going to be used by large corporations with the expertise to analyse them, long before they are understood, let alone, used by people in the poorest countries of the world.

This is why terms such as “bridging the digital divide” or “digital leapfrogging”, although widely used, are so inappropriate.  When the rich are designing and implementing technologies in their own interests, to move them further ahead of their competitors, the gap or divide between rich and poor becomes yet more difficult to reduce, or bridge; the horizon is always moving further and further into the distance…  Moreover, the notion of a “divide” generally implies a binary divide, as in the gender divide, whereas in reality it is complex and multifaceted; it is not one divide, but many. The notion of leapfrogging is also problematic, since it implies benefiting from someone else; using a person’s back to lever an advantage ahead of them.  Whilst poor countries have indeed not had to spend their limited resources on outdated technologies, such as copper cable for telecommunications, they generally cannot afford the latest generation of ICTs.  If anything, rich countries are leapfrogging ahead of the poor, by benefiting from the expanded market and lower labour costs that they provide.  The low rates of taxation paid by US corporations such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon from the profits generated in poorer countries, are but one instance of such practices…”.

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Contributions to UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum: notes from the underground


AzoulayIt was great to be able to participate in UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum on 11th-12th September in Paris, and to contribute as a panellist in the session arranged by Indrajit Banerjee and his team on Responding to Opportunities and Challenges of the Digital Age.  Much of the Forum focused on the successes of existing UNESCO partnerships, but our panel yesterday instead addressed practical issues where UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division could make a difference.

AudienceOur panel also consisted of:

  • Moderator: Indrajit Banerjee (Director, Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO)
  • Marcus Goddard (Netexplo Observatory)
  • Marie-Helene Parizeau (Chair of World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology)
  • Dr. Davina Frau-Meigs (Professor of Media Sociology at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, and Chairholder of UNESCO Chair for “savoir-devenir le développement numérique durable: maîtriser les cultures de l’information”)
  • Octavio Kulesz (Teseo, Argentina).

Our session had five themes, and there was a great audience who contributed hugely through their smiles!  I note below some of the contributions that I sought to make:

Introductory comments

I focused on two main issues:

  • We must avoid an instrumental view of the world. AI, the Internet of Things,  5G… do not have any power to change anything themselves.  They are created by global corporations – be they failing USAn ones, or rising Chinese ones – and by individuals in them who have particular interests.  AI, for example, will not change the world of work.  Those who are creating AI are doing so for a very particular set of reasons…  We are responsible for the things we create.
  • Use of the term 4th Industrial Revolution is highly problematic. I guess there are two kinds of people – those who see the world as being revolutionary, and those who see it as evolutionary.  The “revolutionary” people like to see the world as shaped by heroes (perhaps they want to be heroes themselves) – elite people such as Turnip Townsend or Thomas Coke of Holkham in the “agricultural revolution”, or Richard Arkwright who invented the water-powered spinning mill, Jean Baptiste Colbert here in France, or George Stephenson – people who led the so-called industrial revolution. However, the reality is that these changes evolved through the labour of countless millions of poor people across the world, and their lives were shaped by fundamental structural forces, most notably the driving forces and interests of capitalism – money bent on the accretion of money – that sought to reduce labour costs and increase market size.  These forces still shape today’s world.  There is no 4th Industrial Revolution

How can UNESCO leverage digital technologies to achieve SDGs?

I sought to raise challenging questions about the relationship between digital technologies and the SDGs, particularly around notions of sustainability:

  • First, most ICTs and digital technologies are based on fundamentally unsustainable business models – and there are therefore real challenges claiming that they can contribute positively to “sustainable development”. Just thinking about it.  How often do you replace your mobile phone, or have to get new software because you have bought some new hardware with which it is incompatible, or instead need new hardware to run the latest memory and processor demanding software.  Such obsolescence is a deliberate ploy of the major technology companies.
  • Second, the use of most such technologies is damaging to the environment – this is hardly sustainable – think about the satellite “waste” in outer space, or the electricity demands of server farms, or take blockchain; do you realise that Bitcoin mining consumes more electricity a year than does the whole of Ireland?
  • And then, the SDGs have failed already – most countries have not set their targets, and for many the baseline data simply do not exist. It is therefore not going to be possible to say whether many targets have been met or not. Take UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics date on SDG 4.  In most parts of the world less than a third of countries have data for the educational indicators and targets. [http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/sdg4-data-book-2018-en.pdf].  Indeed, it is often said that the SDGs purely exist to give UN agencies something to do!
  • But being positive, the answer is simple – we need to concentrate our efforts first on the poorest and most marginalised. These new technologies have rapidly been used to make the world a more unequal place.  It is good that we now have SDG 10 focusing on inequality, but few people ever mention it in the context of digital technologies. No-one else has mentioned it in any of the sessions at which I have yet been during this Forum. We should not always be talking about connecting the next billion – but instead of connecting the first billion – yes, the first and most important – those who are poorest and most marginalised – people with disabilities, street children, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies.  We need to work with them, to craft new technologies that will help them achieve their empowerment.

How can we de-risk digital interactions and counter online challenges to privacy, human rights and freedom of expression?

I responded briefly, since other speakers addressed this at greater length and with more sophistication:

  • Ethics is incredibly important – Most people tend to think that new technology is necessarily good. But it is not.  Technology is neither good nor bad – it simply “is”.  But technologies can be made, and used, for good or bad purposes.
  • Two examples on which I have recently been working are:
    • Sexual harassment through mobile devices – Pakistan, India and Caribbean
    • Is it too late for “pure humans” to survive – or will we, are we already, all cyborgs?
  • How might we respond to these challenges
    • We need to focus as much on the negatives as on the positives of technologies in our education systems and media.
    • We need more open public debate and discussion on the ethics of digital technologies – governments tend not to trust their citizens to engage in these very difficult issues.

What forms of multi-stakeholder mechanisms/government frameworks will foster global dialogue around the use of advanced ICTs?

Again, towards the end of the session, there was little time to discuss this, but I noted:

  • Everyone talks about partnerships, but few actually succeed
  • Back in 2005 I actually wrote about multi-sector partnerships as part of UNESCO’s contribution to WSIS – and most of what I wrote then still applies!
  • We must stop competing and instead work together creatively and collaboratively in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. This applies particularly both within and between UN agencies!

Concluding remarks

This is what I think I said:

I have huge admiration for many of the staff in UNESCO; the organisation has the most important mandate of any UN agency – focusing as it does on Education, Science and Culture.  There are three simple, and easy things that UNESCO could do, but they require a fundamental change of mentality:

  • Focus on understanding the needs of the poorest and most marginalised
  • Work with, not for, the poorest and marginalised
  • Develop digital solutions that will serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

And of course, UNESCO could take much more advantage of the expertise of the many Chairholders in its UNITWIN and UNESCO Chairs networks!

Thanks again to all those in UNESCO who made the Forum such an interesting event.

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Why the notion of “frontier technologies” is so problematic…


The term “frontier technologies” is increasingly being used to refer to the latest generation of technologies, especially digital technologies.  It is often also associated with the deeply flawed concept of a “fourth industrial revolution”.  The UN in particular has latched on to “frontier technologies”, mainly in the context of the impact of  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, as for example in the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination’s series of papers on Frontier Issues, and UN DESA’s Economic Analysis and Policy Division’s work on Frontier issues: the impact of the technological revolution on labour markets and income distributionSadly, much of this work is ill-informed, and reflects a particular set of interests.  Whilst there is indeed some interesting academic work on the potential of so-called “frontier technologies” for international development, as with Ramalingam, Hernandez, Prieto and Faith’s (2016) IDS report on Ten frontier technologies for international development, most such research fails satisfactorily to consider the deep problems with the notion and the interests that underlie it.

In undertaking some foresight work for UNICEF recently on the future relationship between digital technologies and learning, I had the chance to reflect on some of these challenges and interests, and I am sharing these reflections below, in the hope that readers will understand more about the implications of such terminology, and will cease to use the term!  These are the introductory few paragraphs to a section of my report for them on Technological changes over the next decade:

“Currently, much attention is being paid to the likely labour impacts of the latest ICTs, and the kinds of education that will be required to enable people to gain appropriate employment in the workplaces of the future.[i]  The term “frontier technologies” is now frequently used to describe the latest technologies,[ii] and their implications for education have recently received increasing attention.

However, the concept of “frontier technologies” is deeply problematic, as is the notion of a fourth industrial revolution.[iii]  Such terms are used largely by, or about, the “heroes” of these self-conceived revolutions, in the hope of a self-fulfilling future; they beg no critique, nor any consideration of those left behind.  For example, the notion of “frontier technologies” draws heavily on the deeply embedded idea of the “American Frontier” in which US “civilization” was forged westwards, in large part through the use of new technologies.

The Frontier is thus conceived heroically, with the “savage” Native Americans, or First Peoples, being pushed westwards, to be replaced by “civilized” people mainly of European origin, as so clearly illustrated by John Gast’s famous late-19th century picture above.  Whilst the frontier was seen as being positive for the Europeans, carrying with it images of heroism and taming of the wilderness, it was anything but that for the Native Americans.  The latest “frontier technologies” of the 21st century can similarly be seen a vehicle through which USAn-led neo-imperialism is being further enforced on “peripheral” peoples and states beyond the “frontier”.  It is therefore strongly to be recommended that such terminology is rejected by those organisations and entities concerned with enhancing education in these poorer, more deprived contexts.

At a more mundane level, one person’s frontier can be someone else’s backwater; a 2G phone may indeed be novel to someone who has never had one before, whilst even a chip implant is now becoming passé for the digital human who has everything. This section therefore seeks to avoid such terminologies, and focuses instead simply on some of the most likely implications of technological change for education in the near future.”

———–

[i] See, for example, DESA (2017) Frontier Issues: the impact of technological revolution on labour markets and income distribution, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/publication/2017_Aug_Frontier-Issues-1.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.  There is considerable debate about the likely impact of AI on labour, and employment, with the latest OECD report arguing that the potential for AI to lead to considerable employment loss has been exaggerated in the past; see Nedelkoska, L. and Quintini, G. (2018) Automation, skills use and training, Paris: OECD, DELSA/ELSA/WD/SEM(2018)3, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/2e2f4eea-en.pdf?expires=1522776823&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=A498DE4EAEA4DDCC90DBE424AFB8DB0A, accessed 3rd April 2018.

[ii] See for example, Ramalingam, B., Hernandez, K., Prieto Martin, P. and Faith, B. (2016) Ten Frontier Technologies for International Development, Brighton: IDS, https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_524607_en.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.

[iii] World Economic Forum (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/, accessed 30th March 2018.

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Global Disability Summit, London, 23-24 July 2018


It is great to be part of the Global Disability Summit being convened by DFID, The International Disability Alliance and the Government of Kenya at Here East in London, with the Civil Society Forum being held on the 23rd July and the Summit itself on 24th September.   The Summit is intended to “raise global attention on a long-neglected area, mobilise new global and national commitments on disability inclusion and showcase good practice, innovation and evidence from across the world”.  For those unable to participate in person, there is Livestreaming of the event.

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As the Summit programme notes, “The Summit is built around four themes (dignity and respect for all, inclusive education, economic empowerment and technology and innovation) and includes additional crosscutting and strategic spotlight sessions. We are building a movement of change, and we invite you all to be part of the legacy of the Summit and sign the GDS18 Charter for Change: an expression of our collective ambition commitment that unites us all”.

It is excellent to see the UK government highlighting the importance of empowering people with disabilities through this summit, and I hope that global media will give it the prominence that it deserves.  However, its impact will depend very largely on what we all do afterwards.  I very much hope that the rhetoric is indeed turned into reality.

[Note: this is a repost of a piece first published at https://disabilityict4d.wordpress.com/2018/07/23/global-disability-summit-london-23-24-july-2018/%5D

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The dark side of using ICTs in education


Much evidence has been adduced to suggest that ICTs enhance not only the quantity but also the quality of education and learning; those selling such technologies have skilfully created an atmosphere where it is usually unquestioningly assumed that ICTs do indeed have a beneficial impact.  However, the opportunity to undertake research recently for UNICEF on the future of ICT use in education provided me with the chance to explore some of the darker aspects of such use, and I summarise my thoughts here to encourage a more balanced approach to discussions about ICTs and education.

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of evidence that sheds doubt on the claimed benefits of ICTs for education, and also highlights their limitations and dangers (see for example UNICEF’s recent report on Children in a Digital World).  Four themes are particularly pertinent:

  • doubts about the overall efficacy of ICTs in enhancing learning;
  • the distractions that they provide;
  • their use for behaviours intended to harm children; and
  • the increasingly blurred interface that they create between humans and machines

Do ICTs necessarily improve learning outcomes?

One of the first major studies to examine the overall impact of ICTs on learning outcomes was an OECD report in 2012 that concluded that “Overall, the results of the estimates presented in this report point to a generalized negative correlation between the use of ICT (in terms of either intensity or deviations from the mean) and PISA test scores”. The authors were very cautious about their findings, and PISA scores are only one measure of learning, albeit a one that many governments treat very seriously.

More recently, the OECD has produced a comprehensive report on Students, Computers and Learning, that also questions the overall impact that ICTs have on learning.  This shows that the exposure of children to computers in schools varies considerably between countries and within countries.  Most significantly, though, it concludes that the use of computers does not seem to be an important factor in explaining the variation in student performance in mathematics, reading or science as reflected in the PISA scores.  The report concludes (p.15) cautiously that “the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited”.

One important conclusion from this and associated research is that if poorer countries outside the OECD invest substantially in the use of ICTs in schools there is no guarantee that it will improve traditionally defined learning outcomes.  Moreover, it seems evident that ICTs by themselves do not necessarily have a clear and positive impact on learning outcomes.

Other research has gone further and shown that many educational skills, especially relating to memory, are not as good when using ICTs as when using more traditional methods.  Kirschner and Neelan have thus reported that handwritten notes are much more effective for learning than those made using a digital device, and Mangen et al. have also shown that students who read texts in print score significantly better in reading comprehension than do those who read them digitally.  Much more research is needed about the impact of different methods, particularly with and without ICTs, on the learning achievements of children.

Mobiles as distractions

A decade ago, in the early days of mobile devices, it was often argued that bring-your-own devices could be a means of enabling schools to introduce ICTs without having to expend large amounts on hardware. Such schemes have been widely criticised because of the inequalities that they can perpetuate, but an increasing amount of evidence is available to suggest that the use of mobile devices in classrooms also has a negative impact on children’s learning, especially because of the distractions that they cause.  Much of the opposition to mobiles in classrooms comes from frustrated teachers and parents, and finds its expression in popular news media.  Headlines in mainstream media such as “Schools ponder classroom ban on ‘distracting’ mobile phones” (The Times) are increasingly common. This is closely related to concerns about the digital distractions that are now seen as harming labour productivity later in life.

There is a growing body of research that supports such general concerns.  In a ground-breaking study, Kuznekoff and Titsworth, for example, have shown in a small-scale study that university “Students who were not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones”. Likewise, in a survey of schools in four English cities, Beland and Murphy have shown convincingly that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases after mobile ‘phones have been banned, and the these increases in performance are generally driven by the lowest-achieving pupils.  As a result, they suggest that restricting mobile phone use in schools can be a low-cost way to reduce overall educational inequalities.

In the light of such general concerns, several countries have sought to prohibit the use of mobiles in schools.  In much of China, secondary pupils in boarding schools are only permitted to use their ‘phones for short periods each day, and they are not allowed to use them in classes.  Likewise, a decision by the French government to ban mobile ‘phones in school from September 2018 has received widespread publicity.  Reasons for the ban include a general concern about the health implications of children regularly using ‘phones before the age of 7, about the desirability of them physically playing in breaks rather than just being on their devices, and the perception that they cause distraction during lessons.  It is salient to note that attempts to introduce a similar ban in New York City in 2006 largely failed, and it was lifted in 2015.

The dark side of digital devices: addiction, bullying and harassment

UNICEF’s important review Children in a Digital World, highlights three forms of digital risk to children: content, contact, and conduct.  In particular, it emphasises the threats of cyberbullying, online child sex abuse and exploitation.

In most instances, when children use ICTs in schools they are usually subject to some kind of control or supervision.  However, when they are outside school, they are very much freer to use such technologies, despite the potential control measures that some parents seek to impose.  Hence, it is very easy for children to be subject to abuse or harassment from their peers and others once they have left the confines of their schools.  This raises important questions about the relative balance of responsibility between schools and parents in helping children grow up safely in a digital world.

In all uses of ICTs in education, it is essential that the highest priority should be given by schools to:

  • The secure management of children’s data;
  • Digital relationships between teachers and pupils, especially on social media;
  • Behaviours of children online, especially to one another; and
  • The potential for external individuals or organisations to influence children in their care.

Above all, though, it is essential that schools provide extensive training for children in the wise use of digital technologies, covering not only the above  requirements but also issues around critical thinking relating to information on the internet, the use of search engines, social media, privacy, and all aspects of their interface with ICTs.  These need to be balanced, and stress both the positive potential of ICTs alongside their dangers and threats.  Schools cannot do this alone, and there needs to be extensive collaboration between governments, companies, civil society, and parents, but schools are very well-placed to be the central point through which such education and training are provided.

Increasingly, national governments are providing regulations as well as guidance for schools about keeping children safe online at schools and at home.  The UK, for example, announced new measures to tackle this in 2015, requiring all schools to have in place filters and monitoring systems to prevent access to potential harmful material, and to ensure that children are taught about online safeguarding.  Many poorer countries, though, do not have such systematic regulations in place, and there is an urgent need for all governments to create systems of support for schools to help them share good practices relating to child online protection.  It is also important that examples of good practice are widely shared, and sources such as those provided by the European Commission’s Better Internet for Kids service platform, and the ITU’s guidelines on child online protection should be more widely known and acted upon.

Globally, there is insufficient awareness of the significance of many of these issues (see for example the work of the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation).  Whilst overt bullying, harassment and exploitation are becoming increasingly discussed, insufficient attention has been paid until recently on the rising impact of digital addiction on children.  South Korea, for example, sees Internet addiction as a national health crisis, with there being an estimated 2 million addicts, most of whom are children or young adults.  It is estimated that one in ten South Korean children is a digital addict and there is increasing evidence that excessive screen time is damaging developing brains.

Recent warnings in the UK likewise highlight the addictive dangers of giving children smartphones, with a third of children between 12 and 15 admitting that they have difficulty balancing their use of smartphones with other aspects of their life. A particularly worrying aspect of this addiction is the normalisation of sexting, whereby young children are convinced into believing that sending nude pictures of themselves us completely normal.  One survey reported in 2017 has suggested that around two-thirds of primary teachers said they were aware of pupils sharing inappropriate sexual material.

Responsibility for this addiction, and how best to deal with it, are topics that require detailed consideration by all those interested in education.  The design of social media platforms is thus increasingly being seen as problematic, and gives rise to considerable debate.  It has, for example, been claimed that Facebook was explicitly designed as an addictive form of social media, which exploits a vulnerability in human psychology through its social-validation feedback loop.  Others, though, see the value that such social media platforms offer, and suggest that only a relatively few people become seriously addicted to it.  Most recently, following the launch of Messenger Kids for children under 13, a group of 100 leading academics, practitioners and organisations have written an open letter to Facebook claiming that young children are not ready to have social media accounts, that it will increase the amount of time young children spend with digital devices, and that the app’s overall impact on families will be negative.

Moreover, there is also growing evidence that the recent rise in depression amongst people born after 1995 in the richer countries of the world, and especially the USA, can be directly linked to the dramatic increase in smartphone use since 2012.  Twenge, for example, has found that teens who spent more than 5 hours a day online were 761% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than were those who spent only an hour a day online.

Another general issue that requires further discussion is the use of children’s data by companies providing educational services.  All data are potentially hackable, and school generated data are often seen as being particularly vulnerable because of lax cybersecurity.  In 2017, high profile hacks in school systems across the USA brought the ease of this, as well as the damage that it could cause, to public awareness. UK school systems have also been targeted with relatively simple scams that defraud them of large sums of money. More worrying is the vast amount of data that governments and companies, such as ClassDojo, gather on a regular basis through digital educational systems and platforms, especially relating to examination performance and children’s personal backgrounds.

Cyborgs and transhumanism

A final, and much deeper, ethical question that also needs to be considered is the ways through which the use of ICTs in schools may be influencing the long-term relationships between humans and machines.  The notion of cyborgs, organisms that combine organic and biomechatronic parts and have enhanced abilities through the integration of components that rely on feedback systems, has been discussed heatedly since the 1960s. However, the rapidity of recent technological development has meant that some now see all human life as inevitably becoming more entwined with that of machines.  Elon Musk, the serial scientific inventor and business magnate, has thus argued that humans must indeed become cyborgs if they are to stay relevant in a future dominated by artificial intelligence, and he is not alone in his thoughts.  Such life-changing rhetoric requires vociferous challenging by those who do not wish to see such a future, and it is important that there is a balanced and open debate about transhumanism and the desirability of humans becoming cyborgs.

Those with pacemakers, artificial limbs and cochlear implants, are already combinations of machine and humans, and companies such as Calico, a business within the Alphabet group that also owns Google, are already undertaking research that will use technology to enable people to lead much longer and healthier lives.  Those who wear “fitbits” that transmit their bodies’ physical data to companies that then use it to generate revenue from marketing or insurance are already virtually cyborgs.  It will not be long before more people start arguing for humans to be chipped with their digital identities just like their pets, so that they no longer have to have physical biometric identity cards. Transhumanism (also known as H+) is an extreme form of such thinking that seeks to transform humans by using technology to enhance human intellect and physiology.  Companies such as Kernel are seeking to develop a wave of new technologies that will be able to access, read and write from the human brain.  Even if most people reject the extremes of H+, the general argument that ICTs should be used to enhance humans is now becoming much more widely accepted than it was previously.

This has very significant implications for education systems, especially in terms of the ways that humans store and process memory.  Children are increasingly relying on digital memories, especially access to the Internet or the memories on their digital devices.  They are also being encouraged to use their brains for skills other than merely acquiring knowledge, although good traditional education systems were never merely about simple knowledge acquisition as is often claimed.  We know that brains adapt remarkably quickly to their environments, but insufficient research has yet been done on the systematic way through which ICTs are changing brain function.

 

This is the third in a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education, and the second was on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.

 

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Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education


Exploring the future of the interface between ICTs and education for UNICEF recently provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on the conflicting evidence about the influence of ICTs on education.  Despite all of the research and evidence gathering about the use of ICTs in education, it still remains extremely difficult to know what their real impact is, and how best to deliver on the potential that they offer, especially among the poorest and most marginalised.  There are at least seven main reasons for this.

1. The time for educational change to have an outcome

Learning and education are cumulative; they take a lifetime.  Measuring the impact of education interventions is therefore fundamentally different from measuring, for example, most health-related impacts.  It is possible to inoculate populations with a vaccine, and to measure its impact almost immediately in terms of the health outcomes.  However, it is impossible to inoculate against ignorance; there is no vaccine that can guarantee successful learning.

It is therefore extremely difficult to measure the long-term significant outcome of a relatively short and novel educational intervention, such as the introduction of tablets into schools for a couple of years, without there being a consistent and long-term method of actually measuring those outcomes.  Some things can certainly be measured in the short-term, but these may not actually be the most important and significant long-term learning outcomes.  Moreover, it is extremely difficult over a long period of time to assess the precise impacts of any one intervention.  Many factors influence educational change over time, and it may be that observed learning outcomes are not necessarily caused by the specific technological intervention being studied.  Determining real causality in education is extremely difficult, especially in longitudinal studies.

Linked with this, many ICT for education interventions are specifically initially planned for a relatively short periods of 3-5 years.  This is usually the sort of duration of research grants and donor-funded projects, but it is far too short a term to enable real impacts fully to be grasped.  The pressure of reporting, and the need to show success within a short time, to seek to guarantee further funding, also has a significant impact on the types of evidence used and the ways through which it is gained.

2. Diversity of research methods: you can show almost anything that you want to

Different kinds of research lead to different types of conclusion.  Research results also depend fundamentally on what the aims of the research are.  Two pieces of perfectly good research, that are well designed within their own fields and published in peer-reviewed journals, can thus show very different results. Three particular challenges are relevant.

First, there are often very different results from short-term quantitative and long-term qualitative research.  It is relatively easy to go into a number of schools for a short period, gather quantitative data about inputs and outputs, and find the evidence to write a glowing report about the positive outcomes of an ICT for education intervention.  However, most such accounts are based on self-reporting, schools can prepare to show off their best attributes for the day of the visit, and researchers can be beguiled into believing what they hear.  In contrast, long term qualitative immersion in a small group of schools for several months can show much more clearly exactly what is going on in them, and usually leads to very differing types of conclusions with respect to ICT in education. Moreover, there is a systemic bias in much evidence-based policy making, especially by governments and international organisations, whereby they prefer large scale quantitative studies, which have apparently representative samples, to the insights gained from in-depth hermeneutic and qualitative approaches.  This tends to lead to a focus on inputs rather than outcomes.

Second, biases are introduced because of the interests of the people doing the research or monitoring and evaluation.  Many ICT for education initiatives have begun as pilot projects, either by companies eager to show the success of their technologies, or by researchers eager to prove that their innovation works.  It is perfectly natural that the ways through which they design their research, and the indicators that they choose to assess will seek to highlight the intended positive outcomes.  All too often, though, unintended consequences are ignored or simply not looked for, despite the fact that these frequently provide the most interesting insights.  Very little research on the use of ICTs in schools to date, for example, has explored the impact that this might have on online child sexual abuse, or other forms of harassment and bullying.

Third, much depends on the aims of the research.  Tightly constrained experimental design to explore, for example, how the use of a particular device influences activity in certain parts of the brain, can indeed show apparent causality.  Linking that, though, to wider conclusions about children’s learning and the desirability of incorporating a specific technology into schools is much more difficult. Much of the good quality research to date has tended to focus on relatively closed systems, where it is indeed possible to undertake more rigorous experimental design.  Much less research has been undertaken on the more holistic and systemic interventions that are required to ensure the successful adoption of new technologies.  In part, this is because of the different approaches that exist in the academic community between the physical sciences and the social sciences.  The aims of research in computer science or mathematics are, for example, often very different from those in sociology or the humanities.  This reinforces the need for there to be much more emphasis on multi-disciplinary research for there to be clearer conclusions drawn about the overall impact of ICTs in education.  Moreover, much of the experimental research, for example using Randomised Control Trials, has been undertaken in the richer countries of the world, and all too often conclusions from this are then also applied to poorer contexts where they may well not be appropriate.

3. Transferability and context

There is considerable pressure to identify solutions that can work universally, and it is a natural tendency for people to hear of something that has appeared to work in one context and then try to apply it to another.  All too often, though, they do not realise that it may have been something very specific about the original context of the intervention that made it successful.  The pressure for universal solutions has in large part been driven by the interests of the private sector in wishing to manufacture products for a global market, and also by donors and international organisations eager to find universal solutions that work and can be applied globally.  All too often the reality is that they cannot be applied in this way.

4. The diversity of technologies

Many contrasting ICTs are being used in education and learning in different contexts, and it is therefore not easy to make generalisations about the overall effectiveness of such technologies.  The use of an assistive technology mobile app, for example, is very different from using a tablet to access the internet.  Determining exactly what the critical intervention is that can benefit, or indeed harm, learning is thus far from easy.  Indeed, because of this diversity, it is actually rather meaningless to talk about the overall impact of technology on learning.

5. The focus on inputs

Inputs are much easier to measure than are real learning outcomes.  Indeed, performance in examinations or tests, which is the most widespread measure of educational success, is only one measure of the learning achievements of children, and may often not be a particularly good one.  Most studies of the application of ICTs in education therefore focus mainly on the inputs, such as numbers of computers or tablets, hours of connectivity, amount of content, and hours of access to the resources, that have been implemented.   They show what the funding has been spent on, and they are relatively easy to measure.  Using such data, it is possible to write convincing reports on how resources are being used on “improving” schools and other learning environments.  This is one reason why governments often prefer quantitative studies that measure and represent such expenditure, since it reflects well on what they have done in their term of office.

However, it is extremely difficult to link this directly and exclusively to the actual learning achievements of the children, not least because of the multiple factors influencing learning, and the great difficulty in actually proving causality.  All too often a dangerous assumption is made.  This is that just because something is new, and indeed modern, it will be of benefit to education.  There have been far too few studies that seek to explore what might have happened if the large amounts of money spent by governments on new ICTs had actually been spent on some other kind of novel intervention, such as improving the quality of teachers, redesigning school classrooms, or event putting toilets in schools.  What evidence that does exist suggests that almost any well-intentioned intervention can improve the learning experiences of teachers and pupils, primarily because they feel that attention is being given to them, and they therefore want to respond enthusiastically and positively.

6. Success motives

One advantage that ICTs have in this context is that they are seen by most people as being new, modern, and an essential part of life in the 21st century.  Parents and children across the world are therefore increasingly viewing them as an integral and “natural” part of any good education system, regardless of whether they actually are or not. The myth of modernity has been carefully constructed.  The motives for success of those advocating their adoption in education, may not, though, be strictly to do with enhancing education.  The need to show that ICTs contribute positively to education, and thus the results achieved, may not actually be driven primarily by educational objectives.  Politicians who give laptops with their party’s logos on to schoolchildren are often more interested in getting re-elected than in actually making an educational impact; technology companies involved in educational partnerships are at least as likely to be involved because of the opportunity they offer to network with government officials and donors as they are because of any educational outcomes.  The key point to emphasise here is that monitoring and evaluation studies in such instances may not actually be primarily concerned with the educational outcomes, but rather with the success anticipated by those with powerful interests, and should therefore be treated with considerable caution.

7. Monitoring and evaluation: a failure of funding, and reinventing the wheel

A final reason why it is so difficult to interpret the evidence about the impact of ICTs on education concerns the general process of monitoring and evaluation of such initiatives.  All too often, insufficient funding is given to monitoring and evaluation, regular self-enhancing monitoring is not undertaken, and any thinking about evaluation is left until the very end of a project.    A general rule of thumb is that the amount spent on monitoring and evaluation should be around 10% of total project costs, but those seeking to use ICTs for education, particularly civil society organisations, often argue that this is far too high a figure, and that they want to spend as much as possible of their limited resources on delivering better education to the most needy.  All too often, monitoring and evaluation is left as an afterthought near the end of a project at the time when reports are necessary to convince funding agencies to continue their support. If good baseline data were not gathered at the beginning of a project, particularly about learning attainment levels, then it is not possible to obtain accurate evidence about the real impact of a specific piece of technology.

A second main challenge with monitoring and evaluation is that practitioners and researchers often seem to reinvent the wheel and develop their own approaches to identifying successes and failures of a particular intervention, rather than drawing on tried and tested good practices.  As a result, they frequently miss important aspects of the rather different processes of monitoring and of evaluation, and their work may also not be directly comparable to the evidence from other studies.

Implications

One obvious implication of the above is that we need more independent, multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral and longitudinal research on the use of technology in education.  However, all research will represent the interests of those involved in its commissioning and implementation, and needs to be treated with the circumspection that it deserves.

A second important conclusion is to question the validity of much so-called evidence-based policy making in the field of technology and education.  If research evidence is based upon a particular set of interests, then it is logical to suggest that any policy based on it will in turn also reflect those interests.  Such policies can never be purely “objective” or “right”, just because they claim to be based on evidence.  Indeed, a strong argument can be made that policies should be based upon visions of what should be (the normative) and not just what is (the positive).

 

This is the second of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.

 

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Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation, poverty, Uncategorized