The most thorough and up-to-date report on the use of technology in education has been released by UNESCO. It offers valuable evidence on where we are currently at with the use of digital technology in education, as well as offering guidance on how we can best move forward.
It is a massive document – 435 pages to be exact. It contains gold dust for every educator, as the benefits of getting this right and the cost of getting this wrong are huge. Don’t have time to read it all yourself? Fear not, for we have summarised the key findings for you in this blog.
UNESCO report on technology in education: The highlights
The report notes that “some argue that, in principle, digital technology creates engaging learning environments, enlivens student experiences, stimulates situations, facilitates collaboration and expands connections. But others say digital technology tends to support an individualised approach to education, reducing learners’ opportunities to socialise and learn by observing each other in real-life settings”.
So, what is it? Is technology friend or foe?
The report, although highlighting various opportunities, is pretty damning overall. We have summarised below key passages and points made in the report that relate to four specific areas:
- Evaluation issues
- Training shortfall
- Mobile phones
- Use of AI in schools
The 4 main issues with technology in education
- Evaluation issues
The report states that “research on technology in education is as complex as the technology itself”. Unfortunately, “there is little robust evidence on digital technology’s added value in education. Technology evolves faster than it is possible to evaluate”. As a result, “the short and long-term costs of using digital technology appear to be significantly under-estimated”.
One of the frustrating and complicated issues surrounding the research is based on who conducts and promotes it. Typically, companies with vested interest criticise education as “being slow to change, stuck in the past and a laggard when it comes to innovation. Such coverage plays on users’ fascination with novelty but also their fear of being left behind”.
To this end, they raise the alarm that “the growing influence of the education technology industry on education policy at the national and international levels is a cause for concern” as “not all change constitutes progress”.
- Training issues
As technology can be expensive to purchase, it is essential that if investment is made, then sufficient time, effort and funding is allocated for training. This is true for any intervention, but especially when it comes to this domain, as “teachers often feel unprepared and lack confidence teaching with technology”.
In order to help with this, “clear objectives and principles are needed to ensure that technology use is of benefit and avoids harm”.
- Mobile phones in the classroom
We have written many times about the potential negative consequences of mobile phones in education, most notably in this blog detailing its cost on learning around the world and our guide to mobile phone management for students.
It is heartening to see this observation reflected in the UNESCO report, stating that phones “can have a detrimental impact if inappropriate or excessive”. It is telling that they highlight how “mere proximity to a mobile phone device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries, yet less 1 in 4 countries have banned smartphone use in school”.
As well as the negative impact they can have of learning due to distractions, the presence of mobile phones in schools is also involved with several other issues, such as well-being, safeguarding and data protection.
As a result, it wouldn’t surprise us if, in the near future, more and more schools (and indeed countries) ban them, as “banning technology from schools can be legitimate if technology integration does not improve learning or if it worsens student well-being”.
- The use of AI in education
The report is clear about the fact that we are at the start of a crossroads when it comes to AI. Like many who wonder if we will see a seismic change in education as a result of it, they ponder “if intelligent tutoring replaces at least some teaching tasks, teacher preparation and practices will need to shift accordingly. While many technologies previously promoted as transformative did not live up to expectations, the sheer growth in computing power behind generative AI raises the question whether this technology could be a turning point”.
However, they do note that “the appeal of learning alone with chatbots may wear off quickly” and that “more evidence is needed to understand whether AI tools can change how students learn, beyond the superficial level of correcting mistakes”.
We have previously explored the use of using ChatGPT to assist students with Retrieval Practice, which led to pretty mixed (and even underwhelming) results – see for yourself on the full blog.
4 key questions to ask about technology in education
To help guide us in the use of digital technology in education, they recommend asking these four questions before adopting it:
- Is the technology appropriate for national and local contexts?
- Is the use of technology leaving learners behind?
- Is the use of education technology scalable?
- Does this use of technology support sustainable education futures?
In one way or another, digital technology is here to stay within education. But what form it takes is still up for debate.
The key theme for us that emerges from the report is that technology should try to solve a problem. It shouldn’t be the other way round, where we find some great technology then search for ways to shoehorn it into education. This will inevitably lead to the tail wagging the dog.
As education and technology become more and more enmeshed, it’s an exciting time to be in education – but also a precarious one. Hopefully, with increased time for training, consideration and evaluation, we can harness it to accelerate student learning.