Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals depends largely on SDG4 (quality education). The transformative skills, perspectives, behaviours and unsiloed knowledge that will help us address the challenges of sustainable development, well...they won't just appear from thin air. SDG4, however, also rests largely on one thing: technology.
Technology will provide access to the education we need for a climate resilient future in a circular economy. But technology is not just one amorphous blob that can be nudged in the direction we want it to go, but rather a complex web where the sharing economy comes up against competitive interests, ROI against glaring global inequality, public against private, innovation against adoption and scalability.
Compelling research has given us the "discourses of delay"; the reasons people give to avoid doing something substantial about climate change. Techno Optimism is one of those discourses; the idea that technology will save us all, and we should put our faith in it. In the case of education, however, this might actually be the reality.
The Global Education Monitoring Report is so futuristic that it is called GEM 2023, even though we are still hanging out in 2022. It examines three systemic conditions for the success of EdTech in supporting the achievement of SDG 4, which are access to technology, government regulation and teacher preparation. Each of these will be of keen interest to progressive and socially responsible education institutions in broadening access, future-proofing delivery against a changing regulatory environment, and building staff capacity to cope with the quick pace of technological change.
Perhaps "cope" is the wrong word, for it gives an impression of trying to keep our head above water, when we can actually swim quite comfortably. Embracing technology in learning is no longer a nice-to-have. The BBC put it succinctly in their article entitled Why Digital Literacy is now a workplace non-negotiable as this skill as now as core to our functioning as members of society as literacy and numeracy.
Without access to the digital world, and the basic skills to navigate it, those who are a step behind in the global equity gap will only become further excluded. Those who express reluctance to embrace technology for the simple access to learning it can provide, at the very bare minimum, are doing a clear disservice to global attempts at dismantling barriers to social and economic participation.
Despite the point we just made above, it is not all plain and simple. Those in education institutions who have reservations about the dominance of EdTech companies in the direction of learning approaches, who ban smartphones in class and rely on "time tested" approaches. As we were once told at a Barcelona conference in 2015, where we raised the point that lectures should not be the dominant mode of learning in Higher Education, "maybe we have done it this way for 1000 years because it really works".
Somewhere in there is a good point, if deeply buried. Fear of change is a luxury we cannot allow in making decisions that critically impact our survival on this planet, but there are questions to be answered. Who created this tech and why? When an EdTech approach, device or product fails to produce real evidence of mass impact, is this because we lack the capacity to maximize its potential or because it simply does not work? To what extent does the self-interest of the creator affect the design and accessibility of the product?
How does this issue of consent stand up to new facial recognition tech, and what ethical codes govern the creation of AI? The truth is that regulation is slow in development because the tech is developing so quickly, and research tends to vary wildly between different contexts. This fuels the argument that we are just not ready to massively adopt technology in education on the scale that sustainable development requires.
Well, this is it, isn't it? Though questions about regulation must be answered (and soon!), there are several things we are already sure about.
Technology can broaden access. MOOCS, online courses at institutions, immersive metaverse learning, asynchronous classes, personalized and adaptive approaches, and access to remote populations are all things that tech can bring.
High quality content, collaborative learning across the globe, knowledge sharing and the resources to support complex problem-solving are all available at the touch of a button. How does that compare with the "time tested" approaches that, let us be blunt and honest here, have only been available to those who can afford it?
As technology advances and disperses access throughout the world, it creates new jobs, new roles, new ideas. In our world of education marketing and recruitment alone, the changes from one generation to another are huge, with a generation of metaverse natives coming into our institutions in just a few years, looking to us to meet them where they are, rather than where we were. From new soft skills in a digital environment to hard skills like coding and development, there is a whole new world open to anyone who has the keys.
GEM 2023 asks the big questions. And ok, the REAL report is coming out in 2023, and the paper we cite is just a concept note, but here are the questions it seeks to answer:
We will be watching out for the results of this report next year. It is time to really get serious about all of this. Institutions, please add your voices to this call for collaboration. We are no longer discussing whether learners should be "allowed" smartphones in class, or whether we should be obliged to use Google Classroom. The role of education is to prepare learners for the future, and to help create healthy, sustainable and thriving communities. This challenge is bigger than our fear of change, so let's get involved and meet this challenge together.