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13 Jun 2023

Decolonising Data in Education: A Discussion Paper

In this blogpost, Radhika Gorur, Joyeeta Dey, Moira V. Faul and Nelli Piattoeva reflect on some dilemmas and problems with regard to the decolonisation project pursued in education. Some of the questions they raise are: How is the extensive datafication, which is a key strategy for achieving SDG4, compatible with decolonisation? Is EdTech the panacea that will dramatically increase access and quality, or a colonising force that compromises education as a project of building social cohesion?

Everyone is talking about ‘decolonisation’. There are efforts to decolonise the workplace, global health, social work, the university, journalism, the classroom, research methodology, Europe – and there is even a project to decolonise the skies. This list, generated from just a quick search on Google, demonstrates not only the current urgency that is being felt to engage with decoloniality, but also emphasises that colonisation has left enduring impacts in every sphere of life. Scholars have pointed to and critiqued the dominance of Euro-Western epistemologies and practices across the globe, and the systematic erosion and suppression of Indigenous and non-Western knowledge systems, epistemologies and ways of life.

Decolonisation requires an acknowledgement of the ongoing effects of the cultural, linguistic, aesthetic, moral and epistemic colonisation that follows the forceful occupation of lands, and an active agenda of undoing those harms. While many of us in education are becoming increasingly conscious of the effects of colonisation and the need for decolonisation, we are ourselves deeply embedded in institutions, epistemologies and practices that perpetuate the colonial project. Our very thinking has been colonised – even scholars in the global south draw upon Euro-Western theories and epistemologies to articulate issues related to colonisation, and we depend on these epistemologies and ontologies to develop strategies for addressing these issues. University performance metrics and the domination of English in the publishing provide us with little choice if we are to survive in the academe. Moreover, it is not always clear what the goals of decolonisation can and ought to be, and how these agendas are to be determined. The decolonisation project thus poses a number of dilemmas and problems even for those sympathetic to the agenda.

Currently, the global agenda in education revolves around SDG4, the major thrust of which is to improve equity and quality in education. The key strategies for achieving these aims are through extensive datafication and EdTech. With the UNESCO Institute for Statistics declaring that a “data crisis” is a key barrier to reform, the global datafication project has increased a focus on national and international assessment to monitor nations’ progress. At the same time, increasing the use of technology in education – in classrooms, in school governance and administration as well as state governance, policy and administration – is seen as the way to solve the many issues of quality and access.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs developed a single set of goals for all nations, rich or poor, irrespective of their histories and cultures. This was seen as an equitable move, with the goals couched in secular, technicist and statistical terms that are considered to spring from a universal epistemology. Similarly, a single framework of metrics for education performance data from every part of the world arranged within a global data dashboard can also be seen as an equitable and democratic form of accountability and global monitoring. However, the universal and secular impulses that drive such thinking often disregard the diversity of cultural and spiritual realities, the different worldviews, and the varied epistemological and ontological frameworks of the populations whose data are gathered and displayed on these dashboards.

International assessments such as PISA and TIMSS have already reconfigured – we might provocatively say “colonised” – education policies and practices in much of the world, including in nations that have never participated in these assessments. Increasingly, national assessments are being redesigned in the image of these international assessments, using the same statistical principles and the same analytical frameworks. To what extent are international comparative assessments appropriate and useful, particularly to nations in the global south? Are the assumptions and epistemologies that underpin these assessments appropriate to the so called “global south”, or for all populations within nation-state boundaries? Do the purposes and envisioned uses of these assessments, derived from the experiences of the global north, serve the south well? What alternatives might evolve if Indigenous and local knowledge systems took the lead in assessment and accountability, or if there was less emphasis on global comparisons?

Many nations are also embracing algorithmic governance and “smart” technologies in administration and governance. E-governance is actively promoted by international agencies in the global south as a means to overcome issues such as inefficiency and corruption in the bureaucracy. The delegation of decision-making and judgement to algorithms may result in inadequate provision for the most marginalised and disadvantaged. Algorithms tend to amplify historical disadvantage and bias. Contextual information, so critical in understanding and supporting the vulnerable, is often not considered in tech-mediated decision-making.

If data and metrics are seen as neutral, democratic and secular, technology is often seen as inevitable, and as an effective tool for efficient and fair governance and for promoting equity. However, there is clear Western and Eurocentric bias in EdTech, not least of which is the dominance of the English language in EdTech platforms. This not only upholds linguistic imperialism and mainstreams Eurocentric cultural and political ideologies, but actively denies access to non-anglophone, digitally poor citizens of the global south. EdTech also brings with it the problems of data colonialism or the extraction of commercially valuable data from ex-colonies by erstwhile colonising powers. This raises concerns, not only about economic exploitation, but also surveillance and data privacy. These issues are particularly significant in education, given that a large section of EdTech users are minors. EdTech also expands the creep of privatisation and further diminishes the role and responsibility of the state. There are, as well, larger issues to consider, such as the ways in which technologies are changing social relations, redefining professional work, mediating our sense of self and forging new “data relations”.

Is EdTech the panacea that will dramatically increase access and quality, or a colonising force that compromises education as a project of building social cohesion? What philosophies and understandings underpin these technologies, and the companies that own them? How ought we to respond to the proliferation of technologies, particularly in the global south? How might we reverse epistemic hierarchies and promote the ethical use of data?

These questions require urgent consideration, given the investments being made currently in datafication and in EdTech, particularly in the global south. Detailed empirical accounts are required to understand exactly how these technologies are assembling new forms of colonialism, so that these moves can be actively resisted.

Authors

Radhika Gorur is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Deakin University, and a Director of the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies.

Joyeeta Dey is a PhD student at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, India, and an Associate in the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies.

Moira V. Faul is Senior Lecturer at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and Executive Director of NORRAG.

Nelli Piattoeva is Associate Professor of Education at Tampere University, and a Director of the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies.

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