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12 Oct 2023
Mike Douse

Shaking Free from the SDG4 Shackles

In this blogpost, Mike Douse explains how the fourth Sustainable Development Goal is now acting as a straitjacket, constraining the actions and aspirations of those seeking to confront education’s worldwide challenges through the sensitive and ingenious application of contemporary technology and Artificial Intelligence.

Before the Sustainable Development Goals came Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), focussing on universal primary education (UPE). Although neither’s global targets were realised, significant progress was achieved in many developing countries, sometimes resulting in Year 6 graduates finding neither jobs, nor training opportunities, nor secondary places awaiting them.  Moreover, those of us involved in international education at that time will recall the reluctance of major donors and development banks to support, for example, the quality of schooling, early childhood education, TVET or adult literacy.

Not everyone agreed with the MDGs, nor with their underlying philosophy. Some reported that “the current global approach to education policymaking has led to naming, shaming and blaming those countries who are seen to be ‘underperforming’, with the expectation that this will lead to them ‘beefing up their game’…  (sometimes even) placing unhealthy pressure on the learners themselves” (Lingard and Lewis, 2016). The preoccupation of educational policymakers worldwide with “benchmarks, indicators and targets (was described as) governance by numbers” (Ozga, 2012). The blanket targets were also criticised for not taking account of “educational and socio-political history, the operationalisation of schools and training institutions, and the financial investment (which) governments have been willing to make in the education and upskilling of their populations… (and) the characteristics of the labour market” (Boeren, 2019).

After much research, analyses, consultation and fanfare, the Sustainable Development Goals were born at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and their final wording, and the preamble and declaration that accompanied them, were agreed by UN member states in August 2015. The SDGs form part of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and were described as a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity (with the) responsibility shared among individuals, education and training institutions, and regulating governments” (United Nations, 2015). Unlike the MDGs, they applied to all countries – not just the developing nations – and emphasised interconnections between areas and domains, thus ostensibly encouraging intersectoral collaboration.

As far as education is concerned, they are very much a product of their time. For example, SDG4, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, has ten targets for 2030 encompassing many different aspects of education, such as:

  • ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable  and quality primary and secondary education;
  • ensuring that all youth and a substantial proportion of  adults, both men and women,  achieve literacy and numeracy;
  • building and upgrading education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all; and
  • substantially increasing the supply of qualified teachers.

Even on their own terms, actual advancement towards these well-intentioned albeit outdated targets has been unimpressive. A recent UN report acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 and noted that “only one in six countries will achieve the universal secondary school completion target by 2030, an estimated 84 million children and young people will still be out of school, and approximately 300 million students will lack the basic numeracy and literacy skills necessary for success in life”. The report argued that, to deliver on Goal 4, “education financing must become a national investment priority” and that “measures such as making education free and compulsory, increasing the number of teachers, improving basic school infrastructure and embracing digital transformation are essential”.

Only in those final four words are the glimmerings of the overall solution vaguely detectable. Only with that mention – almost as an afterthought – of ‘digital’ is there any recognition that this is no longer 2013, and that the world has changed over that last decade, and that this dramatic alteration will accelerate. Moreover, very few economies are capable of making educational investment a national priority, even were their political leaders or their electorates willing to do so. Expenditure necessary to significantly upgrade infrastructure or employ sufficient well-qualified teachers – and to pay them properly – will not be forthcoming. The futile chase in pursuit of ancient and unattainable dreams is a superfluous and damaging distraction.

Even in 2015, as progress towards the MDG was being measured and as SDG4 was being ratified, it was becoming clear to many educational planners, decision-makers, analysts, academics and commentators that contemporary technology was making both necessary and possible a fundamental transformation of education. With a growing and widespread recognition of Artificial Intelligence’s potential, continuing to assess educational progress and pitfalls from a 2015 perspective is as absurd as it is dysfunctional. The sensible and sensitive application of AI – alongside enthusiastic teachers, in convivial settings, and in harmony with post-digital society – is a giant leap away, and in a different direction from, early 21st century notions of the desirable let alone the possible.

Given that higher education should and would contribute to the achievement of all 17 SDGs, its not being prominent in the discussion is surprising but possibly linked with a lingering delusion that primary education is all. The present author has envisaged the ‘Artificial Intelligence University’ where “only the students are people. All other roles and responsibilities at the AIU… are effectively delivered by and entirely embody AI” (Douse, 2023). One noteworthy feature is that “with its ever-increasing income accruing from its research and development activities… there is no longer any requirement for fees… full-time on-campus students are now receiving not only generous living allowances but compensation for their not working during their years of study” (ibid). Apart from its other insinuations, this model vividly illustrates that the potential of AI and student (and university) financing are inter-linked, with the former potentially riding to the rescue of the latter.

Leaving higher education aside, and returning to the general education entity implied in SDG4, it remains remarkable that even that level and extent of ICT available and comprehended a decade ago was virtually ignored. Since then, AI has risen to the top of the agenda, although much of the recent discussion of its educational promise has focussed upon the threats and dangers. While addressing these pitfalls in thoughtful detail, Dr Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science at University of California and one of the world’s leading experts, concluded that “recent advances in AI are likely to spell the end of the traditional school classroom… fewer teachers being employed – possibly even none…” (Devlin, 2023). Clearly SDG4 targets do not articulate with that.

Less dramatically, this present author has emphasised that letting the learners lead should characterise education’s forthcoming, fundamental transformation. This would involve:

  • Primary education concentrating upon the enjoyable acquisition of basic skills and third millennium learning strategies, leading to a confident readiness for learning responsibility;
  • Self-directed and self-regulated learning, encompassing learner-determined curricula, becoming the prevalent educational mode, from early secondary onwards throughout life;
  • Whether in class or online, face-to-face or at a distance, teachers being enabled to come into their own in advising, supporting, coaching and encouraging (but never directing let alone failing) learners;
  • Optimum advantage being derived from universal connectivity, in the context of the duality (tangible and virtual) of contemporary consciousness; and
  • Assessment taking the form of helpful personalised feedback, confidentially to the individual learner, embodying informal testing as and when elected by that learner, as opposed to selection based upon the results of formal examinations (see Douse and Uys, 2023).

Were this situation to be desired and expected to come to pass, targets might include:

  • ensuring that all children achieve the capacity and readiness of leading their learning, including choosing their curriculum, by the conclusion of their primary/preparatory schooling;
  • ensuring that there are sufficient, suitable, up-to-date, stimulating and ever-improving learning packages known and available to learners upon demand;
  • ensuring sufficient, suitable and enthusiastic teachers available to enable successful primary completion and then to support learners, from post-primary and throughout life; and
  • ensuring that everyone, worldwide, participates in the ongoing educational process, deriving enjoyment in learning and, if and as desired, obtaining vocational and other skills and qualifications.

Alternative prognostications are, obviously, permissible. The ‘Let the Learners Lead’ and the ‘AI University’ examples demonstrate that education’s future will not be along the conventional dimensions assumed a decade ago. With the expansion of educational technology (EdTech) and, now, with the arrival of AI, nothing educationally will or should ever be the same. Just as the MDG stifled activities beyond UPE, so also is SDG4 shackling decision-makers and planners who realise that radically different approaches are both necessary and possible. No-one can be certain as to how the sector will look in 2030 but the notion that it will be similar in kind if not in quantity to that of 2015, and that its achievement may be measured in terms of such indicators as qualified teacher numbers, secondary completions and magnitude of facilities is (how shall I say it?) entirely unsustainable.

 

About the Author

Mike Douse has been involved in international education since 1964, having worked in and for over sixty countries, including, most recently, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Bangladesh, India and South Africa. Based in Wales, his assignments have been predominantly related to the European Union’s educational development support programme although he has also been involved in World Bank, UNICEF and ILO missions. Mike has been an education professor in Ghana; sometime Headmaster of Kings School, Cardiff; foundation principal of a flagship science secondary school in Nigeria; and was the first Director of Australia’s Disadvantaged Schools Programme. In addition to professional documents related to specific education programmes, his published work, with Professor Philip Uys, includes One World One School.

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