The digitalisation of education: sharing innovative and critical research for more equitable policy
Moira V. Faul (Executive Director, NORRAG) and Anna Numa Hopkins (Policy Engagement Lead, NORRAG) introduce a new publication that shares under-represented expertise on the digitalisation of education. The publication draws on diverse disciplines to distill learning for a broad audience about how digitalisation is impacting education policy making and governance, teaching and learning, and educational experiences and systems globally.
In the phrase “digital education” or “digital learning” in English, the “digital” comes before the “education” or “learner”. The authors who contribute our new publication – Policy insights: The digitalisation of education – counsel against this prioritisation.¹ They emphasise that education and learning are the goal; digital tools may support reaching that goal – more or less; in certain ways and contexts but not others; for certain learners and at certain ages but not others.
Technology and infrastructure always come wrapped in the mantle of progress and modernity. Yet, the direction of progress is rarely critically addressed in the spaces where expertise about technology and education meet – often on unequal terms. Frequently, we feel what Felicitas Macgilchrist calls the “cruel optimism in EdTech”,² that is, when the object of desire blocks one’s flourishing rather than contributing to it.
The introduction of technology into education has never – alone – solved the problems that education faces; it has added new ones and reconfigured old ones. There is no doubt that recent processes of digitalisation have transformed education – and will continue to do so – in ways that are evolving, complex, and often seem to outstrip our ability to understand and analyse them. COVID-19 brought about catastrophic disruptions and new formations in teaching and learning under circumstances of global emergency, which accelerated the pace of this change. The pandemic has also accelerated and entrenched multiple inequities, or “digital divides”, and the processes of marginalisation and exclusion that we have long known permeate the uses of technologies in education.
While many of the themes addressed in this collection are not new, they are changing: encoded in more complex ways, and expressed along diverse social, economic, political, cultural and ethical dimensions. We need both innovative research and policy responses to how digital actors and processes play expanding roles in education systems and schools, in teaching and learning, in the governance of education, and in the development and implementation of education policies. Digital systems – and the powerful private actors that own them – now play a key role in the management of education, as well as in pedagogy, and the formulation and evaluation of policy.
Despite resurgent interest in technology, many areas that are critical to understanding the digitalisation of education remain under-studied, and the evidence that does exist remains under-shared. In particular, research investment and policy agendas have failed to respond to the unevenly distributed impacts of digitalisation, both globally and within countries. While the most marginalised feel the negative impacts of the “digital turn” most keenly, we know the benefits are reaped by the most privileged.
Our intention is that this publication helps build and share with a broad audience – including those from academia, governments, civil society, international organisations and foundations – new visions for and pathways towards a more equitable future for digital education. We are proud to have worked with over 20 authors whose keen critical insights shed new light on how we understand and address the implications of digitalisation for education policy and practice. This includes the relationship between citizenship and digital education; the role of datafication, evaluation and surveillance; financial markets and the privatisation of education systems; and critical issues in diversity, inequalities and digitalisation. We also map an urgent research gap at the intersection of health, education and technology.
In addition to considering how humans should interact with technology and how to teach them to do this more productively,³ more attention needs to be paid to how technology products and industry are structuring human choices and making it harder (not easier) to “click wisely”. As well as asking what human skills should be developed, we must also ask how it could be otherwise, and work towards that more productive vision.
Dr Moira V. Faul has served as NORRAG’s Executive Director since April 2020. She previously worked as Deputy Director of the Public-Private Partnership Center at the University of Geneva, and was also Visiting Professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID) in 2019 and 2021. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and a teaching qualification from the University of Oxford.
Anna Numa Hopkins is NORRAG’s Policy Engagement Lead and manages our policy dialogue work worldwide so that our stakeholders can access under-represented knowledge relevant to their work. Anna is an engagement expert and researcher focused on the intersections between research, policy, practice and advocacy. She is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at University of Warwick where she studies the politics of knowledge in higher education.
The Digitalisation of Education Blog Series highlights perspectives surfaced in NORRAG’s new report, Policy Insights: The digitalisation of education, and brings those perspectives into dialogue with others working in education policy, planning, practice and research. The series shares under-represented and innovative ideas on the role and futures of digital technologies in education.
¹ These experts also contributed to the Expert Consultations that NORRAG organised for the UN Special Rapporteur’s report: Boly Barry, K. (2022) Impact of the digitalization of education on the right to education. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Koumbou Boly Barry to the fiftieth session of the Human Rights Council. UN.
² Macgilchrist, F. (2019). Cruel optimism in edtech: When the digital data practices of educational technology providers inadvertently hinder educational equity. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(1), 77-86.
³ See, for example, UNESCO’s (2021) campaign “Think critically, click wisely”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjYhmTC3lrc&t=4s
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