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Quartz Article Illustrates Promise and Limitations of Educational Technology

April 10, 2020

Last week’s Quartz article, “The Coronavirus is Reshaping Education” by Jenny Andersen describes just that. The article opens with a description of how a well-resourced private school in Italy was able to quickly convert itself into an effective on-line enterprise and follows that with an upbeat appraisal from Andeas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD.

“It’s a great moment” for learning.  “All the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that in the past they did not want to see,” he says. Students will take ownership over their learning, understanding more about how they learn, what they like, and what support they need. They will personalize their learning, even if the systems around them won’t. Schleicher believes that genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

But Ms. Andersen then pivots to a less upbeat assessment, making the point that online education is bringing some deep disparities about schooling into the spotlight, disparities that cannot be fixed by technology alone:

But as tech connects people in their homes, its limitations for learning are on display for all the world to see. The crisis has cast a bright light on deep inequalities not just in who has devices and bandwidth, which are critically important, but also who has the skills to self-direct their learning, and whose parents have the time to spend helping. It is a stark reminder of the critical importance of school not just as a place of learning, but of socialization, care and coaching, of community and shared space—not things tech has hacked too well

The article continues in that vein, offering both positive possibilities for the use of technology and flagging the inherent inequities that are exacerbated by it. In doing so, Ms. Andersen elaborates on the deep inequalities highlighted in the paragraph above:

The gap between students isn’t limited to internet access; it’s also about the power and privilege of parents. “If you are called to duty right now as a nurse or delivery person, you have no time for homeschool,” says Heather Emerson, managing director for IDEO’s design for learning group. And not every parent has the level of digital literacy necessary to help their kids shift to online learning.

Even Andreas Schleicher, who is bullish on education technology, acknowledges that it worsens the economic divide. He notes that those parents who struggle to meet the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will encounter difficulty in providing support for their children’s learning at home:

“It is clear that this will not reach everyone and it’s not just a matter of access to devices,” he says. “If you don’t know how to learn on your own, if you don’t know how to manage your time, if you don’t have any intrinsic motivation, you won’t be very successful in this environment.

This reinforces my belief that schools, especially high schools, have been given a pass on their need to engage students in learning. For too long teachers, administrators, and parents have had the attitude that schools are obligated to present a curriculum that offers each student the opportunity to learn those skills that are deemed crucial for their future success. The students are expected to possess the ability to “…learn on their own… manage their time, and have intrinsic motivation”. The fact that 47% of the high school students polled indicated they had not logged on to a course could be an interpretation that these disengaged students can’t learn or it could be an indication that they have never been given the chance to pursue studies in something that interests them.

My contention is that all children, even ones who schools brand as failures because they have not learned at the same rate or in the same way as their classmates, have an innate curiosity and, therefore, possess an innate desire to learn. If formal schooling labels them as “failures” and doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to pursue their own personal interests MAYBE technology will reduce them from the vicious circle they find themselves in.

One thing is clear to me: If education technology attempts to replicate what is in place this won’t happen. The current model of sorting and selecting could be abandoned through technology and teachers could be freed to get to know each child better and engage them in a course of study that might prepare them to gain a deeper understanding about the content that interests them most. In doing so, the students will be able to learn on their own, manage their time, and pursue content based on their own intrinsic motivation.

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