Education, Technology, and Educational Technology
The idea that technology can be used to improve the quality and quantity of education is not a new one. However, the idea that technology is a panacea for all educational issues has been gaining some currency only recently, especially within techno-utopian circles and among enthusiastic ‘ed-tech’ entrepreneurs and venture capital investors. Educators, however, have mostly been wary of magic-bullet solutions to entrenched, systemic challenges.
According to the Global EdTech Venture Capital Report by HolonIQ, in 2021, investments in ed-tech start-ups increased by over three times compared to pre-pandemic levels, reaching over $20 billion in funding.
The use of technology in education is now a widely talked-about subject, especially since the onset of the COVID pandemic, which forced schools, teachers, students, and families all over the world to scale up their technology adoption almost overnight. According to the Global EdTech Venture Capital Report by HolonIQ, in 2021, investments in ed-tech start-ups increased by over three times compared to pre-pandemic levels, reaching over $20 billion in funding. According to HolonIQ, the year 2021 also delivered 17 new ed-tech unicorns – start-ups that are valued at over a billion US dollars. Clearly, ed-tech is a happening space in the world of technology as well as in the world of business. However, despite all this hullabaloo, technology use in education is less often critically thought about.
Since the invention of smartphones, tablets, app stores and applications, technology use in education seems to have become such a commonplace occurrence that, for many, it is simply a ‘part of the furniture’; something that is understood as pure common sense. It is, however, important that, even as the sheer variety of technological artefacts continues to dazzle us, we take a measured approach to understanding technology use within educational contexts. Such an approach would go beyond focusing on actual technological devices and tools and include looking at the practices and activities surrounding their use.
The use of technology in education is not a neutral affair. Technology – no matter how modern or ancient – has the power to alter the meaning of educational activities as well as the social relations upon which they are dependent. These are matters that are worthy of serious discussion. However, before we can debate and discuss such issues, it is helpful to define the two most important words here: education and technology.
Education may be best understood as the conditions and arrangements required for learning to take place. Having said this, it is also important to understand that education is more than just the facilitation of an individual’s learning. There are many important aspects of education, such as the organisational cultures of schools and micro-politics of institutions, broader socio-economic conditions, workplace and household contexts, and the global economy, that are way beyond an individual student’s learning process but have an impact on it, nevertheless. It is easy to miss these complex connections when observing a classroom session, but a well-rounded view on education is difficult without paying at least some attention to these wider influences. These wider influences are also important to consider when discussing educational technology.
Technology, in a very basic sense, can be understood as the process by which we modify our surroundings to meet our needs and wants.
Any meaningful discussion of educational technology should consider education as a social system, acknowledging the linkages between it and the broader socio-political, economic, and cultural factors typically at play, including family backgrounds, income, gender, race and class.
Technology, in a very basic sense, can be understood as the process by which we modify our surroundings to meet our needs and wants. In their Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs, Leah Lievrouw and Sonia Livingstone describe technologies as artefacts and devices (the technology itself and how it is designed and made); as activities and practices (what people do with technologies, including issues of human interaction, organising, identity and cultural practices); and as contexts (social arrangements and organisational forms that surround the use of technologies). From this, it is clear that technologies play an important part in our social lives.
Given the complex relationship between technologies and social lives, it is important to take an objective view of their ‘transformative’ powers. Educational technologies, therefore, do not always (and automatically) change things for the better. They do not always make teachers more efficient or improve student learning. Educational contexts are complex and when educational activities are mediated through various technologies, they can have unexpected (and often unintended) consequences. Therefore, just as how education is to be understood as something more than the individual learner and her learning context, technologies too need to be understood beyond their impact on the individual learner.
Considering the social milieu of education and technology – and, therefore, of educational technologies – here are some basic principles to consider when planning an investment in educational technology.
• Principle 1 – Focus on specific problems to solve
Instead of taking technology as a cure-all, identify specific problems that need solving and then identify specific technologies to use. This helps in setting realistic expectations around technology use.
• Principle 2 – Tech investment must also include investment in training, support, monitoring and maintenance
Technologies do not obviously work on their own; people make it work. The amount of time and resources required to make the investment work is often underestimated. Teachers and leaders need to be trained appropriately, provided enough ongoing monitoring and support, and technologies need to be maintained on a regular basis. Without these practices in place, it will be difficult to get sustainable buy-in from teachers, and the intended outcomes from the investments.
• Principle 3 – Test, test, test
Technologies are deployed within contexts, and, if the infrastructure capacity of the given environment is weak, then results will not be achieved. It is important to test if the identified technology works within the intended context. Testing should also include the intended use-cases. If teachers do not see value, adoption will fail, and results will not be delivered.
Finally, testing should also include impact on student learning. Even if the tech works, and even if teachers end up using it, improvement in learning outcomes is not guaranteed. To ensure sustainability of tech use, it must improve student outcomes.
• Principle 4 – Get political buy-in
Change is usually difficult. For new ideas and interventions to have any chance of success, it is crucial to get buy-in from teachers and leaders right from the start. All the stakeholders concerned must recognise and appreciate the value in the proposed initiative. Without this, it is difficult to get new initiatives off the ground.
Education and technologies are not just to be understood in the context of the individual learner and her learning environment – they need to be understood as a part of a social milieu. Any meaningful discussion about educational technology will, therefore, need to consider the influences of socio-political, economic, and cultural factors that shape the broader educational reality of learners and educators alike.
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