Technology, equity and a networked approach - RSA

Technology, equity and a networked approach


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Jay Allnutt FRSA responds to the RSA ANZ blogging challenge, hosted in collaboration with 92Y as part of the Seven Days of Genius Festival. Jay tackles the issue of the digital divide and calls for technology to play a transformational role in education through democratisation.

The great risk of our new technological age is that we drive a wedge between the haves and have-nots, which exacerbates existing inequalities.

The digital divide, for example, means that, while in many countries access to the internet is ubiquitous, in reality, the internet is experienced very differently between groups. It makes a huge difference for instance whether you have your own device to access the internet, or have to share, and also how good that device is. Facing such inequality, we risk accelerating progress for those that have, with others left further and further behind.

The nature of social challenges, including inequality, is that they are complex, very large and emergent. They are the result of multiple and complex, interrelated factors, which create both predictable and unpredictable outcomes.

In the past we have created institutions that attempt to correct for these complex issues. We have created a welfare state to correct for 'squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease', public education to upskill the nation, religion to nourish souls and provide direction, and many others.

Modern technologies offer vast opportunities to improve these existing institutions. Across them all, we have greater targeting of more effective, more efficient tools, and know more about how they perform in relation to our desired outcomes. We can access and share this information in real time, and can collaborate rapidly to iterate faster, continually driving progress.

But have we really questioned the fundamentals upon which this technological progress is taking place? Have we realigned our values and expectations about what the world can be, in a way which is going to direct our technological efforts productively?

In education, digital technologies have become entwined with schooling. With tablets in the classroom, access to 3D printers, coding in the curriculum, wifi across school campuses, teaching and learning and the spaces in which this takes place have evolved. But in large part these efforts are feeding into the existing model of schooling, which was founded in an age quite different in needs and potential from our own.

That's not in itself new thinking. Many people are challenging the existing school order. Many have called for a new focus on '21st Century' skills and competencies, which is being embraced through modern learning environments, problem-based learning and other forms of innovation.

Yet we can get confused between purpose and pedagogy. By 'purpose' I mean 'why' we educate, by 'pedagogy' I mean 'how' we do it, and 'what' we do. Much of the focus on technology in education to date has been about the former rather than the latter; the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. We have in many cases augmented how and what we do in education, but have not yet returned properly to the fundamentals of why we invest so much in educating.

Here is where technology can play a transformational role beyond augmenting our existing, imperfect system, which perpetuates inequality. The greatest opportunity of technology for educational equality is democratisation through accessibility, personalisation, transparency and ownership, principles which align with the theory of networks.

Here democratisation means fostering meaningful, open, informed and genuine debate and discussion between people. This is made ever more possible through increased accessibility of information, which means a more personal set of services, which is not controlled or filtered by anyone, and that provides me with greater ownership over my own life.

It is likely that technology will advance as the greater forces of society and 'the market' drive it to. So in the midst of this rapid evolution, we should focus our attention on purpose. The question for us, as a society, is why do we educate? What do we want people to achieve through education? How should success be defined for the purposes of education?

For education we shouldn't start with the question of what or how we educate, but why we are educating, and use technology to deliver on that. More concretely, the question is not skills vs knowledge? vocational vs academic? modern environments vs traditional? Instead, it is ‘what is our purpose in educating’?

Technology is non-teleological so can’t answer this question, but it is providing amazing possibilities to deliver on a broader democratic promise. How it is doing so is not in the most obvious ways – laptops in the classroom, focussing on 21st Century Skills, teaching kids to code etc. – but in ways that are encouraging us to think in a networked way, in and beyond schools, increasing accessibility, personalisation, transparency and ownership. These in turn grow the potential for us to deliver on an education system that genuinely liberates all.

If our aim is for education to liberate, we must recognise that our existing system doesn’t deliver for all, but that technology can help it to do so, once we have reaffirmed our purpose.

Jay Allnut is chief executive of Teach First NZ: Ako Mātātupu, a charity working to address the systemic causes of educational inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand. He is a former secondary school teacher in London, and holds Masters degrees in philosophy and in economics, and is a doctoral student in the school of Critical Studies in Education at the University if Auckland. His doctoral research is focussed on the purpose of public education and the changing nature of schooling, teaching and learning. 

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