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Publications:Focus on: Will new technology ever improve education?

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Date of publication: 13 October 2015

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'Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!' – Sir Arthur C. Clarke

If there is one thing we can be sure of for the future, it is that new technology will be ever present. Indeed the promise of new technology has been with us throughout our lives, and will stay with us – even if the latest specific new technologies are constantly changing. This reality presents opportunities and challenges for all sectors of education. For the last few years, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been hailed as the next big game-changer in higher education. But who knows if they will really transform the way students learn, or the way higher education institutions are organised? And what about schools? Media savvy kids – the 'digital natives' of our time – are often more clued in than their teachers about using new technology. So can teachers harness children's seemingly natural interest in communications technology to support learning?

While some believe that technology offers a wealth of opportunities to foster learning, others point out that there has been a long history of predictions about the educational potential of technology, and these have always failed to materialise. According to Derek Muller in his video 'this will revolutionise education', this is because we confuse the learning process – which takes place inside a student's head – with the technology itself. Research shows that no form of technology is inherently superior to another in fostering learning. We don't necessarily learn better just because the technology conveying information is smarter, more attractive or more interesting. Indeed it is our imaginative capacity that helps us to learn, and that may sometimes be stimulated more by basic than advanced technology. Hence reading text may teach us equally effectively as watching a sophisticated educational video.

The way that we learn and the form in which we learn – often involving students and teachers in a classroom – has changed relatively little despite rapid technological progress throughout the last hundred years. This suggests that we should pay more attention to a finding from Eurydice's 2011 'Key Data on Learning and Innovation through ICT at School in Europe' showing that countries have been much more concerned with the provision of ICT equipment to schools than to the development of teacher skills related to ICT. Eurydice's recent report on the 'Teaching Profession in Europe' also highlights the fact that teachers consider that they have high needs in being supported to integrate ICT in teaching. Yet almost half of the countries in Europe undertake no internal or external evaluation of teacher skills related to new technology. Recent evidence from the OECD, also confirms that there have been no improvements in student achievements in countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education.

But perhaps asking whether technology will improve education is the wrong question. More important is to recognise that digital natives live with new communications technology in all aspects of their lives – blogging, sharing and creating information as easily as older generations used to talk on telephones (for younger readers, talking is what people used to do with telephones in the olden days). While there are many benefits of using new technologies, there is also the potential to do harm, and the growing number of reports about online bullying through social media bears witness to that reality. Being digitally savvy is therefore not just a question of using technology: we also need to develop an ethical and moral maturity to make positive use of technology. Can schools take up this challenge?

Technology also provides students with new opportunities to challenge and subvert education systems. Students often use new media to question what they are obliged to learn and why. Teachers may not always be prepared to answer such questions. This may result in more disengaged students – not because they are chatting over their tablets, but because school provides no answers to their questions. Engaging with these questions, however, provides new opportunities to change education in a 'viral' way with which we are not yet accustomed, harnessing the power of communications technology to rethink what needs to be learned, and how and where we learn it.

So what should we conclude from all this? Firstly, we should not assume that introducing new technology into educational environments will automatically lead to better learning outcomes. That will only happen if there is sufficient attention to supporting teachers to use new technology effectively. Secondly, it is not an option to pretend that new technology does not exist: it will be a part of our lives, and should be used in education as a powerful tool, as long as our focus remains the learning experience of our students. And thirdly, as Muller points out, 'the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the student in the social process of learning'. As this guidance requires highly skilled human beings, it is therefore quite unlikely that Arthur C. Clarke's image of machines replacing teachers will become reality any time soon.

Authors: David Crosier and Elisa Simeoni