How to Design Future-Proof Education Systems?

(Source: World Innovation Summit of Education)

In different moments of the 20th century, we have witnessed various trends in technology that promised to “revolutionize” education. Nothing can be more charming than watching children learning by themselves only with the use of technology. This techno-enthusiasm is connected with good intentions such as reducing inequalities, enhancing learning opportunities, enabling self and lifelong learning, etc. However, it is fair to say that the interest has also been driven by vendors and others interested in selling devices, content, software, connectivity, or simply, influence. Some examples can be found with the educational television, educational CD-Roms, smart boards, massive open online courses, and now, apparently through artificial intelligence. All of them are presented as “silver bullets” that in different moments have promised to transform the education sector.

Today, the education market is very big and the interest to improve education in every country is arguably one of the top priorities of any government (likewise many international organizations). Thus, what is at stake is far from insignificant.

After revising hundreds of research papers in the field, in a large number of cases, the adoption and use of education technology has mainly focused on technological deployment and not necessarily on the other dimensions that need to be taken into account when technologies land in classrooms. Therefore a large volume of research and public policy impact evaluations focus on the following question: What is the impact of technology in learning? Unfortunately, the other dimensions (e.g. social, organizational, political, and contextual factors) are rarely considered (or controlled) in these studies. As a consequence, the result that we see most often is that the deployment of new technologies by itself does not lead to a clear impact in learning outcomes. Even worse, there are a number of studies that show that large exposure to digital technologies without support and guidelines might lead to worse performance results versus those who do not use it at all.

We may ask ourselves why it is so difficult to identify the impact of technology as a driver for change. How can these tools help us transform educational systems that resist embracing the transformations required in the current century? As Clay Shirky rightly says, “A revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools. It happens when society adopts new behaviors”. This is probably one of the most relevant reasons to explain why it is so difficult to see radical transformations only within the field of education technology.

After having worked with dozens of countries in this field, I suggest taking into account at least five critical dimensions before planning the implementation of education technology or when preparing an assessment of the impact of these tools.

1. Providing pre-established educational content will be less relevant than facilitating and promoting their connection and combination with different sources of knowledge and information (within and outside the educational program or curriculum).

2. When transitioning to new technology, learning how to teach with technology regardless of the context is pivotal. Digital and peer based pedagogies are a good starting point.

3. Understanding that traditional divisions of knowledge are not suitable within the digital landscape. It is critical to develop new ways of thinking such as network literacy, computational thinking, collaborative problem-solving, inquiry based learning, among other multi-literacies.

4. If you want to understand the role of technology, you can’t keep using the old fashioned instruments to assess learning. Keep in mind that digital devices go beyond disciplines, contexts and ages. It is necessary to be equally innovative in the adoption and creation of instruments for assessing new forms of learning. This also applies to adopting alternative forms for recognizing informal learning.

5. Learning happens all the time and everywhere (even if we don’t know how to measure it). The use of education technology at home differs from that in the classroom. It is necessary to overcome physical limitations of formal learning. Today’s learning can take place anywhere, anytime and almost with anybody. So the best cognitive tool that educational systems can develop is learning how to explore new questions at an individual and collective level regardless of the environment.

In any case, I am optimistic in the long run. We are confident that we will finally learn that we have to innovate not only in the adoption of devices but also in the assessment of new forms of learning. We also envision that sooner rather than later that the education system will keep moving from an encyclopedic to a more flexible system focused on critical thinking, promoting multi-literacies as well as social-emotional skills. We hope that a new generation of decision-makers will resist the temptation of relying only on artificial intelligence and other new gadgets and will help design long-term innovations in their education systems that can be seriously future-proof.