UNESCO recently published a report that warns of the lack of appropriate governance and regulation of technology in education. The Global Education Monitoring Report calls for a “human-centered vision” where digital technology serves students and educators instead of detracting from the educational process.

The report is titled, ‘Technology in Education: A Tool on Whose Terms?’ It finds that technology can frequently be used “to plug a gap,” with no regard for the long-term costs for national budgets or indeed children’s well-being. As technology is increasingly used in education, the report urges policymakers and educational stakeholders to reflect on whether technology is 1) appropriate; 2) equitable; 3) scalable; and 4) sustainable.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, claims that we need to “keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers”. She goes on to highlight that “online connections are no substitute for human interaction”.

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The report claims that some education technology can improve some types of learning in some contexts. However, it warns that learning benefits disappear if technology is used in excess or if it replaces a qualified teacher. It quotes the example of Peru, where over 1 million laptops were distributed without being incorporated into pedagogy, and as a result, learning did not improve.

The report also shows that smartphones in schools have proven to be a big distraction to learning and that the use of smartphones has had a negative impact on learning in 14 countries. Yet, the report claims that fewer than one in four countries has banned smartphone use in schools.

The UNESCO report also tears into the inequity that is still very common when it comes to student access: technology offers an education lifeline for millions but excludes many more. The report shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least half a billion students worldwide missed out on education as schools shifted to online learning. The poorest and those in rural areas were affected the most. The right to education, it claims, “is increasingly synonymous with the right to meaningful connectivity.” The report highlights that globally, 60% of primary, 50% of lower secondary, and 35% of upper secondary schools are not connected to the Internet.

One of the most interesting findings in the report is that there is a lack of robust evidence on digital technology’s added value in education. “When the evidence only comes from the technology companies themselves, there is a risk it may be biased,” the UNESCO news release said.

For example, in the UK, 7% of education technology companies had carried out randomized controlled trials, and only 12% had resorted to third-party certification. According to a survey of teachers and administrators in 17 US states, only 11% used peer-reviewed evidence prior to adopting technologies for education.

The report highlights that technology is developing at such a pace that education systems are struggling to adapt. Yet, particularly with the growth of generative AI, the importance of digital literacy and critical thinking cannot be overstated. The report further calls for staying focused on basic literacy, which, it argues, is critical for digital application as well. It claims that, for instance, “students with better reading skills are far less likely to be duped by phishing emails.”

The report underscores the importance of learning to live both with and without digital technology, to take what is needed from an abundance of information but ignore what is not necessary, and to let technology “support, but never supplant, the human connection on which teaching and learning are based”. The focus should be on learning outcomes, not digital inputs. To help improve learning, digital technology should be “not a substitute for but a complement to face-to-face interaction with teachers.”

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