Technology has the potential to close the education divide. Key word: Potential • The Register

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you – the reader – choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you’re in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

It’s up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.

This week’s motion is: Technology widens the education divide. And now today, arguing AGAINST the motion is ANDY PHIPPEN, a professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University and a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk. He has worked with the IT sector for over 15 years in a consultative capacity on issues of ethical and social responsibility. In recent years he has specialised in the use of ICT by children and young people, carrying out a large amount of grass roots research on issues such as their attitudes toward privacy and data protection, file sharing and internet safety.

I recently took part in a webinar with the British Computer Society. One of the positives I have found from lockdown is the opportunity to discuss tech policy issues from the comfort of my office in my home in Cornwall. At one point, the convener of the debate said, “While there are many benefits from online technology, the Internet does have a dark side.”

I took exception to this. The Internet has neither a dark or a light side – it is merely a collection of network and computer infrastructure that enables us to communicate on a global scale. Harm arising from online technology comes from the actions of those on it, rather than the technology itself. I would argue something similar regarding technology’s impact upon education. It does not, of itself, widen the education divide and it can, arguably, narrow it greatly through the availability of educational resources to those who might not ordinarily be able to access them.

Returning to lockdown once more, I reflected upon this while delivering a seminar on IT ethics with a group of masters students online. While the popular press frequently suggested that online delivery was a poor-quality substitute for face-to-face interaction in a classroom, myself and students sitting in rooms in the UK, Germany, France, Nigeria, India and Pakistan all discussed the nature of ethical IT and its potential for social change.

Those who were less confident in their spoken English made use of chat facilities to contribute to a debate in a way they would not have felt confident doing in a formal classroom. Others recorded the discussion so they could make notes and play it back again to further their understanding. An amazing achievement of technology, and impossible even a few years ago.

However, that is not to say that all is positive. I work a great deal with schools so I have seen varied successes with online delivery during lockdown. While some experiences were effective, others were hampered by lack of effective home technology by students. Some families would be sharing one or two devices across the household which meant it would be impossible for a child to take a device for the whole school day. Other families did not have effective connectivity, or were on data plans where an online class would be too costly with which to engage. In other situations, young people did not have sufficient knowledge, skills or confidence in using the technology, or they found it problematic and disengaged.

I feel there are two fundamental issues here – one of the availability of technology, and one of assumed knowledge. And I see these both as failings on the part of policy makers. There seemed to be an assumption that if education was to move online everyone would have both the knowledge and technology to use it. Policy makers were late to acknowledge that in some families this was not the case, and the delivering pallets of laptop computers and 4G dongles to local authorities weeks after lockdown had begun did little to address this. Giving a family a laptop and some connectivity and assuming they can “get on with it” isn’t enough.

The assumed knowledge that everyone below a certain age is digitally competent and highly conversant with online technology is also unhelpful. Lazy “digital native” narratives (a widely debunked concept) are used as excuses to not provide effective digital literacy in schools, currently spread across various aspects of the curriculum with little support for the teachers expected to deliver it. Or better still, getting the newly qualified teachers to deliver it because “they’re young and digital natives”. I have heard this from both policy makers and senior leaders in schools.

Technology has the potential to close the education divide but I am reminded once again of Ranum’s law: you don’t solve social problems with software. Social policy needs to acknowledge the potential of technology and provide effective education and affordable infrastructure in order that the population can effectively exploit it. It doesn’t happen by assumption and osmosis. ®

Cast your vote below. We’ll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate’s progress here.

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