When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, it marked one of the most revolutionary technological developments in human history. Gutenberg’s invention allowed for the universalisation of knowledge and the rapid spread of new ideas. However, whenever an artefact serves to disseminate both good and bad ideas alike, it cannot be considered an absolute benefit.
For better or worse, technology intervenes in most, if not all aspects of our lives. When it comes to the link between education and technology, there are at least two important considerations to make. How can schools and teachers help students improve the outcomes of their use of technology? What are the ways in which technology can support teaching and learning more effectively? We address these and related questions in our latest Trends Shaping Education Spotlight.
The first question revolves around what students should learn in a world that is increasingly influenced by technology. A common response consists in focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). This makes sense from a labour market perspective, considering the current and projected growth of sectors such as biotechnology, computer science and software, renewable energy or medical and personal care. Yet a narrow focus on STEM learning may not be enough.
There are multiple paths to STEM occupations that don’t require qualifications in STEM; and even the most technologically advanced industries require workers with strong mixes of skills, including social and emotional skills, and multilingual and multicultural competencies. Addressing gender-based prejudices and stereotypes is a particularly crucial issue, as these prevent many girls and women from engaging in STEM education and careers.
When thinking about the future of work, it is important to bear in mind that current students might be preparing for jobs that do not even exist yet. OECD projections show that in less than a decade, computers will be capable of performing tasks carried out daily by more than 50% of today’s workforce. We must therefore pay greater attention to life-long learning and rethink the links between education and work, in order to articulate a whole-of-society effort that guarantees access to skilling, up-skilling and re skilling opportunities.
A number of issues related to personal and social development emerge in a heavily digitised world, as well. Technology creates opportunities and risks alike. For example, wider access to information eases learning, but it also enables the spread of low-quality and unreliable information. The use of social media makes it easier to connect with friends at any time, yet it simultaneously exposes a great deal of personal data to unwarranted use, and facilitates more pervasive forms of bullying and harassment.
Students across OECD countries need to develop resilience to these risks. It is important to support their engagement in and motivation towards positive ICT uses, and their development of strong digital skills. Enabling strategies, rather than bans and limitations, is the most effective way for students to deal with risks both at home and at school. Fairness is a key consideration here, as schools might have to compensate for students who do not receive such support at home.
Apart from education on using technology, how can education systems harness technology to improve teaching and learning? Adaptive learning systems are one example of impressive advances in so-called “edTech” applications. Increasingly reliant on big data, these systems support students in managing their own learning experiences with more autonomy, and free up time for teachers to better plan, prepare and develop classroom activities.
Another example is the use of increasingly sophisticated virtual environments such as games, simulations and virtual worlds. These provide low-cost opportunities for more situated and collaborative learning, sometimes where they did not exist before – think of home-schooled children accessing virtual labs through virtual reality devices.
Despite the inherent potential of such technologies, putting them to work depends on finding the right interplay among the different elements that influence student learning. These include learning goals, available technologies, students’ prior knowledge and learning needs, and the context in which teaching and learning develop.
In this respect, different forms of ICT use, digital skills and attitudes towards technology are as important for students as they are for teachers. Using technology effectively in the classroom requires teachers to have access to training, practice and peer collaboration, in order for them to coherently integrate integrate content, technological and pedagogical knowledge.
Ultimately, technology reflects and even amplifies what happens in everyday life – whether in our personal, professional or civic capacities. Positive technology use is built on skilled users who anchor their practice in ethical attitudes and behaviours, and education has a lot to say about that. As the technology philosopher Jaron Lanier says about the printing press, “people, not machines, made the Renaissance”.