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"Technology has the potential to solve the problems of inequality"



We recently talked to Alex Beard, director of System Change at Teach For All. Alex, who was a mentor in our 2014 edition, dedicates his time to relevant and timely projects; one such project is developing a vision for school education in the year 2030. He is an active member of the policy panel at Teach First and of Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools initiative


We asked Alex to give us his views on the future of education, a subject  both complex and compelling. As we expected, his point of view was innovative, personal and passionate.

Technology... a tool to tackler inequality of access or a source of educational elitism?

Technology has the potential to solve the problems of inequality. For the first time, any person on the planet can access higher education courses at Stanford or Harvard. In developing countries, distance learning techniques are bringing the best teachers to the hardest to reach kids. The work of Mandla Makhanya at the University of South Africa Online is a case in point, as is Urvashi Sahni’s work at Digital Study Hall, which builds on the Khan Academy model to provide in-class video support to struggling teachers in rural communities.

This possibility though depends on five key tests for equality:

·         Connection – is there universal connectivity?

·         Platform – does every person have access to a platform to get online?

·         Content – is the best and most effective content available free or at low cost?

·         Teacher – is there a skilled teacher mediating the experience for the learners?

·         Learner – does the learner have sufficient competence and motivation to log on and do the learning?

Applying these five key tests, it would appear that technology is currently increasing equality in some ways, whilst giving rise to new kinds of elitism. On the question of connectivity, it is not the case that all kids in Europe are online. Sure, most are. But that means a few aren’t; the ones that aren’t will be the ones already experiencing inequality. The same applies to the other points. However, I have great faith that because technology is quite cheap to scale, we’ll be able to achieve almost universal coverage quite soon. And then perhaps, we’ll see a huge increase in equality of access.


The automated teacher : a modern fantasy

I find the idea of an automated teacher to be the stuff of science fiction. If you look at the types of jobs that machines are taking over, they tend to include ‘routine manual’, ‘routine cognitive’ and ‘non-routine manual’. The kinds of jobs that humans are still needed to do are the ‘non-routine cognitive’ and ‘non-routine interpersonal’. For me, you could define teaching as being all about non-routine cognitive and non-routine interpersonal skills. That is what it is. Happily, in a famous recent academic paper about which jobs computers are going to take over in the next 20 years, it was found that teaching and its related activities are in the top 10% of jobs least likely to be automated.

However, I will make two concessions. First, I think that we can automate a number of things that take place in schools – the routine manual and cognitive tasks. This includes things like sending a text to a parent if their child has detention, carrying out an analysis of data at the school or local system level, or doing a quick group test and analysing the results at the end of the lesson. These things are happening already. Second, I know that advocates of Artificial Intelligence will say that soon we’ll have machines capable of non-routine analytic and interpersonal skills. If that is so, perhaps they’ll make great teachers.


The practical effects of educative innovations

Too frequently there is a divide between the creators of technology and the end users, or the key users. This means that in education you get a lot of inventions that make a lot of money for companies, and that administrators really like, but they end up adding no value on the ground for kids. One great example of this is the Interactive Whiteboard. In the UK there is one in every classroom, but there’s no evidence that it is more effective than the blackboard. It would be quite easy to run a control trial of this, and I’m surprised no one has.

[Alex Beard then recommended taking a look at the evaluation work done  at Pearson with their Efficacy Unit; at OEC we wrote a blog post a few months back on this topic.]