Why Education Systems Must Adopt a Tech-Inclusive Perspective

Technology Policy Digital Government

Why Education Systems Must Adopt a Tech-Inclusive Perspective

Posted on: 15th June 2021
Alexander Iosad
Policy Lead, Digital Government Unit

The trade-off between quality and scale has always placed a limit on what is possible in education. We know, for example, that substantially smaller class sizes or, better yet, one-to-one tuition lead to better outcomes, but the cost-benefit analysis rarely works out in favour of policies making this possible at a national level. The technology revolution offers, for the first time, the chance to overcome this barrier. To be fit for purpose in the 21st century, education systems need a fresh perspective on the opportunities technology affords.

Making the most of these opportunities matters because access to world-class quality in education is highly unequal and linked to wealth. This is true for international comparisons, where learning outcomes are positively correlated with GDP per capita. It is also true when looking at differences within any individual system. In England, for example, disadvantaged students finishing secondary school are 18.1 months behind their peers in learning, and schools with the most deprived student bodies are much more likely to be found in need of improvement by the national standards regulator, Ofsted.


Under Pressure

Closing this gap is both an economic and a moral imperative and should be at the heart of policy efforts in the Covid recovery. Education systems will have to face up to two key trends: rising demand and changing student expectations. To be fit for purpose, they need a credible way to cope with both.

On the demand side, demographics and improvements in access are putting systems under unprecedented pressure. Global enrolment in tertiary education is projected to more than double in the next 20 years, far outpacing population growth. Meeting this demand with brick-and-mortar institutions would mean building the equivalent of ten to 20 new universities a week. As for schools, by 2050, there will be almost 2 billion more people with at least upper secondary education.

These learners will also come with a different set of expectations. Education used to be a public good that was only available to a select few. Thanks to the parallel expansion of access and increase in costs, it is now a private investment for many. As a consequence, students want to see a higher-quality experience and a return on that investment. At the same time, changes in the world of work – the tech revolution and the accompanying rise of the gig economy – are driving a well-attested shift in the mix of skills future workers need to acquire. There is a particular premium for a set of skills, ranging from resilience and adaptability to communication and teamwork, that are undertaught in traditional education.

Rising to the Challenge

Technology both drives this change and is a necessary part of the solution. The education technology debate tends to revolve around two positions: "tech-first", with technology replacing or dramatically reducing the role of educators, pitted against "pedagogy-first", where the role of technology is limited to the enhancement of existing teaching methods. The Covid experience highlighted how inadequate this framing is.

Instead, we believe there is a need for a form of education that is tech-inclusive. In this post-digital perspective, a clear understanding of the context (including the scale required) and purpose (including the need to meet new expectations at the right level of quality) of education is what drives decisions about pedagogy. This, in turn, includes decisions about which technologies to use and for what. Because they are driven by context, they would differ across systems. The goal of education policy should be to create an environment where those decisions can be freely made, and remade, as needs and circumstances evolve.

Over the next few months, we will be looking at factors that influence governments’ ability to leverage technology in making education systems fit for purpose – that is, marrying quality with scale and remaining relevant to changing learner expectations. We believe that examples of this already exist in silos of best practice. The purpose of our project is to highlight how tech-inclusive education is meeting the twin challenges of scale and changing expectations; to understand the barriers to its wider adoption; and to propose a guiding framework for radical and pragmatic policy solutions that remove or reduce these barriers in any given education system.

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