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Getting the digital balance right

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Neil Selwyn for the Australian Financial Review.

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Education is often criticised for failing to keep up with digital developments. However, digital technologies are now a key feature of the educational landscape. It is 40 years since micro-computers first entered the classroom, and students have been searching Google since the late 1990s.

The days are gone when schools could be accused of not making enough use of new technology. Instead, Australian education now faces a more complex ‘digital dilemma’ – how can schools make smarter use of technology?

Schools are now expected to use a range of sophisticated technologies, with new applications being developed all the time.

Some students are already combining face-to-face and online classes, with small numbers attending fully ‘virtual schools’. Data-driven ‘learning analytics’ is being used to monitor students’ performance and individually tailor their studies. At the same time, AI-driven chatbots and ‘pedagogical agents’ are available to offer support and guidance to students at any time.

All of these trends look set to continue throughout the 2020s. The upcoming challenge for Australian schools is working out ways of making appropriate use of these technologies, while retaining the best aspects of traditional ‘human’-centred education. Yet they need to balance this by ensuring students are prepared for living and working in an increasingly complex digital age. None of these issues will be easy to address.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Australian schools over the next decade will be pushing back against excessive digitization.

Indeed, the rise of AI technologies means that it will soon be possible to have completely automated schools. Roll-calls can be taken by facial recognition systems. Students can be taught through data-driven ‘personalised learning systems’. Essays can be marked by ‘robo-grading’ software.

While these technologies require classroom facilitators and technicians, the need for highly trained expert teachers is no longer strictly necessary.

So, is this what we want? The idea of automated ‘teacher-proof’ schooling might appeal to some, but we are already seeing the downsides of fully digital classrooms.

Last year, the imposition of computer-based learning systems prompted mass walk-outs in some US school districts. Students and parents were protesting at what they perceived as excessive use of technology at the expense of human interaction with teachers and classmates.

Schools therefore need to strike a careful balance between digital and non-digital approaches – using digital systems to free expert human teachers up to teach. Despite the hype surrounding AI, we need to remember that human teachers can bring inspiration, interaction and spontaneity to classrooms in a manner that automated systems will never be able to replicate.

AI should certainly be adopted to automate aspects of schooling that are of no educational importance. There are many procedural and bureaucratic tasks where keeping humans in the loop makes little sense. As the Oxford University philosopher Luciano Floridi reasons, “we should make AI’s stupidity work for human intelligence”.

Alongside learning with digital technologies, a second concern is how schools can help students learn about digital technologies. While it might appear that younger generations are somehow ‘born digital’, schools continue to have an essential role in supporting students’ capacity to live and work with emerging technologies.

We need to move beyond the idea that schools are simply places where young people are ‘taught’ digital skills. It is increasingly difficult to second-guess what specific skills might be relevant in even a few years’ time.

Instead, schools are places where young people can be supported in developing digital understandings, competencies and dispositions that will hold good regardless of future digital developments.

For example, we know that schools can be great places for young people to experience forms of digital technology use that they otherwise might not encounter. Recent success stories include efforts to help Australian primary students to learn coding and robotics. Future areas might include using schools as places where young people can be supported to learn how to think and work alongside semi-intelligent machines.

Schools also offer great opportunities for young people to develop their capacity to navigate the various digital complexities and harms that we now face. Recent examples include the rise of online misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

These are issues that few people would have foreseen 10 years ago, but have become crucial areas of ‘digital literacy’ that we all have to develop. Schools can be ideal places to ensure that all young people are prepared for such challenges.

This all suggests that we should not give up on the idea of ‘school’ as an important feature of Australia’s progression into the digital age. Instead, policymakers, parents and education professionals need to be confident in giving schools flexibility in how they choose to make use of digital technologies, and also when they decide not to use technology.

This requires an Australian curriculum that is digitally innovative and ambitious. It also requires moving schools away from narrow concerns over ‘cyber-safety’ education, and instead developing areas such as ‘digital citizenship’ and ‘critical digital literacy’.

Above all, this involves trusting schools to be making appropriate uses of powerful digital devices. Rather than banning smartphones from the classroom, schools need to be free to make smart use of the everyday digital tools they have at their disposal.

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Getting the digital balance right

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