Co-developing and Assessing the Future of Education
Laura Del Vecchio
Lorenzo Herrara @ unsplash.com
As technological developments speed up at a lightning pace, the possibilities behind emerging technologies are enormous. But they can also be slightly scary.
In recent years, the current hype regarding emerging technologies —especially those within the branch of Artificial Intelligence— led to an inflation in the news that deliberately perpetuates misconceptions about what technologies can offer. AI will replace humans, AI can read our emotions, Robots can work better than us, etc. The list grows infinite.
These hyped-up claims could potentially hinder the adoption of emerging technologies in many sectors, making it difficult for education planners, school directors, etc., to decide which technologies to allocate resources to.
Currently, despite the COVID-19-induced push to e-learning and distance-learning, there is still insufficient investment, funding, and lack of targeted training in the education sector to introduce digital tools into educational environments broadly. Also, additional impairments include, according to experts, teachers’ lack of digital confidence, skepticism related to technological teaching and learning methodologies, and cultural factors as the main intrinsic barriers to adoption in the classroom.
While the introduction of emerging technologies in the classroom can bring a host of questions, the benefits behind its implementation are various. According to research, “[...] technology allows students to learn in a serene environment, it acknowledges the study of a ‘classroom experience’ without interrupting the established measure of communication, it facilitates students thought based on strengths and weaknesses, it aids the teacher to evaluate skills in a consistent and objective manner,” and many other benefits. Also, from 2021 to 2028, the global technology market size in education technology is expected to "[…] witness a compound annual growth rate of 19.9%." This means the introduction of technologies in the classroom is only expected to increase, so teachers and educational actors should promote digital skills, new didactical concepts, and appropriate learning and teaching, with the aim to prepare students for their lives after school.
Lorenzo Herrara @ unsplash.com
Lorenzo Herrara @ unsplash.com
However, the mere implementation of technologies does not mean complete success. The challenge for understanding the impact of these technological tools is intricate; there is no single answer that will provide a magic formula for all students, teachers, and schools in all contexts. Education actors involved in adopting these technologies should be cautious and go beyond research findings. If we look at only one facet of technology implementation in learning and teaching, we may derive into an incomplete assessment.
Nowadays, there are many studies being conducted that are focused on the assessment of the effectiveness of digital technologies inserted in educational environments. Although some reviews reinforce that technologies can improve learning outcomes through approaches such as gamification, many experts indicate that the link between learning improvement and the introduction of technologies in the classroom is still unclear, meaning that the interplay of EdTech and attainment may not be causal or linear.
To bridge the gap between technological developments and the sectors influenced by it, Envisioning, together with GIZ, implemented the Bold Statements workshop with the members of the Competence Center Education, TVET, and Labour Market. This workshop aims at assessing the risks, challenges, and opportunities the education sector may face while introducing emerging technologies into the classrooms and in the lives of teachers, students, school directors, and many other education actors.
The workshop was designed to assess the impact of emerging technologies in education and training systems. It was divided into two parts: one examined the technology domain Artificial Intelligence, while the other discussed the domain Extended Reality. Participants received in-depth information about these technology domains and their applications and were asked to rank bold statements to initiate the discussion. The bold statements were popular claims regarding the implementation and adoption of technologies, including utterances such as “students will be self-taught in the future.” These statements worked as the spring for discussions, where participants assessed the opportunities, challenges, and risks regarding the use of the discussed technologies in the education sector.
Due to COVID-19, schools worldwide shut down, leaving around 1.4 billion students out of the classroom. Since then, the education sector has changed considerably. More than a year after, we have witnessed a shift in schooling, where students started to undertake classes remotely and on digital platforms.
This change made some technological solutions race their development, leading to questions about whether they are ready to be applied in education and training systems.
Before the pandemic, the educational sector witnessed considerable growth in global EdTech investments, with an overall market for online education expected to reach $350 billion by 2025. This, together with the need for enrolling students in educational programs during a health crisis, accelerated the integration of information technologies, resulting in an extended online action aiming at providing alternatives to engage students and make learning even more attractive. However, even though many efforts to improve digital infrastructure were put in place, UNICEF estimates that, since school closures, around 463 million students have had their curriculums affected due to a lack of access to digital learning tools.
Federica Galli @ unsplash.com
Federica Galli @ unsplash.com
Technological solutions within the branches of Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality faced a leap in development. Technologies such as AI Mentorship Software and XR Glasses evolved considerably.
But, beyond measuring the promise of emerging technologies through their evolution in adoption, what are the biggest concerns and challenges of the actors handling these technological tools? How will these technologies affect their position and their capacity to act in the working environment? Which are the expected positive and possible (unintended) negative effects produced in the students?
No simpler question probes the nature of technology and its impact on a specific sector. The questions above mentioned, in very general terms, give us a multitude of issues involved in the quest for understanding the principles of implementing technologies and the impact on learning and teaching.
The following sections disclose the opinions of the team of the GIZ Competence Center for Education, TVET, and Labour Market about the selected popular claims (“bold statements”) regarding the application and possible impact of Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality in the education sector. Participants ranked these claims from the most to the least influential and were later invited to explain the rationale behind their decisions.
Artificial Intelligence (AI): Powering Learning
In 2021, digital technologies powered by Artificial Intelligence, including applications such as apps supporting homework like Mtabe, became widely adopted by many students, especially at universities. These solutions offer novel ways to make distance learning more appealing, surpassing some of the challenges imposed by social distancing.
- domainArtificial IntelligencedomainArtificial Intelligence
A machine-based software intelligence capable of evolving autonomously as more data is added into its algorithmic structure. In short, Artificial Intelligence is founded on the principles of constantly learning while trying to draw conclusion based on logical and numerical structures.
Beatrys Rodrigues, a senior researcher at Envisioning, recently published an article in the techDetector platform explaining the many possibilities proposed by AI-powered tools, such as AI Mentorship Software. In her words, "applications employing Natural Language Processing (NLP), for example, can change words in texts or offer alternative exercises depending on learners’ capacity skills. Pedagogical materials powered by AI can be adjusted to match the students' profile and culture." In terms of capacity skills, Rodrigues refers to skills that are yet to be developed but hold great potential of enhancing and cultivating with adapted learning materials.
- applicationAI Mentorship SoftwareapplicationAI Mentorship Software
An AI-powered program that integrates users' social and learning contexts to create a customized and curated learning plan.
However, recognizing the features of these AI tools demand an extensive analysis to assess whether these features may lead to adverse outcomes too. The table below displays the ranking arranged by workshop participants about the selected popular claims regarding Artificial Intelligence in the education sector.
The ranking led to in-depth discussions, ranging from what participants believed to be the positive and negative aspects AI developers, stakeholders, and end-users should be aware of before implementing these tools in the classroom.
According to participants' opinions, AI could surely reduce costs for education in the long term, offering more efficiency in teaching and measuring the learning progress through the distribution of devices that could support and improve learning processes. Examples range from automatically identifying knowledge gaps and answering students' questions through prompt and pre-programmed answers.
It could also lead to the inclusion of marginalized communities often lacking access to education. It could help to reach them even in regions with no internet connection and flexibly translate learning content to local languages. Many of these technologies are powered AI technology methods, such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) and computer-assisted translation stored in comprehensive databases capable of working offline. Perhaps, this decentralization process could expand the availability of learning opportunities, where education could extend beyond traditional settings within schools and reach every aspect of the students’ lives. This change in the education paradigm could also challenge the role of teachers, thus raising the demand for central authorities in the education sector to adjust the teacher training and adapt teaching methodologies to students' needs.
Yet, decentralization could only become a reality if students and teachers have broad access to the required devices and a sufficient level of digital literacy to use them appropriately. One of the significant concerns debated throughout the workshop was whether governments would invest sufficient funds to buy enough devices so that they can be introduced broadly in the public education system. If not, we may face privatization of education, challenging the current influence of public institutions, and further widening of the digital divide in the societies.
Lorenzo Herrera @ unsplash.com
Lorenzo Herrera @ unsplash.com
On the same note, attention must be put on the data generated. The personalization of learning can strengthen the relationship between teachers and students and promote overall sounder engagement among education actors by targeting more precisely students’ interests and competence level, as well as aligning individual learning demands. But, a high level of personalization means that vast amounts of data are harnessed and stored in a cloud to formulate tailored content. This could be dangerous if no strong regulations are set and implemented to prevent data from being used for additional purposes (e.g., marketing, state surveillance) or falling into the wrong hands (e.g., for criminal purposes).
An additional significant concern of the GIZ team is that AI tools may pose a threat to the development of interpersonal and social skills among children, exposing them to filter bubbles at a very early age. Children start to develop these skills since they are babies, listening to their parents and relating to other children, making eye contact, and responding to sounds and images.
Exposing students to technologies that constantly adapt the content according to their needs and replacing the human contact provided uniquely through the relationship with teachers and their peers may adversely affect the development of their abilities in, for instance, making and keeping close friends, behaving appropriately in groups, or even shielding the understanding of facial expressions and conversations.
On a more nebulous note, as personalized learning needs enormous amounts of data to work properly and target precisely the needs of each student, personalized systems can increasingly become more biased depending on the input generated. As AI-based tools are very much reliant on the information generated by society, by encoding into intelligent systems human decisions, sometimes unconscious prejudices, this can exacerbate biases, and sometimes reinforce extremist opinions and prevent students from accessing myriad opinions in public dialogue.
Although these technologies are not intended to detach caring from teaching or replace human contact with that of the machine, these are potential warnings that should be taken into consideration before implementing these tools on a daily basis. Similar to concerns related to data privacy, regulations are crucial to calibrate the outputs delivered to students and to what extent AI-powered tools should enter the classroom.
Extended Reality (XR): Building Interaction
Extended Reality technologies can make digital content vivid, enabling it to cross the borders of screens. What if classrooms start to blend information once limited to books and static images, featuring historical characters that can tell their stories to children firsthand? What if medical schools begin to train their students on human anatomy without relying on corpses but in virtual representations of the human body?
- domainExtended RealitydomainExtended Reality
Encompassing augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies, Extended Reality (XR) refers to all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables.
This is no longer an aim but a reality in some educational settings. Projects such as Veative from India are developing virtual reality solutions that enable medical students to explore real human anatomy, such as the central nervous system in entirely immersive and actionable content.
According to Beatrys Rodrigues, there are even more inputs these technologies could offer. In her recent article, she discloses how Extended Reality representations could impact students' career choices by generating graphic inputs that could be more inclusive and representative according to students’ individual realities. It could "[...] inspire the next generation of women, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) [...] feel more represented through female characters. This could encourage and increase the likelihood of girls participating in both educational and professional environments."
小谢 @ unsplash.com
小谢 @ unsplash.com
Beyond extending the availability of actionable content to students, Extended Reality could also offer more immersive experiences, helping learners better understand complex learning content as well as simulating experiments without, for instance, needing a chemistry room for doing it. In the TVET sector, for example, students and apprentices could simulate the installation of solar panels without needing to climb up a roof or other perilous activities that may put learners at risk.
In the case of professional workers, who are used to learning through hands-on experiences, Extended Reality technologies also hold immense opportunities. Expertise could be shared across any border, enhancing technical training. Also, XR Glasses could help compensate for cost-intensive purchases in machinery and consumables, preventing companies from buying expensive equipment before training their employees and from wasting processing materials during training. Beyond working environments, the same opportunities would greatly benefit hands-on practice exercises in the classroom, such as navigating through historical content in immersive ways. This technology could also be helpful if, for example, social distancing is imposed. Both classroom and training experiences could take place even in remote areas or outside of schools, allowing learners to engage with digital content almost like in physical reality.
- applicationXR GlassesapplicationXR Glasses
A wearable standalone device that allows different degrees of immersive reality experiences, from wholly inserted into a virtual space to digital content overlaid on the physical world.
However, some participants raised red flags not as apparent as the positive outcomes offered by Extended Reality. Like Artificial Intelligence, investors or those actors furnishing equipment could influence what kinds of content is displayed, possibly centralizing and limiting knowledge instead of extending it. Rather than hindering their learning experiences, these technologies should work as an expansion of users' realities.
Also, Extended Reality devices are expensive and require significant investments. Unlike Artificial Intelligence, already introduced at a governmental level, Extended Reality technologies are usually designed by startups or big tech companies, which is a considerable challenge involving data usage and protection. For instance, many Extended Reality devices designed by these companies demand their users to personally register into their platforms. This means that the actionable content generated through these devices is susceptible to data usage and protection terms set by these big tech companies. This challenge will demand collaboration between the private and the public sector, as the interests behind these companies may collide with those of the education sector. A possible solution is the cooperation of IT developers in generating inputs provided by teachers and other actors involved in learning and teaching.
Vintage extended reality
Moritz Mentges @ unsplash.com
Vintage extended reality
Moritz Mentges @ unsplash.com
On the other hand, countries lacking economic resources to allocate funds to furnish these technologies may face hardships in scaling them up in their education and training systems. This could subsequently increase the digital divide between developed and developing countries, which could, in turn, instead of bringing innovation into education, exacerbate inequalities and hinder access to technological tools and innovative learning environments.
Finally, the most significant responsibility when placing these devices in the classroom and learning environments rests ultimately with regulators. These will be responsible for promoting responsible frameworks for utilizing these technologies, increasing people's trust against misconceptions of their use, and making their use also physically safe.
For quite a while, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) were considered the beacons of hope for improving teaching and learning. These technological tools, such as those mentioned throughout this article, hold immense potential to enhance the accessibility, inclusiveness, quality and efficiency of education. But they are also accompanied by new risks and challenges and positive outcomes will not be achieved straightforwardly.
Alexander Grigoryev @ unsplash.com
Alexander Grigoryev @ unsplash.com
No innovative initiatives will be capable of revolutionizing education only with the tools installed in the classroom. There is no room for doubt that the internet changed how society accesses information, but the internet is not the primary agent responsible for transforming information into knowledge. The same goes for Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality applications; for data to become knowledge, capacitated intermediaries and conducive framework conditions are necessary.
The intermediaries are, of course, teachers, trainers as well as education and training actors. They will be the ones who will integrate these technologies into the learning environments of students and professionals and will be required to adjust curricula and didactics so that digital tools are appropriately and effectively used to achieve maximum learning outcomes. According to research, teachers will "[...] need to be able to take risks and experiment with how they design different learning tasks and classroom interactions," as they will be the actors preparing students for lifelong learning, critical thinking, decision making, the labor market, and many other events that will come after school.
In addition, beyond the control of teachers, to create an environment where access to emerging technologies reach all students from all types of backgrounds, governments and public institutions will need to be concerned about technology adoption and the challenges they might encounter in the way. There are many differences between urban and rural educational settings. For example, the absence of electricity or the high costs of computers could probably slow down technology implementation in some places more than others. This unequal access to technological developments will demand investments from both the public and private sectors.
Also, there is a lack of robust evidence that embedding technologies into the classroom will make any difference in students' academic outcomes. Current reviews of positive results are at early stages, and some are merely speculations. Likewise, there is insufficient research on the topic. Some studies may have indicated otherwise, but as examined throughout this article, educational actors should be cautious in the face of the current hype and across-the-board investment in technology to improve learning achievement.
Ultimately, if the collaboration among teachers, governments, institutions, companies, Artificial Intelligence, and Extended Reality technologies is successful, and potential risks are systematically prevented or mitigated during development and implementation, the future of education looks bright. By exploring where to insert these technologies and how teachers can collaborate, classrooms will be reconfigured, and every individual involved in learning will potentially engage with knowledge in unprecedented ways.