'Ed tech' is not a magic pill for learning

Technology improves access to education, but there are limitations to EdTech's role in learning

Reggie, a four-legged mechanical canine, at a demonstration with students at Central High School on April 13, in Louisville, Kentucky, US. Getty Images / AFP
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One of the chinks of light that cut through the darkness of the pandemic was the progression of education technology (EdTech). Online teaching has helped give students access to learning they would have missed out on. However, too many are now grossly overestimating the value that EdTech can add to children's learning experiences. EdTech can boost our access to learning, but it will not enhance the quality of learning itself.

Recent progressions in EdTech are undoubtedly exciting, but they are riding on a wave of promises that will not be fulfilled. These developments include an eclectic mix of software with equally diverse applications, for example, virtual reality usage in classrooms and tech-based gamification being introduced into learning environments.

EdTech gamification, an industry that was greatly invigorated by the pandemic, centres around the use of a video-game-style or narrative-based learning platform. This can bolster engagement and help contend with the ever-shortening attention spans of students, as well as cultivating a more comfortable and fun learning environment.

The EdTech gamification industry is projected to grow by almost a third by 2027, having already been worth $700 million in 2020. We also have the less glamorous but widely adopted EdTech, such as Zoom lessons and interactive whiteboards.

Learning rests upon four central pillars: memory, cognition, metacognition and self-regulation

During the pandemic, such advances solved a problem: access to education. When students were unable to go to school, technology offered a lifeline and enabled children to keep up their studies throughout lockdown. EdTech's ability to boost access will be a vital and valuable part of its continued integration into today's education services.

However, now that the West has all but emerged from the grips of Covid-19, some are trying to take EdTech's role in learning a step too far. They claim that EdTech can not only improve access but that it can also provide a large-scale boost to our ability to learn in general. Unfortunately, this will never happen because "learning" is too broad and complex a process to ever have one piece of technology that can target all aspects of it.

Suppose we step out of the classroom momentarily and consider "learning" more broadly. In that case, it becomes apparent just how far-ranging it really is. Learning rests upon four central pillars: memory, cognition, metacognition and self-regulation. There are a variety of ways in which we assess someone's capacity in any of these areas. For instance, at school, a pop quiz is designed to test a student's memorisation of the previous lesson or topic. An end-of-year review at work, by contrast, might be aimed toward testing our meta-cognition and self-regulation – reflecting on how we think we've done, how effectively we think we've learnt and how we feel we can improve.

All four are vital to learning. They cannot simply be memory or cognition-based. For instance, studies have shown that effectively incorporating "metacognitive strategies" into student learning is worth an extra seven months of progress.

Metacognitive strategies are means of encouraging students to essentially think about the way they think. Devoting time to this practice of reflection and self-analysis is vital in enabling students to check-in and see how they're doing and, in doing so, gain a deeper understanding of which learning tools are working and which ones are not. Failing to embrace meta-cognition leads to a repetitive slog of revision. As a result, students miss out on learning strategies that could really benefit them.

Any piece of EdTech cannot target all four pillars of learning. For example, the lucidity of a virtual field trip to Athens on Campus-XR might help to boost students' memories, but it isn't easy to see how it can enhance meta-cognition. Likewise, gamification may make students more engaged and relaxed in lessons, which could aid self-regulation, but this also will not have any impact on meta-cognition.

Even the additional self-control that can be facilitated by EdTech, where students can essentially design their own schedules and learning trajectories, is relatively unhelpful in comparison to traditional styles of teaching.

Learning is far too multifaceted to be revolutionised by EdTech. Therefore, aside from the various offshoots associated with each of learning's four pillars, we also have to consider the variety of functions that this mercurial concept that we call learning can serve.

There are an endless number of ways in which we assess memory, cognition, metacognition and self-regulation across all walks of life. Whether somebody is taking a test to become a lawyer, to get into the civil service or to enter university, the content all falls under the umbrella of learning. There are so many different aspects of learning to assess and so many different ways that we evaluate them in society that it will be impossible to get cohesion around a piece of EdTech.

EdTech will continue to strengthen particular areas of learning, but it will never have a far-reaching impact on learning. The proof is in the pudding. Finland has dramatically increased its reliance on EdTech, yet its PISA ("Programme for International Student Assessment") score – which effectively acts as a global education rating system – has gradually decreased since it decided to do so.

EdTech will have an integral role to play as the education sector progresses, particularly in improving access and providing tailored solutions to niche problems. However, we must be careful not to succumb to the over-excitement surrounding its supposed potential to radically enhance the way we learn.

As we have seen recently, the tech industry is highly prone to inflation – of all kinds. But let's not extend this to the education sector, where EdTech is being heralded as being capable of something that it quietly simply isn't. The mistake we are making is assuming that because EdTech improves access to learning, this is somehow the same as improving the quality of learning itself.

Published: June 30, 2022, 9:00 AM