digital technology in schools

EdTech is killing us all: facing up to the environmental consequences of digital education

Digital technology is now a major part of education. Even the smallest schools are stuffed full of digital devices, display screens and projectors. Anything that can be digitized is stored online. Lessons are live-streamed, resources are downloadable, and school communications take place through apps and email. Behind the scenes, schools maintain their own servers, host campus-wide Wi-Fi and run complex management systems and other platforms. All told, schooling today is dependent on substantial amounts of digital technology.

This digital dependency is rarely seen as a problem. Any gripes usually centre on potential risks of digital distraction, cyberbullying, breaches of data privacy and so on. These issues prompt vigorous debates over the ‘appropriate’ and ‘right’ ways in which technology should be implemented. At no point, however, is there serious consideration of the long-term sustainability of digital technology use.

To be blunt, digital technology is damaging the environment. I believe the use of digital technology in education (EdTech) is not sustainable in the ways we have grown accustomed to using it.

First, let us dispel any thoughts that the increased use of digital technology in schools is somehow environmentally beneficial. For sure, there are obvious environmental benefits in reduced paper use, using Skype to attend remote meetings, and installing ‘green tech’ such as smart lighting and smart metering. It might also be argued that online classes reduce the carbon footprint of schools and colleges, not least by reducing travel-related emissions of students coming onto campus.

All these technologies uses offer some recompense, but they in no way offset the hugely detrimental life-cycles of the digital products and processes that education is now reliant on. Instead, the end-to-end environmental consequences of any form of digital technology use quickly eclipse any hopes of digital education somehow being a green option. As such, every use of digital technology contributes to the degradation of our planet in ways that education urgently needs to face up to. This includes:

  • The raw ingredients of digital devices – what Toby Miller terms the “dirty, material origins” of digital technology. Behind the sleek chrome and glass exteriors, every digital device is constructed from dozens of different metals, and numerous ‘rare earth elements’. From lithium batteries through to copper cabling, EdTech inherently involves the earth being depleted of non-renewable resources. In the short-term, this extraction causes considerable environmental contamination and pollution. In the longer-term this extraction is simply non-sustainable. Alongside the rapid loss of scarce minerals, for example, more than half the copper that will ever be extracted from the earth has already gone. In basic geological terms, we cannot continue to produce digital technology in the ways we currently do.
  • The environmentally destructive manufacture and production of digital devices. Regardless of how they are actually used in a classroom, between 70% to 80% of energy expended during the life-time of a digital device occurs during its initial manufacture. As Crawford and Joler’s forensic ‘anatomy’ of Amazon’s Echo device illustrates, the production of any digital technology “requires a vast planetary network” to facilitate the smelting, processing and mixing of raw materials that are shipped halfway around the world to be assembled. Each of these stages involves the accumulation of harmful waste products, hazardous chemicals and toxic waste disposal.
  •  The energy-greedy data infrastructures that lie behind digital transactions. In contrast to the abstract notion of data processing and storage occurring somewhere ‘in the cloud’, is the rather less romantic reality of brown-field, climate controlled data-centres and server-farms. It is estimated that data-centers consume up to 3 percent of all global electricity production and account for about 2 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. These figures are fast-rising, and already place the digital data industry roughly equivalent to the airline industry, and mean that educational internet use takes up a significant amount of energy. For example, even a one-off internet search generates a telling amount of CO2. As soon as a student or teacher does anything ‘online’ the impact is felt around the world.
  • The environmental cost of dismantling and disposing digital hardware. As the growing problem of ‘e-waste’ show, microelectronics is an extremely difficult and costly product to recycle. The recycling (often simply the dumping) of devices that are deemed to have outlived their usefulness leads to heightened levels of pollution, contamination and toxic waste in some of the poorest regions of the world. In this sense, the continued imperative to upgrade and keep EdTech ‘up-to-date’ is one of its most destructive qualities.

In light of all these costs and consequences, it is difficult to see how education can continue for much longer with its excessive levels of technology consumption and use. In a near-future of rising sea-levels, climate mass migration and low-carbon restrictions, much of the current hype that surrounds EdTech is likely to quickly seem inappropriate if not obscene. Demands for ‘One Device Per Student’, unlimited data storage, live streaming and the expectation for everyone to be ‘Always-On’ will seem as anachronistic as twentieth century attitudes toward smoking cigarettes and burning fossil fuels.

In a practical sense, then, it now makes sense to prepare for a near-future where there are insufficient natural resources to produce and sustain the educational use of digital technologies at the levels we have come to expect. If you are not fully convinced by these ecological arguments, then there are also good moral reasons for doing this. Indeed, the environmental issues just outlined are underpinned by a litany of associated ethical failings in terms of exploitation of human labour, the illicit trade in rare earth elements, and the deadly money trail associated with so-called conflict minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. As Ingrid Burrington put it, alongside the environmental degradation “there is blood in every piece of your technology”.

These are all controversies that no-one in education should be comfortable being implicated in. Yet as it currently stands, EdTech is exacerbating all of these issues. Everyone in education therefore needs to ask themselves whether they are happy to continue being part of what is clearly a catastrophic drain on the planet and a fundamental threat to the living conditions and life chances of future generations. If not, then we urgently need to start rethinking the sorts of digital technology use that are really needed in education, and how these might be achieved in more sustainable ways.

 

 

Neil Selwyn is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University (Australia). He previously worked in the UCL Institute of Education, and Cardiff School of Social Science (UK). Neil is currently writing a book on the topic of robots, AI and the automation of teaching. Over the next six months he will be posting writing on the topic, hopefully resulting in: Selwyn,  N. (2019) Should Robots Replace Teachers? Cambridge, Polity.

Neil can be found on Twitter @neil_selwyn

Transforming education through technology: Vision vs Reality

Government advisors emphasise the importance of digital technology’s “transformative potential” for learning; top private schools splash advertisements of children with expensive robots across newspapers; and tech companies pitch their latest product to the market “to turn lessons into enriching learning experiences”. The vision is clear: digital technology will transform education.

But look into the average school around Australia and what really is happening?

First order barriers still exist  

Bringing digital technologies into schools in Australia has not been easy.  Some schools have yet to pass the “first order” barriers, such as access to reliable Internet. Many schools are using Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs and the different devices and platforms that teachers have to deal with can be a nightmare. Lack of onsite tech support adds more pressure.

All of this can make the use of technologies and teaching Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in schools time consuming and frustrating for many teachers.

Other concerns with digital technologies include dealing with online bullying, students misusing technology in class and addressing parental concerns over excessive screen time.

Increase in teacher workload

On the face of it, digital technologies should create extra time. Online feedback to students can be immediate for some things, saving having to test and process a whole class. And everyone has instant access to expert knowledge: no more trudging off to search shelves in the library. Working with technology that once required a lot of time, expertise and equipment, such as having students work on a video together, can now be assigned for homework.

Online communication and collaboration can be quick and effective, helping develop many 21st Century skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork. The technologies now available should help schools more easily “focus on human interaction, strategic and creative thinking”: those skills seen as necessary for a future transformed by technology.

But the reality is that digital technologies have created more work for teachers, not less. Educational data mining, ostensibly used to highlight areas where students need extra help, is experiencing exponential growth. Collecting and reporting student data has become overwhelming and has meant that teachers struggle to find time to do their job. Educators wonder what data they will be asked to collect and process next about their students.

So how important is digital literacy?

There are two main justifications given for teaching digital technologies in schools. The first is that of multiliteracies: making and creating meaning in a range of modes such as print, body language, music, games and websites. In this way, digital literacy can be seen as just another kind of literacy that needs to be taught in schools.

The other, much more controversial reason, is that digital technology can help improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach.

Digital literacy as literacy

Around 80% of government services are now online signalling a belief that the public is digitally literate enough to access basic information this way – although callers to Centrelink or Medicare may argue this point. And the level of digital literacy required in society will likely grow as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) becomes more entrenched in industry.

Of all the 21st Century skills employers demand, digital literacy is the most rapidly increasing. School graduates don’t consistently have the standard of digital literacy expected and the federal and state governments have produced school curriculums they hope reflect the urgency of the situation. This seems a sound justification to include ICT in our schools. Few would argue that digital literacy is not needed by school graduates.

The Australian Curriculum includes digital technologies as an individual learning area, like history or science, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a general capability to be included in all subjects across the Foundation to Year 10 curriculum. In many schools, the digital technologies strand is also integrated across the curriculum. It’s not hard to imagine ICT in a science classroom where students are already doing things like electric circuits, but there are also many instances where ICT is working in other subjects. For example, my son’s Japanese class regularly Skypes a sister school in Japan to play games, chat in Japanese and English, and exchange cultural food recipes. Even subjects like Health and Physical Education have changed as students collect data and analyse their own fitness with Fitbits (a wearable device that records steps and heart rate). But many educators still see ICT as busy work with little pedagogical value in some lessons.

Can digital technologies improve the way students learn?

 The second justification given for teaching digital technologies in schools is that somehow this will help students “learn better”. This is where the main controversy lies. What evidence do we have that this is true? As computers have been in schools for such a short time and used very differently, it is hard to find conclusive proof that using them and teaching ICT makes a difference.

Declines in NAPLAN results are widely reported in the media, so we don’t seem to have improved learning outcomes, and, worse, the NAP-ICT results indicate that students’ digital competence is actually decreasing, adding evidence to a large body of work that the widespread belief that young people are “digital natives” is just not true.

Some teachers may not want to engage with digital technology, seeing it as an optional extra. The argument goes along the lines of: I learned history without digital technology so why should I include it in my lessons?

Then there is the commonly stated second order barrier, that teachers just don’t have sufficient digital skills to understand how it can be used effectively. For example: 5-7 year olds are expected to learn “how data are represented by changing pixel density (resolution) in a photograph with support and noting the change in file size to successfully email to a friend”. But this is a task many teachers would struggle with.

We believe it is therefore crucial that teacher education specifically includes digital skills and the critical frameworks needed to evaluate the pedagogical worth of digital tasks, so teachers can make informed decisions about including the general capability of ICT, that is digital technologies, in their lessons.

There are also teachers who do have the skills, who can imagine and create amazing, engaging, student centred digital lessons, but choose not to. These are the teachers that can tell us the most about digital technology in education and more research needs to be conducted in this area to understand the processes they go through when deciding to include ICT or not.

Another issue is the wow factor. Teachers who have been at the cutting edge of technology in schools for a while have seen technologies come and go. An example of this is the interactive whiteboard, which now sits sadly in many classrooms, used only as a projection screen.  The increased teacher workload, involving training and time spent creating lessons through the interactive whiteboard software seems to have come and gone. While there may have been an increase in excitement, enthusiasm and engagement as the shiny new toy was brought out to play, there is little evidence that learning was improved. Could the same engagement have been achieved by bringing a puppy into the classroom? Unless there is a clear reason for ICT into the classroom, why would teachers use it?

The future

The pace of change for digital technologies is very fast. Today makerspaces and robotics are not uncommon in schools; augmented and virtual reality are making a comeback; and the Internet of Things (imagine a smart classroom school where the classroom temperature, lighting, and air quality are self-adjusted and then sensors in the room measure the amount of noise and activity to see if they need to be changed) and more sophisticated Artificial Intelligence are predicted to be on the way.

Professional learning needs to work with, rather than on, teachers to help them unpack the digital technologies and ICT capability in the Australian curriculum in a meaningful way. Communities need to work with schools to promote the use of digital technologies, particularly among girls, and remind them that digital technology skills are important in all subjects and for all jobs, not just tech ones. Schools are currently facing opportunities to restructure their already crowded curriculums to promote this.

If we really do want transformation, the gaps in the way Australia deals with digital technologies in schools, in the application of the ICT capability in the Australian curriculum, in teacher education and, especially, in the support for schools and teachers to implement the curriculum need to be filled. In the next 10-20 years’ we will have graduates who have had the new curriculum for their full schooling and hopefully, our future young Australians will have a more consistent level of digital competence and confidence.

 

Amber McLeod is a lecturer and early career researcher in the Faculty of Education, Monash University.  Before joining Monash, Amber was a microbiologist and then taught English as an additional language in Japan, Brunei and Australia.  She is the Director of Pathways Programs and teaches a range of units including digital technologies. Amber’s research focus is on increasing digital competence in the community. This includes investigating attitudes towards ICT, cultural understandings of ICT and ways to increase pre-service teacher digital competence.  Amber is also passionate about the role of ICT in increasing access and equity, in particular, how digital competence can be taught in pathway courses, and its role in successful student transition to university and retention.  

 

Dr Ibrahim Latheef is a lecturer in ICT and digital technologies in education in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Latheef was a primary teacher for six years and head of school in the Maldives. Latheef is a digital technology enthusiast and is continuously exploring how technologies impact human consciousness. As a result his interest lies in the use of technology as tools in education and the sociocultural and sociohistorical impact on the learners. This specifically includes the subjects of mind and interactivity, cultural historical impact of technologies in education, digital games in education, digital literacy as a way of thinking and mixed realities in education