Neil Selwyn

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

Six reasons Artificial Intelligence technology will never take over from human teachers

The next twenty years will see teachers under increasing pressure to convincingly justify their existence. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are already prompting calls for teaching to be automated, learner-driven and ‘teacher-proof’. While these technologies might still require non-specialised classroom facilitators and technicians, the role of the highly trained expert teacher is coming under increasing threat. There is a growing sense that “we don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore”.

Put bluntly, the entire premise of ‘the teaching profession’ faces an impending challenge. In a future where education can be reliably provided by machines, why continue to invest millions of dollars in training human experts to do the job? Given the likely trajectory of technological developments over the next few decades, is there anything that an expert teacher does that machines will never be able to do? As an education researcher and teacher, I would like to think that there is! Here, then, are six aspects of expert human teaching which are getting overlooked in the current rush toward automating the classroom:

1. Human teachers have learned what they know

There is clear benefit from being with someone who can pass on knowledge, especially someone who has previously been in the position of having to learn that knowledge. This latter qualification is a uniquely human characteristic. When a learner learns with an expert teacher, they are not simply gaining access to the teachers’ knowledge but also benefiting from the teachers’ memories of learning it themselves. Technology can be pre-loaded with content of what is to be learned. Yet, no AI technology is going to ‘learn’ something exactly the way a human learns it, and then help another human learn accordingly.

2. Human teachers make cognitive connections

A human is uniquely placed to sense what another human is cognitively experiencing at any moment, and respond accordingly. In this sense, face-to-face contact with a teacher offer learners a valuable opportunity to engage in the process of thinking withanother human brain. On one hand, there is something thrilling about witnessing an expert who is modelling the process of thinking things through. Conversely, a human teacher is also able to make a personal ‘cognitive connection’ with another individual who is attempting to learn. As David Cohen puts it, teachers are uniquely able to “put themselves into learners’ mental shoes”. Despite the best efforts of computer science, many aspects of thinking cannotbe detected and modelled by machines in this way.

3. Human teachers make social connections

Teaching is a mutual obligation between teachers and learners. No teacher can stimulate the learning process without the cooperation of those who are learning. Good teachers make personal connections with their students, helping them gauge what might work best at any particular time. Before attempting to intellectually engage with a group, teachers will “take a mental pulse of students’ demeanours”. Teachers work hard to establish this mutual commitment to learning, as well as sustaining engagement through motivating, cajoling and enthusing individuals. All of these are interpersonal skills that come naturally to people rather than machines.

4. Human teachers talk out loud

There is something transformative about being in the presence of an expert teacher talking about their subject of expertise. Listening to an expert talk can provide a real-time, unfolding connection with knowledge. A good speaker does not stick rigidly to a written text, but refines, augments and alters their argument according to the audience reactions. A teacher speaking to a group of learners therefore engages in a form of spontaneous revelation. Key to this is the teacher’s role in leading and supporting learners to engage in active listening. As Gert Biestareasons, being addressed by another person interrupts one’s ego-centricism – drawing an individual out of themselves and forcing them into sense-making.

5. Human teachers perform with their bodies

The bodies of human teachers are an invaluable resource when engaging learners in abstract thought. Teachers use their bodies to energize, orchestrate and anchor the performance of teaching. Many subtleties of teaching take place through movement – pacing around a room, pointing and gesturing. Teachers make use of their ‘expressive body’ –  lowering their voice, raising an eyebrow or directing their gaze. Crucially, a human will respond to the living biological body of another human in a completely different way to even the most realisticsimulation. Being looked in the eye by another person is a qualitatively different experience than being looked at by a 3D humanoid robot, let alone a 2D cartoon agent on a screen.

6. Human teachers improvise and ‘make do’

A key part of good teaching is the human capacity to improvise. Rather than sticking tightly to a pre-planned script, teachers will adjust what they do according to the circumstances. Like most performative events, teachers approach a session with a rough plan or structure. However, thereafter they improvise their way around these aims and objectives. Teaching requires acts of creativity, innovation and spontaneity – akin to dancing or playing jazz. Teachers and learners feel each other out, find common ground and build upon it. Teaching also demands a tolerance for imprecision, messiness and not knowing. Most human actions involve a degree of guesswork, bluff and willingness to ‘make do. These are processes that computer systems are largely incapable of.

As these examples illustrate, an expert human teacheris able to support learning in ways that can never be fully replicated through technology. Unfortunately, these qualities remain largely unrecognised, even by teachers themselves. Many educators consider teaching to be an ‘unconscious’ act that is difficult to pin down and articulate. Yet such coyness does little to dispel the technology-driven arguments currently being made against the teaching profession. Teachers need to speak up and make an irrefutable case for the continued presence of expert professionals at the forefront of classrooms.

So how can we rehabilitate human teachers in the minds of their detractors? The uphill battle in countries like Australia is to revitalise schools and classrooms to allow teachers to work in the ways just outlined. These are all characteristics that a good teacher should have, but are considerably restricted in an era of ‘teaching out-of-field’, templated lesson plans and rigid standardised testing.

A first step in this direction might be to alter the ways that people think and talk about teaching. Teachers need to speak forcibly about these qualities – amongst themselves, within their professional associations, withparents, politicians, pundits and anyone else with influence. Teachers also need to argue directly against the tech industry and corporate reformers looking to replace them with machines. There is obvious value in the human expert teacher. Yet unless teachers are able to make a convincing case, they may well lose the argument before they even realise that there was one.

 

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