A Brighter Future for Education (using Technology!)

On this week’s episode, we’re rethinking education to bring about a brighter future for humanity. I speak with guests about the ways technology has changed the way we think about what’s possible for education, as well as how we can challenge our assumptions to make the system work better for all humans. Which technologies can we use to improve learning? Who benefits from the lessons we learned throughout the ongoing COVID pandemic? And in what ways can we rethink our current system to help all learners reach their potential?

Guests include Dr. Rumman Chowdhury, Dr. Chris Gilliard, Rahaf Harfoush, John C. Havens, & Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola.

The Tech Humanist Show is a multi-media-format program exploring how data and technology shape the human experience. Hosted by Kate O’Neill.

To watch full interviews with past and future guests, or for updates on what Kate O’Neill is doing next, subscribe to The Tech Humanist Show hosted by Kate O’Neill channel on YouTube.


Today on the show, we’re talking about how we can achieve A Brighter Future for Education.

Schools are not created equal, as any parent will tell you. For proof, look no further than the recent college admissions bribery scandal, or the fact that we still grade our schools and use those metrics to determine school budgets. Beyond that, budgetary restrictions and teacher experience can make for vastly different education outcomes. And with our rapidly changing technology, some of these differences will become magnified.

In my book A Future So Bright, I write about the opportunity for a brighter future for education–which is critical to ensuring we meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #4: “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”When we think about what it might take to make the future brighter for education, most teachers and administrators I have spoken with in the US will start their answer with “budgets” and move on to “curricula.” This isn’t a strictly American occurrence, either. I spoke with Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola, who is both an educator and an educational technology consultant, speaker, and a Microsoft Global Training partner based in Nigeria, about attempts to improve the education system in Nigeria and where the most significant gaps are.

[Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola] “Sometimes when we think about the teaching and learning, and we think about the instructional materials, most times we are looking at how to get these things bought, you know? We are talking about budgets. You know sometimes we engage with some schools and they tell you ‘oh, I’m ICT compliant’ because they have quite a number of laptops, but then you go into how these devices are actually used and you see that basically all they are doing is converting their hard notes to soft copies and that isn’t really what technology integration is really about. And you know sometimes you also see where budgets and large amounts of money spent buying devices, because there used to be this imagination that once you have technology in the hands of students, definitely there is improved learning, and we know that that is not true. One of the lessons taken away was actually the skill gap of the teachers. We’ve seen governments or budgets spend on technology, but then you still have that skill gap.”

Budget and curriculum are very real limitations, but before we even get there, there are more fundamental challenges facing education, many of which are globally relevant. But as we look at the challenges and what I call “Change Factors” faced by schools and teachers, we see a lot more to overcome.

A brighter future starts with full acknowledgment of harms & risks, as well as the opportunities for improvement. If we want the future of education to be as bright as possible, we have to do that here.

Largely, when we talk about the future, we think of two extremes: Dystopia vs. Utopia. While it feels like we should be aiming for utopia in our planning and strategizing, deep down we know that’s not possible, and that makes that useless. It’s a problem of framing. Several of the experts I’ve spoken with share this view, including Rahaf Harfoush, a Strategist, Digital Anthropologist, and Best-Selling Author who focuses on the intersections between emerging technology, innovation, and digital culture and John C Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, who each elaborate on why it doesn’t make sense to think of things this way.

[Rahaf Harfoush] “Everything has the capacity to help us, it’s just that it’s going to also simultaneously hurt us in some new and different ways. I don’t necessarily think about what’s going to help humanity, I think about what new challenges are going to emerge from this technology, and how can we navigate that? The bigger question for me becomes, how can we prepare people to hold this duality? What worries me is that the tech crowd comes in and they try to push you this utopian version, and other people push the dystopian version. Both of those are not true, but both are true in different ways. For every single case of facial recognition used to catch a criminal there’s a case where it’s used to breach privacy. I always say, ‘it’s going to be equally awesome and equally terrible at the same time,’ and that’s why it’s going to be so hard to predict the future. We just have to continuously ask ourselves which side of the equation we’re falling on.”

[John C Havens] “Six years ago I was writing a series for Mashable. What I was finding was that even 6 years ago, there were only the extremes… here’s the dystopian aspect of AI, here’s the utopian… I just kept calling people and asking ‘is there a code of ethics for AI? Because that will help balance things out.’ And more and more, no one knew of one.”

There will never be a complete utopia or complete dystopia—they exist simultaneously. Within our tech and within ourselves. The “either/or” model distances us from the very real consequences of our decisions, and how they play out in future realities. When it comes to technology in education, there are externalities to our decisions that must be considered. The good news is, we make decisions that affect the future every day, which means we can still bend that future towards the most uplifting and empowering outcomes for all of humanity.

First, though, let’s look at the potential Harms and Risks within our current system. One major issue that has cropped up and been magnified since the onset of the Pandemic is lack of equitable broadband access. Dr. Chris Gilliard, a writer, professor and speaker whose scholarship concentrates on digital privacy and the intersections of race, class, and technology, explains the consequences he’s seen firsthand because of this inequity in Detroit.

[Dr. Chris Gilliard] “Lack of access to internet can be tied to health outcomes, long-term educational outcomes, or employment opportunities. And If you looked at a redlining map of the city of Detroit, many of the ways these maps were drawn, a lot of the disproportionate affects of discrimination are still being felt by the populations. What I call that is digital redlining. If you drive along 8 Mile, or some other roads in Detroit, it’s very clear 50-60-70 years later, the after-effects of these housing policies. I teach at a community college. I started to see through my work with students how these effects became digital, whether it was lack of access to broadband, or scholarly publications.”

These were issues before COVID, but our changing education landscape has made them much more noticeable and urgent. Shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, UNESCO reported that 192 countries had closed all schools and universities, which left nearly 1.6 billion children and young people (representing more than 90 percent of the world’s learners) scrambling to adapt—not to mention their teachers, parents, and guardians.

UN data reveals a ‘nearly insurmountable’ scale of lost schooling due to Covid. The research suggests that “…up to 70% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries cannot read or understand simple text, up from 53% pre-Covid.” “In South Africa, schoolchildren are between 75% and a whole school year behind where they should be, with up to 500,000 having dropped out of school altogether between March 2020 and October 2021. This has long-term implications as well. In the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, students missed 3 months of school, but four years later were still 1.5 years behind where they would have been.

Then there are intersectional issues of gender, class, and race. Around the world, girls’ education is most at risk, with over 11M girls at risk of not returning to school after COVID-19 for a variety of reasons, including caregiving demands, early and forced marriages, adolescent pregnancy, beliefs that girls aren’t supposed to be educated, and more. On top of that, there is a tremendous inequity of resources available to students in low-income communities, leaving far too many students–including a disproportionate number of non-White students–at a significant disadvantage.

And then there are issues of safety. With the increasing number of school shootings, many districts are increasing their security–often at the expense of jobs designed to help students progress. NYC public schools, for example, have over 5,000 full-time police officers but only 3,000 guidance counselors. The presence of these officers drives up rates of punitive measures for students of color–including instances of punishment for things like burping–which feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline.

On top of all of this, the cost of education is increasing–especially higher education like colleges and universities. Daniel Bignault of WBIR-TV in Knoxville calculated the increases in in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee compared with wages over a nearly forty-year span and found that “from 1982 to 2018, college costs at UT grew by 1,430%, while median income grew by 213% and minimum wage grew by only 116%.” The total amount of student debt carried by people well out of school is far too high. College didn’t used to be a risky investment, but for many students–especially those from low-income backgrounds–it very much is.

And we still haven’t talked about curriculum. In addition to the quality of information varying wildly from school to school, many schools don’t offer contemporary technical skills, aren’t as inclusive as they could be, and don’t take into account the differing learning styles of the students. Because of this variety of challenges, we have a long way to go if we want to reach the goal of education equity.

Now, let’s take a look at The Bright Side! What, for example, are the unique advantages of remote learning?Because I investigated the intersection of online and offline experiences for my 2016 book Pixels and Place, I have been particularly intrigued with the pros and cons of the mass pivots to online experiences since early 2020.First, online learning fosters a different type of imagination. For a long time, students have existed in a binary where they are either “at school,” where learning is done, or “not at school,” where learning is not expected to happen. With the onset of online learning, students’ homes have become a sort of “thirdspace,” which is described by Edward Soja in the field of human geography as “an in-between space between binaries that enables the possibility to think and act otherwise.” This thirdspace ideology has allowed teachers to begin rejecting the long-held assumption that school buildings are the locus of learning, and toward imagining ways in which meaningful learning can occur outside our rigid perceptions of what constitutes “legitimate” education.

For instance, a 2021 study published in *Education Sciences* explores the ways that teachers in Scotland were pushed to not only learn how to use new digital tools for online learning during COVID-19, but to, even more importantly, imagine how to teach adaptively, a practice that requires “deep and sophisticated knowledge about learning, learners, and content.” This pushed teachers to embrace the idea that learning can occur in various forms and mediums, including during activities usually seen as “just for fun.”

Dr. Olurinola encountered this in Nigeria as well, and spoke to me about the joys of watching teachers embrace novelty and creativity in their teaching processes.

[Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola] “We had all forms of interventions as a country, because we were aware there was a disparity in access to technology, especially for not-too-developed cities and remote areas. One of the lessons was the skill gap of the teachers… so one of the major things we saw the government do, and I think they are learning from the experience, was teacher development. We had a lot of government initiatives in upskilling teachers, especially with digital skills. Radio broadcasts, TV stations with teachers teaching via television… but for schools that could afford it, there was technology integration at different levels. The beauty about that period was the creativity of the teachers. We saw teachers use tools not originally developed for academic purposes. We saw them adapt to meet the needs of their students during this period. One lesson learned was the importance of technology to everyday life, we couldn’t adopt the ostrich approach, we had to stand up and embrace this change. In fairness to the teachers & students within that period, we saw a lot of them taking up these challenges head-on. Because destruction was sudden, teachers weren’t really prepared, but we saw them take up crash-courses, improve upon professional development, learning how to use various technology tools, just to ensure learning continued even though the pandemic was on.”

In using thirdspaces to challenge the “at school or not” binary, some students have been better able to participate and learn than they ever were in the classroom. Classrooms were not designed for all learning styles, and with thirdspace learning, “some of the underlying logics, assumptions and norms that make people feel excluded and alone within [institutionalized spaces] are unmasked and made visible”—a practice that can lead to greater inclusion, self-expression, and change.

Neurodivergent students, for example, seem to be better able to thrive in at-home learning, where they are able to be in a familiar environment so the novelty of learning is not overwhelming. A 2017 report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) in England presented survey results showing that “fewer than half of children and young people on the autism spectrum say they are happy at school; seven in ten say that their peers do not understand them, and five in ten say that their teachers do not know how to support them.”

Sean Arnold, a special educator and STEM coach in NYC, noticed a significant change when his students were working from home, saying ‘I had students who were selectively mute, and had never spoken to their peers in school in person. But because they had a familiar space… they literally spoke to their classmates for the first time in remote learning. I think that’s meaningful.’ He also noted a trend: nearly all of the remote students with whom he works showed more growth than in-person classmates.”

An article by Eva Tesfaye for NPR suggests that some students with autism and other neurological differences tend to focus better without other classmates around. Bobby, a sixth grader in western Massachusetts, told NPR that he likes online learning because “it’s a lot easier to focus. I can be in my room and be a lot more comfortable doing stuff.”

It’s worth noting that virtual learning isn’t always the best solution for neurodivergent students, particularly in situations when remote learning requires significant support from parents, when certain learners need to focus on developing social skills with classmates, or when remote learning conflicts with meeting other objectives in a student’s Individualized Education Plan. That said, there is a growing and vocal contingent of parents, teachers, and students who want to permanently incorporate virtual or at-home learning as a resource.

Which leads us to the part where we look forward. How can we achieve A Brighter Future in regards to education? What opportunities can we take action on today?

Our goal is to make education equitable, inclusive, accessible, available to all ages, & resilient – in spite of existing infrastructure gaps and climate challenges. That means there’s still a need to ensure public access to at least the basics of education. It’s hard to quantify the spillover benefits of public education, but society can only gain in both economic prosperity and overall quality of life by continuing to invest in it. I’ve put together a number of specific areas that, if we focus our attention, we can have the largest impact on future prosperity.

First, invest in educating girls worldwide. UNESCO lists several compelling statistics on their website that demonstrate the value of education at the individual level (“just one more year of school can increase a girl’s earnings, when she is an adult, by up to 20%”) and at the more macroeconomic level (“some countries lose more than US $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys”).

Dr. Olurinola works to expand what girls see as possible for themselves in STEM fields. Although girls in Nigeria knew they could be Doctors, that was the only job they could see themselves in.

[Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola] “Over time, especially in this climate of gender stereotypes of the place of a woman and types of career that she can or cannot do. To change this narrative, we started “Girls in Science & Technology” program, (in short, GISTs) so it’s basically an initiative in that educating girls by providing girls the opportunity to learn about STEM. I remember in that particular time I ran a program and invited 70 girls. I asked which of them wanted to be medical doctors, and everyone’s hands went up. I had only one person in that room who was considering a career in engineering. I realized they loved science, but they didn’t know what other career options were available to them. So you have the problem of awareness. One of the things that I love to do is show them videos of women who are trailblazing in different career paths in science & tech fields so they know this is a possibility, they have people they can look up to and mentors they can say ‘okay, if she can do it, why can’t I also do it if I have an interest in this field?’.”

Our next actionable and necessary step is to actively work to remove racist ideas and other systemic discrimination from the curriculum and the classroom. We can instead increase messages of inclusion and respect.

Another thing to think about is reimagining our education delivery methods. One model, called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), attempts to sort students based on their current knowledge & learning level rather than their age. The method was pioneered in India and rolled out to ten African countries by mid-2020. Whether that method works here or anywhere is yet to be determined, but we have to be willing to be bold if we want to make big, lasting change.

Where possible, we should also be working to improve learning opportunities with technology. This includes making accommodations for students with (autism spectrum disorder, or) ASD or who learn better in familiar environments. Students from The National Autistic Society’s Young Ambassadors Group in England submitted a 7-point plan for how they believe schools should do things differently for students with ASD, including things like 1) tackle bullying more effectively, 2) provide safe spaces, including a quiet room that is always available to students with ASD, and 3) understand that students on the Autism Spectrum may have sensory differences, and may be particularly sensitive to things like light and noise. In addition, schools can work to use technology to enhance learning that’s already happening in the current system. Dr. Olurinola explored matching specific technologies to different lessons to solidify concepts.

[Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola] “We see that different kinds of content require different kinds of engagement. One of the most common tools is Powerpoint. The Powerpoint presentation doesn’t address every form of engagement. For instance, I want to teach math. There are other math tools that allow you to collaborate. For instance, if I’m using one and sharing that note with all my students, they all can collaborate in that space to solve that math problem. That has a better output than presenting rigid content using Powerpoint. Because it’s there and easy to use, sometimes it’s abused. For instance, I’m teaching a literature class, let’s say you wrote a book about Tech Humanism. One of the ways to bring to light that content, is to actually Skype with you or have you on Zoom and have my students connect with you via live session and ask you questions about the content that you have written in your book. This is something we can do because technology enables it. It would be difficult for you to come into my classroom, but we can do this in real time because we have technology enabling, and the learning on that topic is actually enhanced.”

In our increasingly digital world, we also need to teach both critical media and digital  literacies. The rise of misinformation and disinformation suggests that more people would benefit from skills in reading comprehension, critical thinking, and questioning motives driving media and institutions. A study published in PNAS in 2020 used Facebook’s “Tips to Spot Fake News” article to create a short course and quiz which was given to five-thousand participants. The result? People’s ability to spot fake news increased by 26.5%.

This also means teaching kindness and empathy. If our goal is global equity, that means thinking of ourselves as a global community and using technology to showcase our authentic selves. Dr. Olurinola spoke to me about how she teaches her students to think of themselves as members of a global community.

[Dr. Oluwakemi Olurinola] “I know that the fusion of technologies is beginning to blur, therefore I believe that the effort should be focused towards global competencies for our students, because the world has become more interconnected. Coming from a developing country, we know that it becomes more imperative that we train our students to be globally competent, to develop the skills to know how to live, learn, and work even in the global village. As we make these global connections because people are working remotely, and you have more global communities rising, our students need to know how to successfully navigate and interact within the digital space. Things like kindness and empathy. There isn’t really a dichotomy between your online self and offline persona. Your online and offline persona should be the same. So if I’m kind as a person, even when I’m online and using tech, I should be kind in my use of tech and kind when I’m online engaging in the digital space. We need to learn how to be good citizens, how to develop global competences, and also to appreciate differences when they exist. For me, that’s the future I see.”

Along those lines, we also need to teach young people the human skills they need for the future workplace. I spoke with Dr. Rumman Chowdry, who is currently the Director of the Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability team at Twitter, about the dichotomy between our education system and the workplace, and the skills taught vs the skills needed.

[Dr. Rumman Chowdhury] “If I were to pick one thing that got me the most interested in this technology, it’s actually the potential for EdTech. What it should be is a complete reimagining of education. Because for one, educational systems do not help people get jobs or do well at their jobs. People joke that the number one skill you need to learn in college is Excel, and that’s the one thing they don’t teach you. So there’s this disconnect between the real world and the jobs we get and then educational systems and how they’re structured. We know there’s inequality. There’s just so much that can be resolved with this tech, whether it’s remote learning or customized learning. When I started my job at Accenture, even before then, people were talking about lifelong learning, and how AI really means we have to embrace learning and think about how we’re going to spend the rest of our lives educating us. What amazing aspirations! I sincerely hope that what we don’t do is try to stick technology into the broken infrastructure that is our education system. That would be a disservice to us as humanity, but also to technology and its potential.

KO: Is it true or not that once you use technology to accelerate a system, where it breaks might be instructive about where those institutions are already failing us?

RC: Specifically using the education example, there are so many people that have already looked at the inefficiencies of these systems, what does/doesn’t work, and if we really think about this in regards to human self-determination… what is the purpose of this system? Can we take a step back and emotionlessly ask, ‘is it serving the purpose it is intended to serve?’ There are plenty of people pointing out the systemic flaws. Now we have technologies that could be designed to solve these problems, rather than reinforce the power imbalance and structural inequalities, and we’re going to ignore what these people say because it’s easier to perpetuate, amplify, and cement these inequalities rather than do the extra work to fix things.”

Some of the skills that will be most in-demand are difficult-to-automate manual skills, like plumbing and other fine motor work, and the skills commonly called “soft”—usually mature versions of unique-to-human abilities such as making decisions in context, judgment calls, nuanced management, leading with emotional intelligence, and so on.

As the future workplace remains uncertain, we also need to teach humans to be adept at making meaning. If our identities are tied too closely with our jobs, many people are in for a massive loss of self as the upheaval in the job marketplace forces millions of people to change career paths as we build our way to the ideal future. One way to fight this is to have a better sense of how we make meaning in our lives, and how we can begin something new without losing track of ourselves.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but consider it a blueprint to build and amend as we go. Taken as a whole, this may sound like a lot of work, but if we all focus on one thing we can influence, our combined efforts can build a future that works for everyone.

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