Neil Selwyn on technology: issues, dilemmas and futures
Interview by John Graham
Neil Selwyn is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University where he researches and teaches in the area of education, technology and society. Recent books include: 'Should Robots Replace Teachers? AI and the future of education' (Polity 2019). Twitter: @neil_selwyn
JG Artificial intelligence (AI) is already in schools in various forms. The prediction by many commentators is that its role will substantially increase in the foreseeable future. What’s your view about this and if it happens how do you think it will affect the work of teachers?
NS The steady creep of AI into classrooms is definitely something that everyone in education needs to be paying close attention to. I don’t think that teachers need to worry about being completely replaced by AI – in reality these are technologies that are narrowly focused on very specific administrative and pedagogical tasks. But we should be concerned with how these technologies are beginning to sideline the teacher – particularly in terms of reducing teacher autonomy and professional expertise.
My main interest is in the AI technologies now being run in classrooms to make decisions. We’ve got automated grading software that can instantly provide marks for hundreds of written assignments. We’ve got personalised learning systems that recommend what learning content a student should next tackle. We’ve got chatbots that decide what advice a student needs … we’ve even got ‘live’ in-class software that decides whether or not students are making appropriate use of their laptops. In theory all this software is meant to assist teachers make better decisions … but it is a brave teacher that goes against this very expensive ‘advice’ too regularly. The danger is that these automated decisions begin to get taken at face-value by management and that teachers are steadily taken ‘out of the loop’.
Teachers need to know how AI software is making the decisions in their classrooms that it does – i.e. there needs to be some level of algorithmic transparency and explainability. Teachers need to know who is accountable for the decisions that the software is making. Most importantly, teachers need to feel empowered to completely ignore the software and go with their own professional opinions. There is a fine line between being supported by a computer and being directed by a computer. I would argue that when a teacher is simply following ‘what the computer says’ then they are not really teaching.
JG Teachers and students had to operate in a remote technology-based mode of schooling for a large part of 2020 and revert back to it in 2021 for specific COVID outbreaks. What are your observations about the relationship between that experience and the nature and future of online learning?
NS I’m sure that AEU members all had very different experiences of lockdown teaching – especially the challenge of having to deal with the very different ‘home-school’ contexts that each of their students was having to work in. In that respect, one of the key things that we quickly learnt about remote teaching was that one-size-does-not-fit-all … things needed to be kept loose and flexible, students needed to be offered as many different ways of working as possible, to have offline options, for tasks to be asynchronous, and for teachers to be free to improvise and not burn out by having to do everything in the same way as in the face-to-face classroom.
It is important to look back on these experiences as ‘emergency remote schooling’ – these bouts of lockdown schooling are not really comparable to the online learning that some IT firms are trying to spruik as a post-pandemic ‘new normal’. I do expect pandemic remote learning to accelerate the post-pandemic take-up of online learning in universities and TAFE … but I’m less convinced that face-to-face schools will be changing much in the foreseeable future. Most parents and students suddenly became a lot more appreciative of the work that schools and teachers actually do. I don’t think people are in a hurry to give that away.
That said, I hope that we can develop robust and reliable systems for emergency remote schooling in the future. This is not going to be the last time that schools need to go online for crisis reasons. COVID isn’t finished yet, there might well be future pandemics, and there will definitely be future bushfires, flooding and many other emergency reasons that force schools to suddenly go remote for a while. So I’d hope that school leaders and the Department are already looking back on the past 18 months and developing robust plans, systems and support to make sure that there are no surprises next time a school has to go remote. Online emergency remote teaching is simply something that all schools, teachers, students and parents add to their skills-set. We’ll all be doing this again in the future, so we might as well get prepared for the next time.
JG One of the big issues about technology use which came into sharp focus with compulsory mass remote learning was the digital divide between students, families, teachers and schools. What’s your understanding of the extent and impact of the existing digital divide and how the present situation can be ameliorated?
NS The COVID remote schooling really hammered home the message that digital divides and inequalities inherent in going online are serious issues. We are not living a digital age where everyone has multiple devices, fast broadband, and all young people are tech-savvy digital natives. This was a real wake-up call to schools and policymakers that we need to take the issue of digital disadvantage seriously.
Sadly, the people and places that suffered most from the switch to online schooling were all-too-predictable. It was also sadly predictable who was going to end up doing OK. Independent schools, and schools in well-resourced middle-class communities were able to cope much better that less advantaged schools. Teachers living in shared accommodation or with additional caring responsibilities really suffered. We saw a boom in middle-class families rushing out to buy extra devices, desks and learning resources, hire private tutors and generally make sure that their children remained engaged and learning. In contrast, we had other families with three children sharing one smartphone, or falling off the radar altogether. All told, remote schooling saw those who were already vulnerable and disadvantaged become more disadvantaged.
I hope that the planning for future bouts of remote schooling that I mentioned in my previous answer takes this all into account. We need to be giving free or heavily-subsidised tech to families that cannot afford decent devices and high bandwidth. Teachers’ home tech needs to be subsidised and better supported. Online schooling needs to be designed to fit the low-bandwidth, small-screen realities of less-advantaged students’ home technology. Offline paper-based resources and other low-tech approaches can be used. All told, much of the hype around ed-tech ‘solutions’ over the past few years was found to be remarkably lacking during remote schooling. Tech did not save us all! If nothing else, I hope that everyone in education is now much more sceptical and willing to push-back against future promises and hype around ed-tech. When it comes to learning online from home, what works for some certainly doesn’t work for all.
JG I know you are interested in the different forms of 'teacher' that are emerging through the use of digital technologies (para-professionals, shadow teachers and teaching work being outsourced to others). Can you describe these developments and their implications for teachers and schools?
NS This is something that came to light during the COVID lockdowns, where we saw all sorts of people (not only parents and carers) stepping into the role of working as substitute classroom teachers. Some middle-class parents who had their own ‘WFH’ commitments were quick to hire online virtual tutors who could sit-in via Zoom and oversee their children’s remote schooling, and perhaps also provide additional ‘after school’ tuition. A few affluent parents even went as far as hiring live-in ‘private educators’ to oversee their children’s home-schooling, while others clubbed together to fund small ‘learning pods’ with one tutor stewarding a small group of students. At the same time, millions of students were also being ‘taught’ online by the likes of Joe Wickes and other celebrity YouTubers, as well as watching the video output of regular teachers from around the world whose online tutorials somehow went viral.
Now families have had a taste of these extra-curricular services, I’m interested in what might continue to be popular, and what this means for what we perceive as a professional ‘teacher’. We are certainly seeing a boom in private online tutoring services – with Aussie companies such as ‘Cluey Learning’ competing alongside giant East Asian providers which boast hundreds of millions of users. In the US, we are seeing the likes of Prenda pushing the idea of in-home ‘micro schools’ where non-qualified ‘learning guides’ can set up school in their homes and guide small groups of students for 20 hours a week.
From a free-market perspective, all these new resources and services could be welcomed as ‘disrupting’ the monopoly of mass schooling … but there are a number of reasons for concern. Firstly, paying for the privilege of educational assistance raises obvious equity issues. For example, middle class parents splitting off into small learning pods might well result in racially and socially segregated cliques.
Secondly, the rise of tutoring services leaves regular school teachers facing the challenge of teaching content that some of their classes might have already learnt before in a variety of different ways and with varying degrees of accuracy. Regular classroom teachers might now have to develop skills of ‘re-teaching’ and ‘de-teaching’ content – working as best they can with the diversity of (mis)understandings that already exist in their class.
Finally, as with many other types of ‘gig worker’, these alternate online tutors, coaches, mentors and guides all suffer from lack of job protection, labour rights, and all the other disadvantages of being in ‘precarious’ labour. Teaching children shouldn’t be a low-paid ‘side-hustle’. This is a growing group of educational workers that need support from teaching unions, teacher educators and other aspects of the traditional educational establishment.
JG One of the things that is not front and centre for most technology users as they switch on their devices every day is the environmental and ethical impacts of digital technology consumption. Recently I read about the huge environmental cost of expanding AI into most areas of human work and leisure. Our lives now centre around digital technology consumption, so can you describe and explain what the environmental and ethical impacts are of this and what can be done to address them?
NS This really is the elephant in the room when it comes to thinking about how digital technology might be impacting on education over the next 30 to 40 years. At the moment we are all stuck in a mindset of ‘abundant’ tech use –we upload everything to the cloud, presume one-to-one device access in the classroom, we want to live-stream videos, replace our phones and laptops every few years, take-up offers for ‘unlimited data’, and generally assume that our tech use is ‘always-on’.
But there are clear signs that this way of using tech simply isn’t sustainable for a bunch of interlinked reasons. Our digital devices are built on the extraction of non-renewable minerals and rare metals that are fast running-out. Manufacturing this hardware involves massive energy expenditure, as do the data storage centres required to support software and online services. Emerging innovations such as training AI models and trading in crypto-currency incur huge carbon footprints … even running a couple of Google searches consumes the equivalent energy of boiling a kettle. The disposal of e-waste is another major environmental burden. At some point this century we will reach the point when all of this grinds to a halt.
On top of all of this, this cycle of extraction, manufacturing and disposal is reliant on exploited labour in some of the world’s poorest countries. If you don’t want to be swayed by the unfolding environmental disaster, then it is also worth reflecting on how all this tech is an unmitigated ethical disaster.
So, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that ed-tech cannot carry on as it is. We need to start to rethink how we might make use of technology in future decades in radically different ways. This doesn’t mean getting rid of digital technology altogether. And neither is this a problem that is unique to education. But schools and colleges are obvious places to start leading the way to kickstart a change in how our society looks at its tech use. This is certainly part of the climate emergency that teachers, students and schools can make a direct impact on.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions! This isn’t a problem that can be solved, but it is a predicament that we need to work out ways of being able to live with. We all need to think about how to make best use of our digital technologies as if they are a finite, limited resource – what I’ve been calling ‘Ed-Tech Within Limits’.
Some obvious initial steps might include teachers and students working to locally implement ideas of right to repair, with schools looking to reuse and repair existing tech where-ever possible, procuring ethically produced ‘modular’ devices, and getting ‘e-waste’ activism going in their schools.
The longer-term challenge is the huge culture change that is required in education. We need to develop a different set of values about tech use in schools – ideas of using less tech, in slower, more thoughtful and frugal ways. This might involve developing a culture of staying offline as much as possible, using the minimal bandwidth and memory as possible, having communally-owned and shared devices, looking for low-energy or no-tech alternatives.
This raises some tricky questions. For example, if tech use has to be rationed then which educational tech uses (and users) are genuinely essential and should be prioritised? What are we doing with tech that genuinely ‘adds value’ and allows teachers and students to do things that are not possible any other way? Do we prioritise tech use for certain subjects, or certain students? Do we prioritize digital education for the emergency remote education of populations displaced by climate migration?
Not allowing ourselves to continue to be dependent on digital technology already makes good sense – we are already living in times of increased power blackouts, data failures, and global shortages of microchips. This might seem like an uncomfortable way of thinking about schools and tech, but these are going to be unavoidable issues in a couple of decades’ time … so it is makes good sense to start rethinking how to change our unhealthy relationship with tech well in advance. From now on, our conversations around ed-tech need to about eco-justice just as much as efficiency and effectiveness.
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.1 Assessment, technology and the impact of social concerns.