The Needs of Students and Educators Should Guide Our Use of New Classroom Technologies

September 4, 2020
Since the start of the pandemic it’s become common to suggest that education will have to adapt to a “new normal,” with increased use of online platforms. But private tech firms risk having an oversized say in what the “new normal” is — ignoring the needs expressed by teachers and learners themselves.

The global lockdown has enforced a crisis mode of life, work, and school — something for which neither individuals nor institutions were much prepared. It is unclear when, and how it will end. If there is a widespread sense that education must adjust to a “new normality,” we ought to take a critical look at what the “new normal” really means.

Many will have valid concerns about the direction of change education is taking. Tech giants are positioning themselves as saviors by providing emergency services through their products. Research has already shown that mere access to technologies doesn’t necessary solve the issue of education. And a growing generation of granular data continues to threaten personal privacy through profiling and biased data-driven futures.

But it is essential that our thinking is not dominated entirely by those fears, inhibiting effective decision-making about the challenges the pandemic is presenting and what positive changes can be made.

Such decision-making should, however, be democratic. That means involving all learners and educators in an open discussion about what they want from education. Indeed, an inclusive debate is essential at a time when powerful business technology actors are already energetically redesigning the global education infrastructure, basing their plans less on evidence about what improves learning, than on asserting their rival claims to market share.

But however we evaluate the changes underway in education connected to the rise of digital technologies, we can set down certain key principles. In this regard, we would do well to recall the education critic Ivan Illich’s “learning webs,” essentially open online spaces for healthy debate and free exchange of knowledge. This means integrating technologies in a way that lets learning happen — breaking down barriers of inequality and access to education.


There is a tremendous amount of human work involved in providing education. One cannot simply reimagine that technologies, which often go to market with little to no pretests, will replace it all. DreamBox — an “adaptive” learning software that modifies content based on user profile and interaction with it — claims that it narrows the attainment gaps in mathematics, yet Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research concluded that “there is little evidence yet that educational software is actually helping students progress more rapidly.”

Continue reading at
See also: In the News, 2020