The state of technology issues in education in 2020

To conclude this year of 2020, I propose to take stock of some of the issues raised by the increasing use of technology, primarily digital, in education.

If this year of pandemic will have been busy from all points of view, it will undoubtedly have provoked a decisive leap forward for Edtech 1. For the better2, but also for the worse. As such a period of crisis is likely to favor a “shock doctrine”3, it seems more necessary than ever to (re)question the meaning and the place that these technologies should take in education. I will limit myself here to school and higher education, as I do not have enough distance and knowledge of the world of training.

I would like to make it clear from the outset that the aim of this article is not to be technophobic or to scare people. On the other hand, I am deeply convinced that the technological headlong rush currently pursued “because it is the direction of progress” must come to an end, as we are perhaps reaching the age of reason of the digital age. We now need to think not about what technologies might or might not do for us, but about what we want them to do or not do.

K12 education

Before talking about the technological challenges of K12 education, I thought it would be useful to mention some notable features.

Students are not entirely autonomous in their learning. Moreover, school-based learning presents many differences with non-school-based learning, as presented here in a table from the article Apprentissages scolaires et non scolaires avec le numérique, by André Tricot.

Thus, school teaching is carried out by adults, teachers and educators, who create the conditions for school learning: generating the necessary motivation, arousing attention, but also organizing the progress of the course, leading the group of students, thinking about evaluation (diagnostic, formative, summative), etc.

The main users of these technological tools are minors 4. Several issues are therefore ultra sensitive. The issue of student data, for example, and what could be done with it. The ability to influence or even manipulate this young audience is also an important issue in education.

The main users of these technological tools do not have personal equipment. The vast majority of students in school are not yet equipped with personal equipment, or are not invited to use them to respect the principles of equality and free education. In terms of technological equipment, the stakes are not the same as in higher education or training.

Technological issues in school education

From there, what are the technological issues that arise in school education? Here are the ones I have identified, and grouped in three sections. Feel free to express yourself in the comments.

Issues on the teaching itself

Quite simply, the question of the right place of digital technology in K12 education is raised. Given the particularity of school learning mentioned above (notably the immense need for motivation and attention), we can see how much more important the human element is than the technological tools. What is the right mix? What is the right policy for equipment, training, and consultation with all the (many) actors involved? What is the right level to implement this policy?

As we can see, certain particularities of school education come up against certain technologies. For example, the importance of teaching with and through the group directly questions the temptation to individualize learning processes made possible by AI. The school form5, also greatly constrains the possibilities of technological uses, suggesting that before integrating technology, it is necessary to rethink pedagogy.

Economic, social and ecological issues

The place of private and commercial actors is also a sensitive issue. Indeed, young people who are fed with this or that equipment, tool and resource get used to it, and will end up using it in their personal and private sphere, not necessarily as protective as the educational sphere. For example, there is nothing to compare between a Google for Education account and a free personal Google account that sucks up data.

In this sense, certain technological choices are real political issues for the school. What place should be given to which actor? How to justify huge contracts with private actors, often foreign ones? How to give (much) more weight to the French-speaking free software sector, which is nevertheless vigorous, as we saw during the confinement6.

Because of the number of students and teachers, and because they are not yet equipped, there is a major ecological stake in school education. A massive, individual equipment policy is currently being implemented, while we are in the midst of an ecological and climatic crisis.

Personal and learning data

The traces of children’s learning, if they were numerous enough and correctly interoperated, could be used to predict their future. It may sound like a scenario from Black Mirror or Westworld, but these are thoughts already in progress. I quote below from an article written by Jean-Baptiste Piacentino, head of international development at Humanroads:

Let’s take the example of Teo, 3 years old, who is entering kindergarten. The development of the use of digital tools at school leads us to believe that he will use more and more digital tools throughout his schooling. His drawings, his first writings, his first calculations, his language learning, his evaluations, his exams and all the traces of his school and university career will be more and more digitalized and less and less in paper format. […] Digital work environments (ENT), as well as third-party applications used as part of the pedagogical process, collect a large quantity of the student’s production (or even all of his production!) every year. This production tells us a lot about the student, his neurocognitive profile, what he has learned and what he has failed to learn, and how long it took him to learn it… All of the data that make up Teo’s learning path will then become an essential resource for informing his career choices and his lifelong orientation, for him and for all those who accompany him.

La portabilité des données d’éducation au service de l’encapacitation des individus

Technological solutionism

Finally, there is the risk of falling into a totally unbridled techno-solutionism: students equipped with sensors to control their attention, teachers constantly scrutinized and evaluated, AI-based exercise machines to make students work relentlessly as if they were workers in a factory, etc. You will be right to think that this risk is not very credible in France at the moment 7, but don’t forget that we are “very late”, and this delay only asks to be filled. To see what is already being tested elsewhere, see the video of the tweet below, it’s hair-raising…

Some articles to read (in French)

Higher education

In contrast to school education, students are much more autonomous adults in their learning.

Similarly, their level of equipment has nothing to do with that of the students. Instead, it is very much related to the economic resources available to families. This leads to great disparities among students, and even to a multi-speed education.

Since the vast majority of students are adults, the issues related to data or the power of influence of the private sector are not the same8.

For many of the reasons discussed above, students are much more concerned with hybrid or even fully online education since the COVID-19 crisis began worldwide. In France, most of them have not set foot in a lecture hall or classroom for much of the time since March 2020.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Technology issues in higher education

The specificities of higher education lead logically enough to shift the levels of the stakes, to crystallize on two major subjects: the rise of surveillance technologies and that of predictive algorithms for orientation, selection and evaluation.

The rise of surveillance technologies

The fact that higher education is moving 100% online has led higher education institutions to implement new technologies for monitoring students.

In anticipation of students’ return to school, many Anglo-Saxon institutions are equipping themselves with costly surveillance tools: facial recognition cameras that can be used to keep track of students, and thermal image cameras. Others require students to wear a connected bracelet or use a contact tracing application.

Still in the area of surveillance technologies, the pandemic has led to the development of specialized solutions for exam monitoring.

“Online proctoring” companies saw in coronavirus shutdowns a chance to capitalize on a major reshaping of education, selling schools a high-tech blend of webcam-watching workers and eye-tracking software designed to catch students cheating on their exams.

Cheating-detection companies made millions during the pandemic. Now students are fighting back.

Again, there are a lot of immediate problems with these technologies. You share your workspace, you’re a cheater. Your internet connection is intermittent, you’re a cheater. Your camera has a problem, or you don’t have a camera, you’re a cheater.

But more fundamentally, these choices are once again a demonstration of a technological and security headlong rush. To deepen this subject, you can read the excellent Olivier Ertzcheid (whose writing has been very inspired during the lockdown) in his article Nos étudiants(e)s ne sont pas des délinquant(e)s.

Mais plus fondamentalement, ces choix sont une fois de plus la démonstration d’une fuite en avant technologique et sécuritaire. Pour approfondir ce sujet, vous pouvez lire l’excellent Olivier Ertzcheid (qui a eu l’écriture très inspirée pendant le confinement) dans son article Our students are not offenders (in French).

Selection and evaluation algorithms

Another very strong technological challenge in higher education is the growing use of selection and evaluation algorithms.

This is the case in France with Parcoursup, the successor of Admission Post Bac, which is still the subject of much discussion. You can read Olivier Ertzcheid’s article on this subject. On the question of algorithmic governmentality (a huge topic), he quotes the law researcher Antoinette Rouvroy:

It is finally this lack of interest both in the singularity of lives and in their inscription in collective contexts [(group, communities, etc.)] that confers on this mode of government both an aura of very great impartiality but also a very great difficulty in contesting decisions that are taken on the basis of opportunity detection.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, decidedly still “ahead” of us, algorithms are even used to predict students’ final grades, based (with all the biases that implies) on students’ sociological data as well as their previous results (hello again Black Mirror).

In 2020, tens of thousands of high school students across the United Kingdom took to the streets to protest the use of an algorithm that predicted their end-of-school grades. The algorithm had lowered almost 40% of grades, meaning some pupils were no longer eligible for their chosen university or college. The algorithmic scoring impacted students from lower income backgrounds the most, despite warnings of the ‘potential risk of bias’, raised in a parliamentary education committee a month prior.

Predictive Futures: The Normalisation of Monitoring and Surveillance in Education

Some articles to read


Again, this article is not here to bring us back to the candle (in this day and age, it seems we need to make that clear), or to scare us. It is here to remind us that decisions about implementing technologies are made all the time. But these technologies are expensive, and therefore substitute for another investment. They deeply shape our future, and it is often difficult or even impossible to go back (ratchet effect9).

I want to believe that we have reached the digital age of reason. And that we can now think and decide collectively (and if possible democratically) which technologies we want to develop, and which ones we want to put aside. Wouldn’t that be the real progress?

The rise of computers and the Internet have triggered two major revolutions in our computing capacities on the one hand, and communication on the other. It seems to me that concerning education, it is more through their communication capacities that technologies can really be useful (they already were during the first confinement). First, by allowing the implementation of rich educational activities, based on collective and contributive projects (in the classroom, between classes). Then by facilitating the relationship and collaboration between students, between teachers and parents, between teachers within a large educational community.

Featured Photo from bantersnaps on Unsplash

Notes de bas de page

  1. Education technologies, which designate all new technologies allowing to facilitate teaching and learning
  2. The period of confinement and distance learning has been the occasion of very beautiful projects thanks to digital technologies
  3. a concept popularized by Naomi Klein’s essay, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
  4. In France, “minors are indeed considered as “vulnerable” persons and the RGPD as well as the control authorities call for a particular attention”
  5. You can watch this video by Maurice Tardif on this subject, or read the report by Catherine Beschetti-Bizot: Rethinking the school form in the digital age
  6. Two examples. The setting up by les Chatons, a collective of french hosters, of a mutual aid site hosting the main communication tools. And the emergency launch of a platform that was under development at the Ministry of Education, First launched in beta, this platform has been perpetuated and continues to be enriched
  7. let’s remember that not all our schools have the fiber, far from it)
  8. Nevertheless, we can note the recent articles testifying to the increasing immiscion of companies in the world of higher education
  9. The ratchet effect is a phenomenon or process stated by James Duesenberry, which prevents the reversal of a process once a certain stage has been passed (Source Wikipedia)

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