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Education Technology Summit: Content Chair interview

The Education Technology Summit at ISE 2023 has the title 'Connected, compassionate, creative: edtech for a changing world'. We talk to Summit Content Chair Gill Ferrell about what taking a more humane approach to technology can achieve.

What can we expect from the Education Technology Summit this year?

It’s fair to say we will be looking both forward and inward this year. As ever we will bring you state-of-the-art technologies and equally topical will be our reflective discussions on the relationship between humans and digital technology.

We are living through strange and unsettled times. The last two to three years have shown us the enormous potential of education technology and now is the right time to ask ourselves some questions about whether we are doing the right things with that potential.

This year’s speakers will provoke you to think and to question assumptions. I hope they will also inspire you to see how a humane approach to technology helps us design more effective learning experiences that are better for our students and our planet.


What are the emerging trends in learning and teaching?

In many sectors, homeworking and online activity is the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. Education, however, is very different to other AV markets. It is hard to describe a ‘new normal’ when the public health crisis continued for so long that many students now in their second and third years of study have no experience of what was normal in the first place.

Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were increasingly aware that support for student mental health and well-being is an important factor in academic success. Daily video-conferencing into one another’s homes added a new dimensional to our understanding of the need to support the whole learner. It also highlighted barriers to learning which need to be addressed by exposing disparities in terms of access to equipment, infrastructure and suitable space to learn.

A plea that I heard more and more over the past couple of years is the need for ‘compassionate pedagogy’. This enhanced empathy with our learners and their individual needs is driving innovation in learning design and student support.


How are global trends affecting the education market?

We hope and believe that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us but we are no longer sufficiently naïve to think it will be the last such emergency. The need for flexible learning takes on a new dimension when we think of all the possible factors that can disrupt the learning experience.

Climate change, conflict and economic crisis are global problems that have an immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of many learners and teachers. There are currently around a hundred million displaced persons in the world, many of whom are learners and jobseekers. Education technology has a vital role to play in providing these people with access to learning and digital evidence of their skills and qualifications.

These global problems affect the cost and availability of the components to build our systems and the energy to run them. Having succeeded in digital transformation, education providers are facing supply issues and being encouraged to prepare contingency plans in the event of power outages this winter.


What opportunities and challenges do you see for AV?

There are certainly numerous challenges. During the pandemic, IT services in universities were pretty much handed a blank cheque book to provide an emergency response. Their success in doing so has raised expectations to an all-time high. People want to get back together on campus but they also want the flexibility to learn in hybrid mode when it suits them. Teachers and learners want to have their cake and eat it. This ‘cakeism’ combined with economic gloom and rising energy costs, will put pressure on IT budgets in the immediate future.

Climate change is a challenge that will impact our use of AV tools. We think of digital technologies as greener than their physical alternatives but how much do we really understand about the carbon footprint of our digital activities? The summit will open our eyes to the environmental implications of our digital choices. Energy costs and shortages bring this even more sharply into focus.

The biggest challenges however lie around ethics. Just because we can do something with technology doesn’t mean we should. Big data and artificial intelligence are immensely powerful and that kind of power is not without risk. Our learning technologies are not simply neutral tools that serve us. They are designed with intent and reflect assumptions made by their creators. One of my favourite quotes from Cathy O’Neil (the author of Weapons of math destruction) sums this up perfectly: ‘Algorithms are opinions embedded in code’.

If we don’t make a conscious effort to engage all our stakeholders in design decisions, our tools will reflect unconscious biases and assumptions that may cause them to work very differently from the way we intended. There are well-known examples e.g. the racist soap dispenser: whereby a sensor designed to detect motion was unable to recognise black skin and early examples of artificial intelligence ‘learning’ from unintended sources to spout sexism and hate speech.

These are serious issues and our ability to make the most of technology supported learning depends on our responses to them. Education, certainly in Europe, is largely publicly funded and a force for social good. Our community of providers and suppliers has a duty to act ethically and responsibly and ISE provides a marvellous opportunity for us to come together and discuss these challenges.

The opportunities are really the flipside of the challenges.

Technology offers the opportunity for learners and teachers to make connections and stay connected wherever they may be. We are already using it to support meaningful interaction from pre-enrolment through to peer learning and assessment.

Technology allows us to support more inclusive learning design by enabling us to offer the variety of media, resources, scenarios, projects and ways of demonstrating skills that allow our learners to be who they truly are and bring their own lived experience to the co-creation of knowledge.

Today’s learners are the researchers and innovators of the future. They are the people who will solve the global challenges we’ve been talking about if we can use our collective wisdom to build a supportive and trustworthy digital ecosystem that allows them the opportunity to do so.