We have long moved past worrying whether or not digital technology has a place in education. Schools, colleges and universities are now replete with digital devices, systems and applications.
Many recently developed digital forms of education seem to benefit those who are already well-resourced and well-educated.
A teacher now has to make a conscious effort not to use technology in their classroom—even then it's likely that students will use their own devices. Outside educational institutions, the ways we find things out and learn on a day-to-day basis usually involves Google, Wikipedia or YouTube.
In short, digital technology now lies at the heart of how information is consumed, how knowledge is created and how people communicate with each other. Digital technology is clearly a key part of what education is in the 21st century.
Yet because of this ubiquity, educational uses of technology tend to escape critical scrutiny and questioning. How digital technologies are being used in education settings is rarely the focus of public concern or political controversy. Most people just presume it's common-sense for school students to be given an iPad or allowed to bring their own device. There is little disquiet that schools are being compelled to teach coding or that national examinations and tests aredelivered online.
In fact, educational use of technology only tends to provoke disquiet and disagreement when it's not being delivered quickly enough. This usually involves commentators outside the education sector contrasting the impact of digital technology in everyday life with the apparent inability or reluctance of educators to follow suit.
Publicity-seeking politicians will occasionally contend that 19th century classrooms have no place in on the demand age of Netfix and Uber. Industrialists will bemoan the lack of tech-savvy applicants for jobs. Technology firms will complain that education systems are hidebound by tradition.
These are all valid concerns. The education system clearly isn't perfect. Far too many students drop out of school. National curricula and prescribed methods of teaching are inflexible and based around 'one-size-fits-all' assumptions. Strong arguments can be made that university education is sometimes expensive, elitist and can lack utility and relevance. All told, it's understandable that digital technologies are welcomed as a solution.
Undoubtedly the past decade has seen some impressive technological advances in education. So-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) now offer low-cost or no-cost university-level education to tens of thousands of people at a time, regardless of their circumstances.
In short, recent developments in digital technology offer alternatives to the forms of education that traditional schools and universities provide. Technology is seen to support forms of education that many people believe are more democratic, flexible and appropriate to people's lives in the digital age.
Yet—as we know from the digitization of most other areas of society—technological change is rarely that straightforward.
Education is not a malleable computational system that can be easily debugged or upgraded, however. Nor will throwing billions of dollars at pet educational projects resolve the deep-rooted social problems that limit the success of education systems. Having directed much of his philanthropic energies toward disease eradication and school reform, Bill Gates has been driven to admit that fixing the US education system has turned out to be a much tougher job than combating tuberculosis, polio and malaria.
Concerns such as these need to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as ill-informed Luddism. Questioning the role of technological advances in education is a necessary step towards realizing their potential. Emerging forms of digital technology clearly have much to offer.
However, it is inevitable that these technologies will have other consequences, including changes to why we value education. Perhaps the most important issues that underpin the increased use of technology in education are not technical but sociological: 'What is education for? What forms of education do we want?'
These are concerns that demand the attention of everyone involved in education. Given the importance of education there is a need for proper grown-up debate about complexities and contradictions of technology's role. Digital technology needs to be seen as the starting point for conversations about the future of education—not as the definitive answer.