From Impossible to Practical: Tech can enhance teacher-student relationships if harnessed correctly

How can EdTech foster learning and help teachers in their everyday work? Banner Image: R. Disale

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Over the next few decades, as Earth’s climate changes and its population continues to grow, our global society will face economic, environmental, political and social challenges like never before. To survive and thrive, we will need populations of educated young people in every part of the globe.

Regrettably, that aspiration is not yet being met. Even today, educational chances vary considerably depending on the country a child is born in. In particular, the education of girls has long been neglected. One hundred and thirty million girls were out of school before the COVID pandemic, and UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls may not return to school when it is over.

Many today hope that technology can play a role in ending the great education divide. In my own work as a teacher in India, one of my innovations was the creation of tailored QR-coded textbooks that link students to YouTube videos, educational websites, poems, lectures, stories, or in some cases a piece of audio I have recorded myself. Using media beyond the printed page allowed me to capture my students’ attention—and the effect on their attendance and achievement has meant that QR-coded textbooks have now become standard in other parts of the country.

Before EdTech solutions can become viable on a wider scale, however, we must understand that simply throwing technology at a problem is often not in itself enough to solve it. We also have to understand the ways in which tech can best be used, as well as its limitations.

First, it is important to recognise that the benefits of tech only reach as far as people can access them with appropriate devices and internet connections. According to UNESCO, 43% (706 million) of the world’s school-age learners lack internet access, and in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 82%. This lack of provision is also connected with gender disparity: in low- and middle-income countries, according to a 2021 study by the GSMA, women are 7% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 15% less likely to use mobile internet.

Read more on the Forum Network: United We Stand, Digitally Divided We Fall: Gold-standard digital literacy ensures access to technology regardless of age, gender and background, by Tracey Burns, Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

One of the reasons my QR-coded textbooks were effective is that they were designed specifically to work with the level of tech that my students could access and easily use. I knew beforehand that almost every family in my village had at least one mobile phone—just enough for the children to borrow for an hour or two in the evening and do some extra learning. The point, of course, is that tech innovations have to be practical and workable in the present. Policymakers and EdTech strategists therefore need to design solutions that can work for a real population in a real area, not just an imagined, theoretical or future group of people.

In some cases, however, teachers may also see an opportunity to step in and fill the gap. For example, in my own teaching I noticed that during the pandemic families could no longer afford as much mobile data as they used to—so we found ways to stretch this data out for our students, often by arranging for devices to be shared. At times, I also borrowed spare devices from my own friends to add to the pile. Where possible, teachers should work with NGOs or even other schools to make the best use of available resources.

School girls look at a computer screen
Image: R. Disale

Second, the QR-coded textbooks worked because they served already-identified teaching needs. Some students responded much better to some forms of media than others, and this simple technology allowed me to tailor the material to them by using different QR codes in the books. It also meant that students could learn at their own pace, which was an additional advantage when students had special learning needs.

So what is the lesson here? Often, the best uses of technology just make teaching ideas practical where before they might have been impossible. Online learning, apps and curated content are just ways to facilitate education—not a substitute for it. That is why teachers do not have to be highly skilled in IT in order to come up with innovative EdTech ideas. Often, they just need to think creatively about their teaching, and ask: “How might technology help me achieve my aims?”

In general, I have found that educational success is the result of teaching methods that empower students, boost their self-confidence and turn them into self-starting learners. That is why—as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Sunny Varkey highlighted at the recent Building The Bandwidth summit—equipping teachers for the future and putting them at the heart of our mission is crucial. As we enter a period in history where tech offers us more educational possibilities than ever before, we must not lose sight of the fact that successful education is always fundamentally about teachers, students and the understanding between them. Technology can improve that relationship—but it can never eliminate it.

Read more in the OECD's Digital Education Outlook 2021 Pushing the Frontiers with Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Robots

Cover of the OECD Digital Education Outlook 2021

Learn more about personalisation of learning from the OECD Digital Education Outlook 2021:

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Future of Education & Skills Tackling COVID-19 Digital Inclusion Child Well-being

Ranjitsinh Disale

Teacher & Winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2020, The World Bank

Ranjitsinh Disale, the winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, considered a Nobel Prize equivalent for teaching, shared half of his winnings with the other finalist teachers to help transform the profession. He took up teaching as an alternative profession to a career in IT. Although initially hesitant about teacher training, he successfully transformed innumerable lives, breaking significant barriers for girls in society and in the education field in India. By actively fighting for girls’ education rather than have girls marry at an early age or get a job, he has significantly boosted the retention of girls in school and improved their learning outcomes.

His use of technology in a hybrid teaching methodology has also greatly improved learning outcomes for all of his students. For example, he incorporated QR codes for audio visual supplementary material in textbooks to boost learning outcomes. His QR code idea is now being adopted across the country and is helping children learn remotely even through the pandemic. He also learned the local language of his students and redesigned material in their language. Ranjitsinh’s approach to teaching clearly demonstrates how improvements to education can be made as well as inspiring change in policy and government delivery of educational services.

Ranjitsinh has been a vocal advocate of technology to close gaps in education. He highlights that this can serve to rapidly update outdated curriculum taught in many developing countries but also close the gender gap that manifests itself early on in education and learning outcomes. Girls have faced significantly more setbacks with the onset of Covid-19 and closure of schools. As their education is not prioritized, without school they are more susceptible to being married off prematurely, being subject to domestic abuse or being asked not to return to school in favor of work. Ranjitsinh has stressed the importance of a technology-driven transformation and its time critical nature. He has successfully onboarded the students at his school online, enabling them to attend classes from home and setting an example for schools all over India.