Fostering inclusivity in education through digital technology: Is it possible?
The COVID-19 pandemic has utterly impacted educational institutions and has caused unprecedented disruption in both teaching and learning. It changed everything dramatically with the paradigm shift from the physical classroom to the online space via digital platforms and other modalities. Today, digital technology has become synonymous to modern learning, a powerful instrument in promoting and improving education.
In this new era of revolutionized educational practices, digital technology could potentially promote effective education to all students. If technology can encourage learning and teaching beyond the traditional techniques, will it ensure an individual’s creativity and sense of success? If it could promise easier accessibility to and enhanced presentation of information, how could it make education more interactive, and more inclusive, especially to students with disabilities and those who have limited access to technology?
To answer these questions, the NISAI group, in collaboration with UNESCO|ITE and INQUIRER.net, recently launched a series of webinars, commencing with the first of the series dubbed as “Towards A Truly Inclusive Education System In Asia”. Speakers included key opinion leaders like Natalia Amelina, Senior Project Officer in Education, UNESCO|ITE; Brajesh Panth, Education Reform Advisor; and Dr. Jim Pugh, Director of the Institute of Education, Staffordshire University in UK. “These speakers were invited to share their perspectives on how we can create a truly inclusive education systems in Asia,” Imee Alcantara, Chief Operating Officer of INQUIRER.net, said. With insights from these education Thought Leaders, the webinar probed all the challenges and learnings during the COVID-19 pandemic, laid down solutions, and further explored what the future of education might look like in Asia in the coming years. This also provided perceptions for designing better solutions for all institutions and educational stakeholders, championing the expansion of the right to education, and providing opportunities for everyone.
Digital technology vis-a-vis the educational divide
Embracing technology and innovation could forward a resilient education system that is collaborative and all-inclusive in this unexpected new norm. A significant part of the United Nations’ 2030 agenda for sustainable development includes the advocacy to champion quality of education that is equitable and inclusive for all, and we are cognizant that digital technology has emerged as one of the most efficient instrument generate a powerful impact and achieve this goal. The recent global health scare further established digital technology and its role in the entire education system, as it has evolved from a mere knowledge provider to co-creator of information, and mentor, making life easier for students, or so we thought.
“Technology is the driving force of education, and countries around the world have been leveraging on it for many years. These initiatives are driven by commercial technology companies and have resulted in paradoxes such as increasing digital inequalities and uneven access to education. Skills learned in school are often misaligned with the skills to find a decent job or engage positively in the development of the country,” Amelina, who is particularly involved in the development and the ICT development of teachers, shared. She further noted that even UNESCO Director General Audrey Azuolay said that during the pandemic, distance learning tools such as the internet, radio, and TV have proven to be useful, however, they also revealed their limitations. Because while technology promises easy access to education, the reality is that digital divide still exists, increasing educational inequalities. During the pandemic most students didn’t have effective access to distance learning since only 40% of primary schools worldwide currently have internet access. Some Filipino students continue to face the challenge of the insufficiency of gadgets and limited access to connectivity, as those who belong to families living under the poverty line, do not have sufficient money to purchase gadgets, much less to pay for monthly internet subscriptions.
Furthermore, students everywhere have been exposed to the promise of personalized learning and the internet has led us to forget the fundamental, social, and human dimension that lies in the heart of education. Amelina is right; no screen can ever replace the impact, empathy, and presence of a human teacher, and this alone speaks volumes of how e-inclusion and distance learning has increased social inequalities, despite everyone’s vision to make education a global common good.
Teachers as purveyors of inclusive education
Technology is slowly but surely changing the teaching profession. Where conventional classroom instructions fail to provide instant learning environment, quicker assessments, increased engagement, digital technology fill this void with unparalleled methodologies. However, teachers still play a crucial role in every student’s deep and meaningful learning because students nowadays are no longer just passive receivers of learning, as they have evolved into being active participants in their own journey to self and intellectual discovery.
We must bear in mind that what and how students learn, and how their learning is assessed are all driven or limited by everyone’s learning needs, abilities, disabilities, and differences, a pedagogy shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered environment is necessary. Teachers should adapt and use multiple resources related to the curriculum through a student-centered and data-driven approach. “Student-centered pedagogy has many benefits, for example, personalization includes children’s attitudes towards learning, or serious and project-based learning increases student engagement. This is very essential as the availability of technology may expand the potential of student-centered learning. In those education systems where technology is widely available, teachers need to adapt their pedagogy, use multiple resources, the curriculum and assessment and use internet more frequently with students and parents,” Amelina explained.
The effectiveness of online learning varies among age groups and their mental, social, and physical capabilities. For instance, children who are easily distracted might need a more structed environment, like those with physical, mental, end economic limitations would need extra guidance and monitoring. The latest World Report on Disabilities (Disability (who.int)) highlights that 15% of the global population today lives with some form of disability, and around 72% of classrooms have students with identified additional learning needs, it is clear that inclusive best practice is something needed in every classroom across the world.
Assessment of and establishing significant and genuine interactions with students and their families more frequently, is the first step to collaboration which education providers (teachers, parents, mentors) could make, that will eventually be a precondition for success in teacher professional development. To help teachers achieve these, Amelina shared how UNESCO|ITE promotes accessibility and e-inclusion for teachers through webinars, research, teacher training programs, e-library courses that promote disability-inclusive strategies, accessibility, and e-inclusion. Recognizing and understanding these barriers, specifically for those with disabilities and underprivileged students, will greatly contribute to the timely and efficient mitigation of pandemic impact on equitable quality education and encourage further recovery actions that will truly benefit persons with disabilities as we strive to recognize and highlight the issue of social inclusion and digital divide among people with disabilities during and after pandemic.
Pugh noted that the significance of great teaching is the most important foundation that will make a difference. “If we’re aiming for educational system excellence, then we must aim for a professional education workforce, such as teachers and other experts who lead and manage education.” To achieve equity in education, educational institutions should engage in professional workforce development, quality of the people who delivers learning to children as they have the most vital importance for learning outcomes.
UNESCO has warned the public about the global teacher shortage crisis, proof that we currently have more students than teachers. “Therefore, the concept of attracting, selecting, and training is essential for the education system. There is an oversight in the complexity of the journey of attracting, selecting, and training educators. There should be mentoring and development to maintain the high-quality work, and we’re losing on both counts. We are not recruiting quality teachers, and we’re not keeping them,” Pugh explained. Educators should lead constructively, but this aim will only be enhanced through workplace transformation and changing the approach to work. However, lack of training, unattractive working conditions and inadequate funding all undermine the teaching profession and aggravate the learning crisis. According to Azoulay, UNESCO has always placed teachers at the heart of the fight for the right to inclusive and quality education. There is an urgent need to better recognize this profession on which the future of children depends.
“In an education provider’s point of view and approach, there is a need for passionate and resilient teachers who have a love for learning and the connected curriculum; critically reflective teachers who are curious and daring. The world needs educators who are confident to use research to inform their practice and the practice of others, and those who take responsibility for the importance of community, their role within the classroom and their impact on children’s lives,” Pugh expressed. Teachers should need to employ flexible and tailor their degrees to their individual interests through either a general route or specialized pathways, that cater to special educational needs and disabilities, mental and well-being. Knowing that we are all part of the development of education, creating win-win partnerships and collaborations with policy makers, teachers, students, mentors, family members, as we move forward in our goal for education for a sustainable future.
Holistic and integrated approaches to countering challenges and embracing opportunities
“The learning crisis has worsened during the pandemic from 53% to 70%, affecting disproportionately the most vulnerable. There has been lots of good analysis on the crisis, but not enough on what is required, and what works. And where analysis on what works is available, it is not clear if it can be scaled up,” Panth noted. Having access to digital technology does not guarantee learning or solving a greater question about students’ willingness or readiness to learn. While teacher quality is an important element for delivering education quality, it is also crucial for education providers (such as teachers, family, and community) to extend support via connectivity, nutrition, and health, and their well-being, the route to their holistic educational healing. There is a dire need, therefore, to make 21st century skills a goal, and make learning more relevant.
For Panth, education needs to be integrated with other sectors that contribute to the socio-economic development of the country, including the individual’s health, nutrition, hygiene, and everyone’s gentle lobbying for these visions with policy makers in government. Moreover, education must be aligned with national curriculum to check and support all students—and when simultaneously complemented with holistic solutions—could produce 21st century lifelong learners. “Without education technology, it will be impossible to implement equity and inclusive learning. However, quality of teachers is key, alongside policy laws and regulations, implementation, research, innovation, and financing, and partnerships with the likes of the NISAI Group, which are crucial for educational equity,” he declared.
Since 1996, the NISAI Group have been delivering flexible, innovative education programmes to learners and have supported them in achieving their goals. Being so much more than online learning, it provides a friendly, supportive learning community and offer students incredible opportunities. The Group support learners up to the age of 25 and help create pathways to further education and employment through personalized learning, because it believes that everyone has equal value and should have access to high quality education around the world. Furthermore, the NISAI Group supports learning barriers through innovative education that is accessible and affordable to all, providing a holistic learning experience for both traditional and non-traditional learners through innovative education that could fuel positive institutional change.
The roadmap to inclusive education
While distance learning through technology can be successfully implemented given the standards of the new normal, educators should align and establish clear conditions for success, make key choices around the device, platform, and content they will use for teaching before rolling out remote teaching and learning strategy, monitor and modify initiatives along the way. Evidently, the journey towards equitable education should not stop with connectivity and accessibility. “Education is not a zero-sum game, as we are all part of it. We should share and learn from each other to be able to raise practice and learning outcomes globally. We should put pressure on our policy makers, head teachers, and even family members to make education all-inclusive,” Pugh expressed.
Inclusivity in education is like a base camp for real life. The higher the standard we set, the more likely it is that inclusivity will become common practice in society more largely in the future. Therefore, we should all join hands, influence our policy makers, and encourage education professionals to create a flexible, equitable, and inclusive system of learning. While global education disruption left a massive negative effect on teaching and learning, education stakeholders need to work with everyone to ensure that digital education solutions are truly a universally inclusive technology that promotes empowerment and equity to all students, regardless of their ability, disability, mobility, location, and economic status.
Moving forward, we acknowledge that there is so much potential in employing technology to make education more manageable, inclusive, and adaptive to fast, evolving teaching and learning landscape. When done in synergy with all sectors—including the government—we shall be able to give every student their right to a better education, benefitting them, as our future nation-builders.