Still divided on whether teachers, parents or politicians are to blame

Can we close the education divide? Maybe, but not by stuffing it with computers and smart boards

Register Debate This week's Register Debate tussled over the motion Technology widens the education divide. The results are in, and as you can see, we have a clear winner.

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Education is always an emotive topic. Throw technology and the pandemic into the mix, and you can guarantee The Register readership will shoot a metaphorical forest of hands into the air, all eager to give their opinion.

The problem is few of us actually have first-hand knowledge of how technology really works in the classroom today. It could be a decade or more since most of us were anywhere near a classroom with a computer, though some of us might have a highly refracted view courtesy of our own offspring. Luckily, some of our contributors were able to report direct from the frontline.

Rowan Cullen, who teaches geography somewhere in the south east of England, kicked off proceedings, writing in favour of the motion.

Her evidence? The widespread chaos that accompanied the UK's pivot to remote learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Did we say widespread chaos? Well, in the state sector anyway. But, as Rowan noted, it was no surprise that privately educated and grammar school kids, with teachers beamed into their studies courtesy of UHD cameras and top end broadband, were more likely to receive top grades in this year's exams.

"These schools didn't have to navigate the impossibilities of educating some kids one way, some another, and the rest not at all," she wrote. "What is most important, however, is how our students are going to cope with being back in the classroom. That is when the true effects of digital exclusion will become apparent."

Rowan's arguments kicked off a flurry of comments. ComputerSays noAbsolutelyNo, was heavily upvoted for suggesting: "I guess it's not technology in itself that's the problem, the underlying issue is, and will always be, inequality. However, when all pupils go to class physically, the teacher can act as an equalizer, furthermore, the weaker learners may also profit from their stronger learning peers. … Why tech wides the educational divide, imho, is the reliance on tech, and not the existence of it."

Who wouldn't want a teacher who was an "equalizer"? (Though whether Edward Woodward or Denzel Washington should be in the role model might be a whole other debate.)

One of the most upvoted responses came from Joe Drunk, who suggested that "Kids who don't complete Home Learning Packs lack a role model at home that ensures these assignments get done. I did a stint upgrading teachers' desktop PCs at a high school a few years back before the pandemic. The students who had the most difficulty, behavior wise and grade wise, also had parents who wouldn't reply to emails or letters sent home requesting to meet with them. It's almost as if once they breed them they expect the school to raise their kids for them. Bad home life equals bad school life."

Prof Andy Phippen launched the argument against the motion on Tuesday. He took a broader view, pointing out that harm arising from technology came from the actions of those using it, not the technology itself.

In education, as in society in general, technology could broaden participation, and enable communication on a worldwide scale. The problems in the UK schools were two-fold, he said. Availability and access were clear problems during lockdown. But this was exacerbated by an assumption of knowledge – that younger teachers were "digital natives" who could just work it out. If technology was exacerbating the divide, this was a policy issue, Andy argued.

Andy's comments sparked one Anonymous Coward to ask: "First thing for me - what is the educational divide? Is it access to information, access to opportunity or access to good teachers?... To my mind, the key to all success in education is teachers. … If the teacher is bad, no amount of technology will fix it. If the teacher is good, technology will (might) be largely irrelevant."

Which prompted GrumpenKraut to suggest family plays a bigger role: "If your father is, say, an engineer and has tons of books, this is a huge advantage against coming from a family where the only printed matter is the daily Mail." (This also led to a series of fascinating comments about digitisation in German and Swedish schools)

Another teacher, Maria Russell, wrote in favour of the motion on Wednesday, taking a different tack to Rowan. In her primary school, she said, children had been "magnetically drawn" to technology. Pre-pandemic that is. Once they returned to the classroom, they'd clearly had their fill, and wanted to climb, to act, to be read to – to even handle real books.

"Technology had lost its association with 'fun' and was less compelling," she wrote.

The danger was that an overreliance on technology distracted from the broader needs of children, particularly when it came to physical stimulation. And while privately educated children might have had full time Zoom lessons during the pandemic and kept up with "content", they'd have still suffered socially, she suggested.

As G Watty What? suggested, working in cramped, unpleasant conditions with inadequate technology, had actually given a generation of youngsters the most realistic work experience ever. "You are ready for the office younglings."

And gold badge commenter ILikeDrinkingBeer added, "In my opinion, 'tech' has massively over-reached the point where it is helpful, and is now obstinately wedged into every single corner of our lives, to the detriment of our ability to think and interact as independent human beings."

It was down to yours truly to wrap up the debate, urging readers to look beyond the specifics of how technology helped – or didn't – through the pandemic, and consider whether the real problem is politicians, policy makers, and vested interests, who have a cock-eyed view of what technology on its own can actually achieve. Should we really believe a cabinet of PPE graduates when they tell us we have to push more children into STEM?

Vote against the motion, I suggested, but also vote against politicians who mouth trite slogans about every child being able to code, without understanding that a pallet of laptops is no use for online learning without accompanying internet access.

This prompted veteran teacher Terry 6 to comment: "Forty years of experience tells me that what matters most are: language skills, social skills and problem solving/thinking skills. These include, of course, good literacy and numeracy." Oh, and "Teaching coding as a panacea is plain mad."

And we think HildyJ was on the button when they said, "IBM, in the olden days, slapped THINK on a bunch of corporate tchotchkes and it is at the core of this argument. Technology can facilitate critical thinking or it can facilitate rote learning."

So, what have we learned, class, apart from the fact that a few commenters have clearly forgotten what they learned in English grammar? Many were firmly in either the "it's down to the parents" or the "it's down to the teachers" camps, but hardly anyone saw technology as a cure-all. But teaching children to think for themselves was seen as essential. Teaching them to code really wasn't.

Nevertheless, in the end, the readers chose to listen to the teachers, and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion. ®

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