Navigating the digital and AI era in education: insights from UNESCO’s Digital Learning Week
By Sjoerd Stoffels
Thinking of UNESCO, many might not realise that the organisation plays a significant role in the field of digital technology and education. It engages in a wide range of activities, including policy development and advocacy, establishment of standards and guidelines, research and data collection, infrastructure and capacity building, promotion of inclusivity and equity, and encouragement of digital literacy. I attended UNESCO’s Digital Learning Week in Paris in September, a new annual flagship event addressing the growing impact of technology on teaching and learning globally.
Echoes from a recent past
Understanding the future of technology in teaching and learning requires acknowledging disparities in digital connectivity, content, and capacity. Many in the Global South and among underprivileged social classes were deprived of sustainable learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNESCO’s research, aimed at assessing the pandemic’s impact on education, resulted in the publication An Ed-Tech Tragedy?
This comprehensive report was officially presented in Paris. It starts by examining the general response to the widespread school closures caused by COVID-19. Next, attention is tuned to the attempts to ensure educational continuity through remote learning and how it faced relentless and unforeseen obstacles. Technology-dependent remote learning disrupted family dynamics, increased educational inequalities, induced emotional and physical stress, and lowered academic achievement. Furthermore, closures and lockdowns led to an overexposure of young learners to screen time and social media.
But UNESCO’s research did not stop there, because the report also underscores a fundamental lesson: recognising the limitations of technology in meeting multifaceted educational expectations. While the global health crisis has passed, the reliance on Ed-Tech, born out of the pandemic’s response, remains robust. Policymakers and education stakeholders need to reflect on these experiences, exploring unaddressed questions, ideas, and alternative scenarios, based on insights gained from the extensive adoption of educational technology from 2020 to 2022.
Into the present with the arrival of Generative AI
Another prominent event theme was the Generative AI (GenAI) revolution. UNESCO’s research confirms the far-reaching implications for global education, highlighting how GenAI has taken over the digital divide baton from the pandemic, thereby accelerating inequity even more. For example, influential and disruptive AI companies are predominantly concentrated in the United States, China, and the EU. Furthermore, among the rich tapestry of global languages, only ten are represented in the AI domain. Notably, a staggering 90% of AI and online higher education content originates from the Global West and North. These inequalities emphasise the urgent need for a global effort to bridge the AI gap, ensuring that its benefits are accessible and discernible for everyone, regardless of ethnic, gender, social, geographical, or linguistic context.
UNESCO therefore also presented their Guidance for Generative AI in Education and Research, a publication that delves into a range of critical topics when manoeuvring the GenAI landscape, including addressing ethical controversies and exploring their implications for education. Several questions have set the stage for this document, including the following: Do we regard the process of seeking answers through clicks and prompts as a form of learning that fosters intellectual growth? With GenAI’s capacity to automate students’ output, what are the expectations for their learning outcomes?
These questions underscore the significance of guidelines, offering a roadmap for the development of policy and skills frameworks to guide the ethical, creative, and effective use of GenAI in both education and research. Ultimately, they serve as a compass for shaping more inclusive, equitable, and globally connected education for generations to come. Interesting is that the EU member states are currently negotiating the EU AI Act, which closely aligns with UNESCO’s AI recommendations.
From Frameworks to Learning outcomes
UNESCO is actively working on Competency Frameworks for both teachers and students (equivalent to the EU Frameworks). The goal is to ensure digital, media, AI and information skills for educators, students, and citizens in an increasingly digital and interconnected world. Besides the already established ICT Competency Framework for Teachers, a draft AI Competency Framework for teachers and students was presented during the Digital Learning Week, and is projected to become official in 2024.
Ideally, guidelines and frameworks should facilitate the integration of digital and GenAI skills into education. This integration should subsequently become visible in learning outcomes, which may include:
- Higher-order thinking skills based on human-AI collaboration and data output.
- Vocational skills essential for working with and alongside GenAI.
- Responsible and ethical use of GenAI.
- The enhancement of meta-skills with the assistance of GenAI.
During Digital Learning Week, I encountered a compelling comparison: Plato’s Allegory of the cave applies just as aptly to our (post)modern society. Our perspective on the world and ourselves is profoundly influenced by the technologies, devices, and algorithms that now envelop us. Bearing this in mind, I would like to conclude with the following remarks:
Given the profound digitisation of education and society, it is advisable to intertwine digital competences with the curriculum of our programmes. This integration should encompass not only the creative utilisation of tools in teaching and learning but also the cultivation of critical perspectives and ethical considerations concerning the use of digital technology. This is especially pertinent in the context of GenAI, which has gained considerable significance in the digital domain.
A personal key takeaway from the event is the recognition that while technology offers vast opportunities, it also raises a sobering concern: the potential to exacerbate inequalities, both within and among societies. When considering inclusivity, diversity, and digital equity, it’s crucial to keep a global perspective in mind.
About the author
Sjoerd Stoffels is project leader and consultant educational technology at FASoS. He has long-term experience in this domain, also being an eyewitness of its genesis. Sjoerd is active in several faculty, university and (inter)national educational technology proceedings. He was awarded with the UM Education Prize once, plus nominated two more times.