UNESCO: “No screen can ever replace the humanity of a teacher”

On the Education Report 2023

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and remedial teacher

The new school year has begun. Our schools are equipped with many new devices, and some school communities proudly report that their pupils are now equipped with tablets. The necessary credits had been generously promised, after all, it was about the future of our children, who had to be prepared for a world shaped by digitalisation. It is often praised that distance teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that technological solutions in education were a very appropriate tool and should be seen as an inevitable form of progress. Also, distance learning had finally broken through the mistrust and technophobia of many teachers. The favourable moment was therefore used to obtain the necessary finances to provide digital devices for all school levels.
  These euphoric voices are rightly met with scepticism, and critical voices are increasingly being heard that question in whose service this development is and whether it actually improves children’s educational opportunities.

A tool on whose terms?

Some time ago, UNESCO published its comprehensive Education Report 2023 entitled “Technology in Education – a tool on whose terms?”1. UNESCO plays an important role in the education policies of its member countries, coordinating and monitoring how they implement the agreed goals. The current education goal of the Education 2030 Agenda is: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”2 It is part of the sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in 2015 and is to be achieved by 2030.

“No screen can ever
replace the humanity of a teacher”

In her foreword, Audrey Azoulay, the Director General of UNESCO, addresses three widespread promises associated with the technologisation of schools that would raise false expectations.3 “Firstly, there is the promise of personalized learning. Very often, this powerful hope leads us to forget the fundamental social and human dimension that lies at the heart of education. It is worth reiterating the obvious: no screen can ever replace the humanity of a teacher. As underlined in the UNESCO ‘Futures of Education’ report, published in 2021, the relationship between teachers and technology must be one of complementarity – never of substitutability.”
  In other words, Azoulay emphasises the indispensable importance of the teacher personality and the relationship for the learning process and relegates the digital devices that are widely used today to the place where they belong, namely as an additional and possible tool with which teaching can at best be didactically and methodologically expanded.

Evidence for real added value
of digital technology is missing

The second misguided expectation she cites is the claim that digital technology will make education more accessible. This is not the case, she says, as “[…] the reality is that digital divides still exist, to the point of actually increasing educational inequalities – which is the second paradox that this report highlights. During the pandemic, almost a third of pupils did not have effective access to distance learning – unsurprisingly, since only 40% of primary schools worldwide currently have Internet access. Even if connectivity was universal, it would still be necessary to demonstrate, from a pedagogical point of view, that digital technology offers real added value in terms of effective learning, especially at a time when we are all becoming aware of the risks of excessive screen time.”

Commercial and private
interests, lack of data protection

“The last paradox, and by no means the least,” Azoulay continues, “is that, despite the desire to make education a global common good, the role of commercial and private interests in education continues to grow, with all the ambiguities that entails: to date, only one in seven countries legally guarantees the privacy of educational data.”
  As a compass for each country’s education strategies, the Education Report therefore makes two strong recommendations: First, to systematically prioritise student welfare over all other considerations – especially commercial ones – and second, to ensure that technology is seen as a means and not an end.

Homework for decision-makers

UNESCO therefore calls on the respective governments to clarify whether the use of educational technology is at all suitable for the national and local context. The risk that digitalisation favours the already privileged and further excludes others, thus further increasing inequality in learning, must also be ruled out. Governments are warned not to be tempted by the overwhelming range of products and platforms in the education sector to make decisions without sufficient evidence of benefits and costs (only about 25% of the total costs are necessary for the initial investment, the remaining 75% are follow-up costs, for example for technical support, which are generally not named). Furthermore, the countries would always have to check whether the digital technology actually brought sustainable benefits and was not guided by narrow economic considerations and particular interests.4

Good, unbiased insights are scarce

These core statements derive from a multi-faceted and differentiated report that incorporates the current state of research and previous experience. The advantages and disadvantages of digital technology in the education sector are weighed against each other. Schools are being called upon to set and abide by rules that everyone must abide by and to clarify what role new technologies should play in learning and how they can be used responsibly. Aware, as the report points out, that good, unbiased insights into the impact of educational technology are scarce – much of the research comes from those trying to sell their products.

Develop a critical awareness

Pupils must be empowered, says the report, to confront the opportunities and risks associated with technology and develop a critical awareness of how to live with and without technology. This clears their view of the changes in the world and the associated challenges.
  So the report is not a rejection of information technology in educational institutions. However, it is a rejection of the current business models of the current providers – with the aim, as Ralf Lankau, Professor of Media Design and Media Theory at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, says, “[...] the use of information technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to meet the needs of and for the benefit of learners instead of the particular interests of the IT industry and individual media providers”.5

Toads on the sofa

What the UNESCO Education Report addresses has already been taken into account in some countries when creating and evaluating educational programs. For example, Sweden has submitted its proposal for a national digitization strategy for the school system 2023–27 to the Karolinska Institute, one of the largest and most respected medical universities in Europe, for comment. The opinion of the team of scientists from different disciplines played a major role in the Swedish government reversing its decision to make digital devices compulsory in pre-schools and primary schools. The Liberal Party’s website states the following:
  “Sweden is in a school crisis and the screen experiment in pre-schools has gone too far; this is where the foundations for the school should be laid. Kids in preschool look at toads on the sofa instead of toads in the pond.” And further: “It is clear that screens have major disadvantages for small children. They hinder learning and language development. Too much screen time can lead to trouble concentrating and crowd out physical activity. We know that human interaction is crucial for learning in the early years of life. Screens simply have no place in preschools,” says Education Minister Lotta Edholm.6

Other countries are doing it

But not only Sweden, but also other countries have come to their senses and reconsidered their digital guidelines in the education sector. A high school in Sydney, Australia introduced stricter regulations on the use of mobile phones. Pupils were now required to store their cell phones during the day in a bag which, once closed, could not be opened again without picking a lock. What is important is that the school’s decision was supported by the teachers and most of the parents.
  Just two months later, the school’s principal reported that they had noticed a marked decrease (90%) in behavioural problems and an increase in physical activity and conversations between students since the policy was implemented. It is clear that mobile phones in the classroom interfere with children’s learning and concentration, and have a negative impact on students’ mental health and well-being.7
  This school did what is already customary in various other schools and countries. Already in 2015 and 2018, France introduced a ban on mobile phones in class, which was extended in 2018 to internet-enabled devices such as tablets and smartwatches and applies to all premises and during school activities in and outside school buildings.
  In China, at the beginning of 2021, the Ministry of Education limited the time when digital devices are used as teaching aids to 30% of teaching time. From 2024 on, the Netherlands will also be among those countries that will ban the use of mobile phones or other private digital devices in schools. Every fourth country worldwide now bans private devices in schools, with a view to the children and young people who should (and are allowed to!) concentrate on their lessons again and communicate with each other.

What is to be done?

These experiences should give our educational politicians, but also parents and teachers, the decisive impetus to follow suit and free themselves from current errors. There is no need for further educational experiments in educational policy, but rather an open and honest dialogue that is based on independent, scientific findings, honestly evaluates experiences, and is guided by the needs of the child. Wouldn’t that then be a real reason for school communities to be proud?  •

1 Global Education Monitoring Report 2023. Technology in Education – a tool on whose terms? Paris: UNESCO. (Detailed report with 418 pages). https://www.unesco.org/gem-report/en; retrieved 10 August 2023.
2 Swiss UNESCO Commission. Education Agenda 2030. Framework for Action. German abridged version, p. 2; https://www.unesco.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Bildungsagenda-2030.pdf; retrieved on 14 August 2023
3 op. cit. p. vii, from which the following two quotations are also taken.
4 World Education Report (short version, English, 35 pages), p. 25f.; https://www.unesco.de/publikationen#row-10250; retrieved 10 August 2023
5 Lankau, Ralf. UNESCO report calls for more educational justice. www.diagnose-funk.org > download.php?field=filename&id=1658&class=NewsDownload, retrieved 13 August 2023.
6 cf. Liberal Party Sweden. Dags för skärmfri förskola [Time for a screen-free preschool]. https://www.liberalerna.se/nyheter/dags-for-skarmfri-forskolahttps; retrieved 12 August 2023
7 cf. A Sydney high school banned mobile phones. It had dramatic results. In: Sydney Morning Herald of 7 August 2022; https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/a-sydney-high-school-banned-mobile-phones-it-had-dramatic-results-20220803-p5b6zf.html#Echobox=1659829516; retrieved 12 August 2023

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