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MSPnet Blog: “Questioning assumptions: Connectivity leads to prosperity”

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posted March 13, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

My title may not sound like there’s a connection with STEM education, but here’s the link, at least in my mind:
Schools are under tremendous pressure to integrate more digital technology into the STEM curriculum — with special emphasis on Web-based resources and activities. “Technology integration” becomes an endemic problem for teachers (and their schools and IT and finance departments) to address. Because “technology” is always changing, driven by strong market pressures, the integration of technology (which? how much? for what purposes? with what results?) is very often not driven by pedagogical considerations, but by many others — obsolescence (sometimes real, sometimes not); purchasing economies (real or imagined); sales campaigns that suggest that the new product is so good that you’d be doing a disservice to your students and teachers by not buying it — the story is familiar enough.
Well, one of the lines of argument used to sell digital equipment, especially Internet-enabled equipment, is that connectivity by its very nature is good enough, productive enough of well-being, to justify massive investments in products and the necessary infrastructure to support them. It is this assumption that’s on my mind this week, stimulated by Audrey Watters’s March 3 Hackeducation news roundup.

Here is a nice, clear statement of the basic claim, from a report on the impact of the Internet in Africa:  “The Internet is a tremendous, undisputed force for economic growth and social change. Not only has it unleashed new forms of connectivity, but it has also provided an outletfor new forms of innovation, entrepreneurship and social good.”  You can see other such optimistic claims, mostly not evidence-based, here, in a story from the Council on Foreign Relations.   The Obama administration created the Global Connect International Connectivity Steering Group in 2015, whose mission is “Accelerating entrepreneurship and economic opportunity by expanding Internet access globally.” Whether this initiative continues under the new administration or not, its mission encapsulates assumptions about connectivity as a prime strategy for economic and social (including education) policy.

Yet in this area, as in others, caution is advised.  Nicolas Friederici and colleagues have published a paper examining the evidence for claims about the role of connectivity as a positive economic force in Africa, where live a substantial proportion of the estimated 4 billion un-connected people.  Obviously, economic development is a central concern for many of the nations of the global South — but is getting everyone on the Internet the best way to expend local, regional, national, and international resources?

Friederici et al. examined a collection of policy documents and reports on the impact of “connectivity”, and identified several common categories of claims.  For example, there are claims about how connectivity improves economic development or similar outcomes.  Some assert, in essence, that “by adopting [technology], a country about be able to transform into an information and knowledge-rich economy, and thereby reach higher levels of development.” [itals in original].  Others suggest “an indirect effect:  connectivity is seem to facilitate ongoing economic processes (e.g. through increasing efficiency and productivity) or enable new economic processes in the information and knowledge-based economy.”   Both the more vaporous (my term, not Friederici et al.’s!)  and the more theory-driven claims share the basic assumption that “participation in a globally integrated information or knowledge economy will produce growth and development faster than other types of economic activity.”  Finally, the documents also assume that connectivity will overcome digital divides, and integrate currently marginalized groups into mainstream economic life.

And yet. The authors note that “not a single policy cautions against connectivity potentially deepening inequality and existing digital divides, ” even though there is clear empirical evidence that this is a significant effect of our rapid leap to the digital world.

Moreover, there is an element that appears in the documents reviewed that will seem hauntingly familiar to educators in this country:  The assumption (the authors call it “optimistic technological determinism”) that when we deploy all this expensive new technology, it must necessarily be a Good Thing — so if it isn’t, the problem is “local factors” or “cultural factors” that prevent the arrival of the inherent goods of connectivity.   I have certainly heard such claims made about technology integration in schools — and for sure, I have seen cases where “school cultural factors” of various kinds play an important role in the fate of technology-mediated innovations.  However, acquaintance with teachers and schools in the throes of technology adoption (or not) has also convinced me that merely identifying such factors, or other aspects of “resistance,” is only a first diagnosis, and that there are underlying rationales, sometimes very cogent ones, which drive the attitudes of the cautious and the unwelcoming.   (As Ahab said to poor Starbuck, “Hark ye!  the little lower layer!” )

The available evidence seems to be that some of the touted benefits of connectivity can be documented — but very often, it’s the “haves” who benefit more than the “have nots.”  That is, the poor, uneducated, marginalized, or disenfranchized may reap no benefits at all, or if they do, the effect is proportionally much smaller than the benefits received by people who are better off, already more connected, and otherwise have pre-existing conditions such that connectivity has a catalyzing, releasing effect.   Friederici et al. note that few of these policy documents quote actual data to back up their claims, and that data are often just not available anyway.  Beyond that, there is an assumption that “all positive developmental outcomes come from an open and accessible Internet.”  With the exception of a very few reports, they find bad news is ignored or dismissed (e.g. by arguments such as those mentioned above).  One result is that the hunger for actual research to examine and test assumptions is dulled, and investments and policies are made and implemented based on speculation.

They conclude with a paragraph that has real application to trends in technology in education (and technology through education):

Our worry here…is that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve.  For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t. (pg. 17, emphasis added)

Note:  opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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