young people on laptops

[This is an excerpt from an article which appears in the latest edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

The Role of Commonwealth Organisations in the Future of Technology and Education

Governments and individuals have the unenviable balancing act of trying to put in place legislation and practical strategies to maximise the potential benefits of new technologies for education and learning, while also minimising their negative impacts. The role of relevant Commonwealth organisations is to support them in this task.

The Commonwealth is distinctive in many ways, and generalised educational solutions developed elsewhere will not be appropriate for all 53 countries within it, or even for a sub-set thereof. One size fits all is not an appropriate concept; context matters. The Commonwealth combines rich and poor: whilst all countries have inequalities within them, the educational challenges facing Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK are very different from those facing Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia. It has a higher proportion of small island states than does the world as a whole: 31 Commonwealth states (58.5%) are in this category. It is heavily dominated by Africa (19 states), the Caribbean (12 states), and the Pacific (11 states). While the above highlight the contrasts within the Commonwealth and thus the importance of context specific solutions for technology in learning, there are also important commonalities. Its legal system is based on Common Law, as opposed to Statutory or Regulatory Law, which has significant impact for all aspects of life, particularly around education and technology; many people in Commonwealth countries also speak English as one of their languages, which has considerable value in developing educational and training solutions at scale.

These characteristics mean that there is indeed an important role for Commonwealth organisations in assisting citizens and governments of its 53 states to identify and implement the good practices identified by global organisations in the specific contexts of their own countries. However, Commonwealth countries can also play a very significant role in reaching agreements and developing actions that can then be shared more widely at the global level. The Commonwealth comprises more than a quarter of the world’s countries, and a third of its population, and its shared heritage means that it is often much easier to reach such agreements within it than it is at the larger scale of the UN.

The larger Commonwealth organisations, such as the ACU, COL and the CTO working collaboratively together with member states, the Secretariat and smaller Commonwealth entities, could have a significant impact in shaping wider global action concerning four dimensions of engagement at the interface between education and technology. First, by focusing largely on economic growth as a means to reduce poverty, the UN-led Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and their successor SDGs2626. This remains true despite the welcome addition of SDG10 which is intended to focus on reducing inequalities.View all notes have led to a global increase in inequality, and this has been fuelled by the use of ICTs. If the poor and marginalised are indeed to benefit from the potential of digital technology-use to enhance learning, then it is essential that all governments focus attention primarily on the most marginalised, those with disabilities, out-of-school youth, women and girls in patriarchal societies, and refugees. This requires initiatives to provide digital connectivity first in the most marginal areas, and for technologies to be designed with these often-forgotten groups, rather than simply ‘for’ them. It also requires substantial investment in environmentally sustainable energy solutions to ensure that people living in rural and other marginal areas have sufficient electricity to power their digital devices. The Commonwealth experience in small island states, and some of the poorest countries of Africa and Asia provides an especially good opportunity to focus on these particular issues.

Second, there is no point in re-inventing the wheel. Working together, sharing good practices, and drawing on the rich experiences of Commonwealth entities, can all help to reduce the costly mistakes and failed innovations of the past. COL, for example, has a track record of disseminating good practices in distance education, and could play a greater role in the future in co-ordinating wider Commonwealth educational agendas that involve the use of digital technologies. The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID) recently-announced directorate for a research and innovation hub on technology for education could also play a very significant role in delivering such knowledge sharing specifically within Commonwealth countries.

Third, it is essential for Commonwealth organisations to reinforce the message that effective progress will only be made when there is a balance within initiatives between maximising the benefit of the technologies whilst also mitigating their potential harm. As noted above, too much attention in the past has been placed on the former, with insufficient emphasis on the latter. The Commonwealth’s shared legal heritage may well be a distinct advantage here, enabling the development of novel appropriate legal instruments to ensure this balance.

Fourth, Commonwealth organisations’ long experience of working with teachers and trainers can be used to reinforce the central importance of effective pre-service and in-service teacher training in any technology-supported education initiatives. There is little point in introducing technologies into schools or workplace learning programmes without teachers and trainers being appropriately trained in their effective use.

Tim Unwin, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, is with Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, UK.