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The Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Koumbou Boly Barry, addresses the opportunities and risks of the digitalization of education and their impact on the right to education (SDG 4). Calls are made for the discussion to be framed around the right of every person to free, quality, public education and the commitments of States in this regard, both under international human rights law and Sustainable Development Goals.
The potential benefits of digital technology for the right to education are great, such as improving access and quality and implementing inclusive learning methodologies. In the view of the Special Rapporteur, digital literacy (allowing people to function in a digital society and use digital technologies according to their specific context), media literacy in the digital world (empowering people to access, use and create content through digital platforms) and data literacy (the capacity to analyse and interpret data), as well as digital citizenship, are such benefits for people. UNESCO has defined digital citizenship as “being able to find, access, use and create information effectively; engage with other users and with content in an active, critical, sensitive and ethical manner; and navigate the online and ICT environment safely and responsibly, while being aware of one’s own rights”.
During the 22nd Infopoverty World Conference “The Digital Citizen: duties and rights to build a fairer future Society” (rewatch here), Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO, Mr Tawfik Jelassi not only addressed the topic, but also stressed how UNESCO is working on media and information literacy for youth in particular, informing about the new technologies such as artificial intelligence through engaging comic strips and offering them micro-learning courses on topics such as defending human rights in the age of artificial intelligence.
“Through our work, we are igniting debates about digital divides, algorithmic biases, social media echo-chambers and the daily generated e-waste”
- Tawfik Jelassi, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO
Technological developments can provide teaching and education strategies personalised to student’s needs and interests and can improve learning outcomes and experiences. For example, blended learning has gained particular attention in development contexts.
The right to education must include digital agency as a goal, understood as the ability to control and adapt to a digital world with digital competences, digital confidence and digital accountability. Several factors like emergencies, conflicts, epidemics and natural disasters can cause severe disruptions to educational services. Among other learning tools, digital technology can provide useful and important ways of ensuring the continuity of education. The current digitalized datafication of education is connected to a long history of data use for educational management, and occurs at every step along the education chain: from schools and classrooms to teachers and students. The vastness of data collected with the potential of data analytics can help provide an understanding of how to improve the retention and consolidation of information and therefore, how to improve learning.
On these premises, the report also focuses on identifying and preventing negative impacts of digital technology on the right to education. The digitalization of education can bring serious risks to human rights, including heightened exclusion instead of improved access, standardisation instead of personalised teaching, reduced autonomy and freedom instead of increasing creativity and participation, to the detriment of the poorer portions of society with no access to many qualitative alternatives. Further, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how reliance on distance digital education may exacerbate previously existing inequalities. Practically, students have unequal access to the internet, adequate hardware and qualified teachers with digital skills, and teachers have varying levels of proficiency in the use of digital technology. Introducing a framework for digitising education requires acknowledging those at the margins in order to ensure that programmes are designed in a way that reaches them and responds to their needs.
A further challenge is the expected growth of data about students and teachers, creating a massive imbalance in power, awareness and knowledge between digital creators and digital users. Data collection is not completely and always transparent for the public and raises the issue of disrespect of the right to privacy and the principle of meaningful consent. In a global investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch of the education technologies that were endorsed by 49 of the world’s most populous countries for children during the pandemic, it was reported that the majority of those products put at risk, or directly violated, children’s privacy and their other rights, for purposes unrelated to their education.
The excessive use of digital technology can have deleterious effects on children and young people’s health, in particular psychological, neurological and cognitive effects. According to the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education, the healthy physical, emotional, social and mental development of a child is the prerequisite for skilful, independent and sovereign use of digital technology. Age-appropriate and development-oriented media education introduces digital technology in classrooms only after children have demonstrated a significant degree of media maturity and are thus developmentally ready.
While digital technologies in education can bring important benefits, they cannot on their own solve the many issues faced by education systems. They carry with them many risks that can be detrimental to the right to education and other human rights within education systems. The introduction of digital technologies should be accompanied by a prior ethical-pedagogical reflection that helps to provide an understanding and to adequately situate their educational impact from the perspective of the full development of the human personality. Digital solutions should be carefully examined for their quality. Thus, the debate does not simply concern whether technologies are introduced or not, but rather when, how and to what extent, considering positive and negative consequences and their impact on human rights. The best interests of students should always be a primary consideration.
United Nations General Assembly report on: Impact of the Digitalization of Education on the right of Education