World leaders converged in New York City for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last month. With access to quality education top of mind in the wake of tremendous learning losses during COVID-19, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convened stakeholders for the Transforming Education Summit at UNGA to address the lack of progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which aims to ensure access to quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Alongside these high-impact events, the Brookings Institution and the Learning Economy Foundation co-hosted a set of side events focused on connecting the urgent need to address educational inequities with the surge in use of digital learning tools. There has been rapid growth in education technology platforms and demand for skills and career opportunities, but most of the products are based in wealthy Western countries. Even in these wealthy countries, there is a significant digital divide and limited data governance. The goal of our events was to develop consensus around what it will take to build a more equitable and ethical education technology infrastructure across a diverse range of country settings.
Drawing from the discussions in the full-day symposium on September 20 and focused policy debate on September 22, we identified four major themes.
1. The urgency to get back on track to achieve SDG 4
The world is currently off track in achieving SDG 4. The pandemic caused school closures in 191 countries and 1.5 billion students transitioned into online learning platforms (UNESCO, 2021). Ethel Agnes Pascua-Valenzuela, director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Secretariat, highlighted the importance of managing change in times of crisis. She noted that in early 2020, most students and teachers struggled to access education online, but by 2021, schools had figured out hybrid teaching, use of online videos for education, and other digital education technologies. Yet, she reminded the audience, “Most teachers don’t have internet. They don’t have devices … . It is so important to be thinking about the least privileged.” Without proactive effort, there is a serious risk that ongoing digitizing of the education system will leave many vulnerable populations even further behind.
Ethel Agnes Pascua-Valenzuela, director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Secretariat, discussing youth in Asia and their access to education in the September 20 symposium.
2. The importance of partnerships and engagement of diverse voices
Building an education technology ecosystem that aligns with SDG 4 requires intentional effort and collaboration across stakeholders and areas of work that tend to operate separately, such as data governance, education, labor, and business. Policymakers and technical experts need to be at the same tables and learn to speak the same language. These conversations also need to bring in the voices of teachers and young learners, who are often not present in these future-shaping dialogues.
The idea of using public–private partnerships (PPPs) to incorporate technologies into education through platforms and services was controversial. Some stakeholders see PPPs as the best way to expand access to digital learning opportunities, because in resource-constrained environments, the public sector cannot accomplish this alone. Others questioned whether corporate profit motives undermine the goal of equity in education, due to lack of willingness to allocate resources to low-income countries and communities. Borhene Chakroun, director of the division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO, was emphatic in recognizing that countries cannot build education technology infrastructure by themselves but highlighted that “The most important partnership is not with the company; it is with the community.”
3. User-centered processes and tools that give people control over their own data
Thaís Lacerda Queiroz Carvalho, World Organization of the Scout Movement youth representative and UN Foundation Next Generation Fellow for Education, providing remarks at the policy debate.
Technical experts discussed digital credentials and decentralized digital wallets as ways learners can gain control of their own education data. Conversation on this topic highlighted the need for sovereignty–that technology infrastructure should be built with user ownership and agency in mind. At the policy debate, Thaís Queiroz, a youth representative of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, emphatically spoke about how important it is to have control over personal data. Queiroz shared the stark differences in how technology use and regulation is governed in Brazil, her home country, and in Germany, where she currently lives. She said that once she got to Germany, she started realizing how much information about her and her peers had been gathered, and there was no way to control its removal or who could see and access it.
Many speakers also highlighted the importance of trust for the success of digital credentials. If learners do not have agency or trust that a digital credential will make a meaningful difference in their career or improve their interactions with potential employers, and if employers have no trust that the credentials legitimately convey value, then the entire approach falls apart.
4. The need to recognize learning across borders and in a diversity of settings
Another major issue many participants raised was recognizing learning across geographic and sectoral borders. Saghar Salehi, a youth representative and former member of the Afghan girls’ robotics team, highlighted her struggles to have her diploma recognized when she came to the U.S. as a refugee, noting that some institutions would not accept it or would require her to take classes over. Attendees also discussed how being able to capture a wider range of skills in a digital credential and even recognize informal and non-formal learning, such as leadership experience gained in community service, would be powerful for employers to identify talent and for learners to achieve their education and career goals.
Saghar Salehi, youth representative and former member of the Afghanistan all-girls robotics team, providing remarks at the policy debate on September 21.
As the shifts toward skill and competency-based learning grow, the education technology community remains focused on strategies to achieve SDG 4with diverse collaboration, connectivity, and global advocacy in higher education. Although new technologies show great promise for helping learners access and document their learning, experts shared concerns surrounding data privacy, data ownership, and digital divides. The 77th session of UNGA and the Transforming Education Summit began valuable discussions for the international community, and we are continuing to work with partners in this area to explore how principles of sovereignty, equity, and mobility can be designed into the education technology ecosystem.