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Digital equality – it’s not as easy as it sounds

We are all connected by technology. But it also divides us and creates inequality – both in Danish schools and across different cultures. Two DPU researchers provide insight into some of the ways in which technology creates inequality.

A group of schoolchildren in a village in Tanzania are given a specific task:

“Draw a robot – or several robots – doing something, and perhaps doing something with others. Put lots of different things in your drawing if you like,” says the teacher.

The pupils think about this for a while, and then start drawing slowly. What does a robot actually look like? And what is a robot, anyway?

A Danish class of fourth-grade pupils is asked to perform the same task. They all draw square robots – the kind they have seen in cartoons and films. They discuss what the coolest robots look like, and what they can do. Their points of reference are C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars, Disney’s WALL-E, Robocop, Ironrunner and Lego Mindstorms.

Cathrine Hasse, an anthropologist and professor of future technology and learning at DPU, is responsible for conducting these studies. She says:

“The two examples show us that culture and frames of reference are vital aspects of learning. Some of the Danish children knew more about robots than others – some of them had actually built robots. But they all knew what a robot was. They threw themselves into the task enthusiastically. And it was particularly interesting to note that most of their robots looked like something from the future.”

By contrast, the pupils in Tanzania didn’t have the same frame of reference – in fact, most of them didn’t have any references at all. So their drawings were totally different. Their robots didn’t resemble the kind of robots we would recognise in the western world. 

Technology has a western bias

For an anthropologist like Cathrine Hasse, the comparisons between the Danish school pupils and the children in the village school in Tanzania are interesting. This is because they illustrate clearly that the conditions in which people learn vary enormously. Learning is culturally conditioned – especially when the phenomena we are learning about require special insight and knowledge linked to specific cultural backgrounds.

The same thing applies to the popular and widespread MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), the purpose of which is to offer education to everyone all over the world based on the idea of democracy and equality, explains Hasse. Here, too, problems arise which reveal a particular western bias in the way MOOCs are designed:

“People don’t all have the same kind of access to technology and the internet that we have in the West. So the notion that MOOCs are for everyone should be taken with a pinch of salt. People with an advanced level of education also have an advantage when it comes to understanding and passing MOOCs. If you’ve completed post-secondary education, you will find it easier to use these technologies.”

Most of the people taking MOOCs have already completed courses of higher education and find it easy enough to understand and cope with the issues that arise. But Cathrine Hasse believes that MOOCs do not allow for differences in the ability of users to understand the concepts and technology employed. And this means that technologies like MOOCs increase the inequalities between us – they aren’t as free and equal as they think they are, she believes:

“The best way to make people feel unequal is to try and convince them that they are equal when they don’t feel equal. This is because they tend to believe that it’s their own fault if they can’t take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them.”

In this connection, Hasse explains that last year she joined a Danish PhD student and a couple of research colleagues from universities in Thailand as research objects in a study of MOOCs.

 “We signed up for a course which taught you how to produce your own film. It was great fun, and my Danish PhD student and I got a lot out of it. But one of my colleagues from Thailand, who works with innovative technology and education, found it hard going. The course used words and concepts she wasn’t familiar with, even though she speaks very good English, and all the references were to films from the West which she had never heard of,” explains Hasse.

In other words, her colleague from Thailand found it much harder to take part in the course than her western colleagues – even though MOOCs are supposed to provide online teaching for everyone all over the world.

Algorithms designed for white, middle-class men

Cathrine Hasse has identified two types of inequality applying to interactions between people and technology. The first is inequality in terms of people’s ability to understand and use technology. For instance, are they any good at programming? And can they navigate an iPad or master other fairly basic technical skills?

And the second is the inequality built into algorithms in digital learning resources and digital services in general, she explains:

“An unconscious inequality is embedded in the people who construct these algorithms. There’s a western bias in MOOCs. And the technology has often been produced by white, middle-class men – so it’s biased in their favour. For instance, creditworthiness systems in the US use algorithms which are not designed for women and black people – so they will experience inequality when they use them.”

What does technology do to us?

Cathrine Hasse underlines that technology always does something to us. It’s never innocent.

“It’s not enough to have the designer’s assurance that their app will teach your child to read. You also need to consider whether the technology used has unintentional consequences for some children, preventing them from learning to read. Does it influence the way in which children interact with each other? It’s all about understanding technology. What does it do to people, and how does it influence the relationships between them?”

In this connection, she is critical of the learning games and apps used in Danish schools. In her view, they often adopt an excessively behaviouristic approach because they assume that you can promote learning by using rewards and punishments as motivational factors.

“A number of the apps produced in the US have a behaviouristic design. They are hugely competitive, with built-in features that pit boys against girls, for instance. This undoubtedly creates an inequality between the pupils,” she says, underlining that some Danish game designers have unfortunately adopted this behaviouristic approach, too.

“These games may be playful and great fun, but I’m not sure they lead to better learning – indeed, the opposite may be true for some children. But we will need to ask an expert for more specific details about the impact of these games on the learning process,” says Hasse.

“The most idiotic game”

So this is exactly what we have done. We have asked for help from Simon Skov Fougt, who is an associate professor of educational theory and curriculum studies at DPU, Aarhus University. His research focuses on learning resources (particularly digital ones). He agrees with Cathrine Hasse that behaviouristic digital learning games are widespread, particularly among the youngest schoolchildren in Denmark.

At this level, children are supposed to practise words or learn how to spell them, and they are rewarded with points or stars if they succeed. But in Fougt’s view, calling these games learning games is an exaggeration. Because there isn’t much learning involved in them. However, he doesn’t discount them entirely.

“I think that most pupils like focusing on this kind of game for a while. But I don’t know any learning theories that would claim that this is the best way of learning,” he says.

He mentions the problems caused by the fact that these games have a built-in competitive element which underlines and exposes the differences between the pupils playing them. For instance, he mentions a game developed in Denmark called På banen (“On the field”), which is like a penalty shoot-out whose objective is to practise spelling the 120 commonest Danish words in the shortest possible time.

“This is the kind of game which exposes inequalities between the players instead of promoting learning. And it’s the most idiotic game I’ve ever seen. After all, what’s the connection between a penalty shoot-out and spelling? There’s no connection at all,” says Fougt.

One size fits nobody

According to Fougt, one of the most obvious problems with the vast majority of learning resources is that they are designed for the average pupil based on the assumption that one size fits all. The end result is that they don’t fit anyone, he says.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could design learning resources based on the fact that we are all different, that we all have different points of departure, and that we all learn in different ways? But developing material like this takes time – and it’s very expensive, as well. It also makes great demands on teachers. If we start producing learning resources which are open to different interpretations and answers from the pupils, we will be making greater demands on the teachers. It’s not easy to monitor the learning pathways of 24 different pupils,” explains Fougt.

When he and a group of DPU researchers conducted a major research project to study the learning resources used to teach Danish, the results of which were published in a book in 2017, it became clear that the learning resources that were used most in schools focused on finding the correct answers and learning by repetition. This is problematic from the perspective of achieving equality, he says:

“It’s difficult to provide differentiated teaching and cater effectively for the differences between pupils. If we treat everyone identically, some people are bound to feel unequal. Because we aren’t identical – we’re all different. And we don’t all learn in the same way, either. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s definitely a dilemma that teachers need to be aware of,” says Fougt.

However, he believes that the focus is shifting at the moment, from skills-based digital learning resources towards resources based more on dialogue, which have a broader appeal and allow greater diversity in terms of learning methods.

Dialogue-based teaching can create inequality

According to Simon Skov Fougt, News Desk is a good example of a dialogue-based learning resource. It was developed originally by the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, and involves middle- and upper-school pupils producing their own newspaper, 500 copies of which are then printed for free.

He tells the story of a group of pupils who produced a front page focusing on the lack of street lights on a cycle track in their local area:

“They printed a murky photo of a girl cycling on a dark cycle track. The headline was: ‘Would you dare to send your child home this way?’ They distributed the newspaper in the local shopping centre. And lots of parents reacted. It even attracted the attention of the traffic committee in the town hall. And not long afterwards, street lights were installed along the cycle track in question. The pupils felt they had made a difference for the local people. And they learned how democracy works in practice,” says Fougt.

Or at least some of them did. Because when teaching is based on dialogue, this dialogue isn’t necessarily easy or natural for all the children taking part. The more free and open a task becomes, the greater the demands made on the cognitive competences of the pupils, explains Fougt.

“The use of News Desk as a learning resource moves the goalposts compared with the kind of teaching the pupils are used to. Some of the pupils relish the sense of freedom, and will become deeply involved. But this kind of thing makes greater demands on them, too. And while dialogue-based learning resources may appeal to some pupils and inspire them to get more involved than usual, they may also prevent others from joining in at all. We need to bear this in mind,” he says.

Some pupils have more to offer than others. This generally depends on their home environment. Or to be more specific: Do they come from a home which has plenty of books on the shelves, or are there no books in their home at all?

And it turns out that books really do make a difference. The international IEA study PIRLS, which measures the reading skills of fourth-grade pupils, focuses specifically on the number of books in a home in order to determine the socio-economic background of the pupils who live there. This is because the number of books in a home turns out to be a surprisingly good indicator of socio-economic status. The PIRLS studies reveal a clear connection between the reading skills of fourth-grade pupils and the number of books in their home. The more books there are in the home, the better they are at reading.

Technology can’t compensate for inequality

Among other things, Cathrine Hasse has criticised MOOCs for trying to impose a form of equality on students that they don’t feel they have. The risk is that this will actually promote inequality. And in principle, the same mechanism is at work in the News Desk example and other dialogue-based digital learning resources. The intention is to achieve more openness and equality, but the result is greater inequality. This is why teachers need to treat dialogue-based learning resources with special care, says Simon Skov Fougt. He says:

“There’s a risk that children from a low social class, who may not be able to argue as convincingly as children whose parents are academics, will feel unequal even though the intention was to allow them to express themselves, outline their arguments and express their creativity.”

And even though it’s a long way from Tanzania to Denmark, there is still a link between the issue of inequality among schoolchildren in Denmark in connection with the use of digital learning resources, and the problems observed by Cathrine Hasse when the Tanzanian children tried to draw robots. The insights gained on both continents indicate that learning is linked to people’s imaginations, which depend in turn on where we come from and what we bring to the table.

It’s not easy to change this situation, but in purely didactic and human terms it is possible for teachers to create a secure environment in the classroom in which all the pupils feel at ease, no matter what kind of background they come from. And technology and digital learning resources are no help in this respect. What’s needed is human empathy, says Fougt:

“Technology can’t create this kind of secure environment. But a good, attentive teacher can.”


Personal bios

CATHRINE HASSE is a professor of cultural learning and technology at DPU, Aarhus University, and the leader of the Future Technologies, Culture and Learning Processes research programme. Among other things, her research focuses on learning in relation to understanding technology and robot technology. She teaches on the Master’s degree programmes in educational anthropology and educational anthropology and globalisation.

SIMON SKOV FOUGT is an associate professor at DPU, Aarhus University. One of his areas of research is digital learning resources. He is the national research coordinator for the international IEA PIRLS study. He teaches on the Master’s degree programmes in didactics, Danish and IT-didactic design.


Facts

School pupils as journalists

The digital learning resource known as News Desk turns the classroom into a news desk for a week. The target group is pupils in middle and upper school. They are given the chance to produce their own versions of Ekstra Bladet Skole, Politiken Skole or Jyllands-Posten Skole. 500 copies of the newspapers they produce are printed and sent to the schools involved. The whole process is free of charge, including printing the newspapers.

MOOCs

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are relatively inexpensive online courses which are in principle available to anyone in the world. But according to Cathrine Hasse, they have a clear western bias. 


For more information:

Jesper Bremholm, Jeppe Bundsgaard, Simon Skov Fougt & Anna Karlskov Skyggebjerg  (eds.). Læremidlernes danskfag, Aarhus University Press, 2017.

Jan Mejding, Katja Neubert & Randi Larsen: PIRLS 2016. En international undersøgelse om læsekompetence i 3. og 4. klasse. Aarhus University Press, 2017.

Cathrine Hasse et al.: Perceptions of authority in a massive open online course: An intercultural study. In: International Review of Education, 2018.

Cathrine Hasse: Posthumanist Learning. What Robots and Cyborgs Teach us About Being Ultra-social. Routledge, 2020.

Cathrine Hasse: Material concept formation: Inequality in children’s conceptual robot imaginaries. In: Designing Robots, Designing Humans. Routledge, 2020.