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Digital education as an equaliser?
Research

Digital education as an equaliser?

Digital education is not ideal for every student, but in the long run it can help to close the learning gap.

6 minutes
07 January 2021

Digital education is not ideal for every student, but in the long run it can help to close the learning gap, according to education experts at KU Leuven. “But then you have to use technology to rethink our education system.”

Since the corona crisis, many of us have spent our working days at home behind a computer screen. This also meant a side job as an assistant teacher for multitasking parents who had to juggle baby diapers and headsets during the lockdown. After all, primary and secondary school students were also following lessons from behind a laptop for a few months. It resulted in a useful and instructive experiment with distance learning, but it wasn’t ideal for every student (and parent).

Research has shown, for example, that the digitisation of education has had an unfortunate impact on the growing learning gap. Consider those young people from more underprivileged families who do not always have their own laptop with a properly working internet connection, or who have to share one computer with parents, brothers and sisters. Moreover, digital skills aren’t equally developed in all young people. For example, not every student is disposed to reading long passages on the computer or is adept at using digital resources.

Fortunately, there are also bright spots. Education digitisation can help those young people who are having a harder time at various points, think education experts from KU Leuven. If you remove the accessibility barrier and ensure that everyone can work well online – for example by lending school laptops to students – taking classes online can be a way to create real opportunities. According to the researchers, the technology involved shouldn’t just be slotted into the existing system, but should foment the design of an entirely new and inclusive learning environment. Thereby closing the learning gap.

Research shows that highly educated and affluent parents are better able to help their children with tasks or homework than less educated or those without an education.

Taking pleasure in reading

Of course, that last point cannot be viewed separately from students’ socio-economic background. Research shows that highly educated and wealthy parents are better able to help their children with homework tasks than the less educated or those without an education. Moreover, children with privileged parents have advantages in many other respects. During holidays, for example, they more often engage in educational activities such as a visit to a museum, a cultural excursion or taking a trip with mum or dad to the local library. All of which are actions that contribute to good school performance.

Significantly, our researchers have found that there are large differences between children when it comes to dealing with text, often dependent on the circumstances on the circumstances within which a child grows up. “Children from different social groups are raised differently,” wrote professor Orhan Agirdag and his colleague Jan Elen in an op-ed for Knack. In highly educated and affluent families, textual sources such as books play a vital role in nurturing a child. Parents in these sorts of families read to their children from birth. Home usually contains a library of books that these children are being raised alongside.”

Children from vulnerable families are brought up to a greater extent with audio/visual sources, such as TV or a smartphone. And that plays a role in their performance in the current educational context. “When education is mainly based on textual sources, children from affluent families are playing on their home field. They’re comfortable with this way of teaching starting from the cradle. Children from less well-off families have to adapt to this method, and only then can they switch to a learning content.”

In addition, many young people see reading as a ‘school assignment’ rather than something pleasant. Technologically enhanced education, in which textual as well as audio/visual sources play a role, can help the researchers reach all students. Audio/visual enrichment doesn’t mean that text becomes unimportant or of less quality for students from highly educated families, but it does yield real learning benefits for those less accustomed to reading

This is also apparent in the doctoral research of former KU Leuven researcher Margot Belet. An experiment followed both university students who attended classical lectures as well as students who attended lectures that showed YouTube videos. The results showed that students with a higher socio-economic background performed better during classical lectures than students from less well-situated families, whilst there was no difference between students from the two groups when YouTube videos were shown.

According to the researchers, you could try something similar with reading by introducing students to audiobooks, allowing them to discover the pleasure of stories. And perhaps allowing them to migrate faster to regular books.

Leerkloof lezen jongeren

Everyone equally

It all comes down to smart use of technology to reduce inequality. This is not new: teachers have been using specialised apps and websites for years. Think of adaptive software, in which children receive customised exercises, reading software for dyslexic students or a computer application such as ‘Bednet’ – a programme through which sick students can follow live lessons in the classroom from their laptop at home or in hospital.

An inclusive digital learning environment can also help to bridge the language gap that occurs, for example, amongst young people with a migrant background. Professor Agirdag, together with colleagues at UGhent and VUB, developed a learning environment for primary education with world studies themes in seven languages. Pupils are offered the material in several languages, which significantly improves their learning performance. After all, even if you’re fascinated by a subject such as geography, you won’t understand the subject matter if it’s only taught in a language – such as Dutch – with which you still have some difficulty.

Here, too, digital education wins out over normal contact education. “A teacher can only give instruction in the languages ​​they’ve mastered,” write Agirdag and Eelen. “Digital learning environments are in principle unlimited in the number of languages ​​in which instructions and learning contents can be offered. With neural machine translation, this can even be done almost free of charge. A truly inclusive learning environment, one not only aimed at one group of students, is therefore conceivable. Consequently, the utopia of universal learning design becomes more probable.”

Whether digital long-distance education will ever win out over the traditional classroom is open to debate, but according to the researchers, we should carry the insights we’ve gleaned into the future. Or as they themselves conclude: “’Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ The coronavirus offers an opportunity to further rethink education, also in terms of equal opportunities.”

Children from socially vulnerable families are more often brought up with audio/visual sources, such as TV or a smartphone, and are less accustomed to reading.

Want to learn more? You’ll find much more information and insights about the importance of technology and good digital education on Platform L, a KU Leuven faculty expertise unit that brings together staff from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences. The aim of Platform L is to unite knowledge and insights about ‘the teaching profession’, and to make it accessible and discussable to a wider audience. In so doing, Platform L hopes to contribute to the image and practice of teaching.