After years of excitement and enthusiasm about all things digital, recent times have seen us collectively becoming more sceptical about the relationship between technology and society. We are now in an era of growing suspicion toward ‘big tech’ firms like Google and Facebook, concern over issues such as online misinformation, and increasing acknowledgement of the unintended consequences of technology use. As a result, there is now a newfound readiness to question, analyse and, not least, criticise the digital technologies that we produce and consume.
As always, societal shifts like these raise questions about the role of education, and what part schools can play in helping young people cultivate the required skills and competences. Of course, most countries have long had national curricular expectations for the teaching of ‘computing’ (England) and ‘digital technologies’ (Australia) that contain some commitment to helping students make sense of digital aspects of society. Yet as with any topic that is not considered to be ‘core’ curriculum, these elements tend to quickly become marginalised in the everyday realities of educational policymaking and school practice.
‘What do young people need to know if they are going to be genuinely digitally empowered? We need to start talking seriously about the undiscussed but crucial “big issues” if school curricula are to have lasting impacts on the digital societies of the 2020s.’
As the 2020s begin, it seems to now be a priority for school systems to finally get to grips with not simply teaching students to use digital technologies but also to critically navigate the challenges of the digital age. So, if schools are to develop robust forms of critical digital awareness over the coming years, what needs to be done? Of course, we need to be mindful of the usual stumbling blocks to school reforms and curriculum changes. Teachers need to be properly trained and there needs to be sufficient time and resources set aside to classes.
Above all, however, is the need to focus on the issue of content. What do young people need to know if they are going to be genuinely digitally empowered? In this sense, we need to start talking seriously about the ‘big issues’ that are not yet being talked about, but are nevertheless crucial if any school curriculum is to have a lasting impact on how the digital societies of the 2020s turn out.
There are a number of new critical curriculum areas to begin considering. For example, students need to be supported to make sense of their place in what has been popularised recently as ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff, 2018). Every technology user faces the prospect of having their personal data collected and then sold on to third parties such as advertisers, data brokers and other beneficiaries of the so-called ‘data economy’. Developing awareness of this in schools will give students the opportunity to make informed choices over what they do with digital technology.
Also of importance is developing a clear understanding of the morals and ethics of technology production and the machinations of the IT industry. All young people need to make informed choices over which companies’ products they choose to consume. At the same time, those students hoping to go into employment within the IT sector need to be asking critical questions of their employer’s practices – from the ethics of their supply chains and covert work on military and defence contracts, to the significant gender discriminations that remain in this sector’s employment practices. Schools are ideal places for students to develop critical awareness of the multinational big tech companies that are beginning to shape their lives more than governments.
Schools are also key places to support thinking about the societal realities of AI-driven systems and technology. This includes addressing tough questions concerning how much control we want to give to automated decision-making, and the human qualities that need to be protected and extended in a world of intelligent machines.
Yet, the perhaps biggest issue that needs to be tackled is how our society-wide dependence on digital technologies is contributing to the ongoing climate crisis. The ways in which digital technologies are produced, consumed and discarded constitute a growing environmental problem. If the escalating use of digital technologies in society is ultimately unsustainable, then schools are good places to begin contemplating how digital technologies might be developed and deployed in ways that are better suited for a resource-constrained planet.
These are all huge issues for anyone to grapple with, let alone understand. Yet, this is precisely the kind of ‘big picture’ thinking that needs to be driving efforts to reform school curricula over the next few years. Of course, schools cannot provide a ‘quick fix’ to any of the digital issues that will undoubtedly continue to blight our societies, culture and politics as the 2020s progress. Nevertheless, moves toward new critical forms of digital education would be a great first step. The hard work starts now!=
Zuboff, S. (2018) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. New York, PublicAffairs.