Q&A  | 

EdTech, education and self-regulation with Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank.

"Children learn that they need to self-regulate in a way that allows them to coexist." 

Tags: 'Banco Mundial' 'Cristóbal Cobo' 'Edtech' 'Education Technology' 'Pantallas' 'Tecnología para la Educación' 'World Bank'


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Dr. Cristóbal Cobo (Santiago de Chile, 19 March 1976) works in the Global Education Technology (Edtech) team at the World Bank, where technical assistance is provided to support countries to find, assess and use innovative and impactful solutions to integrate technology into education. Their main purpose is to support better and equitable teaching and learning experiences for students in both developing and developed countries. "The future of education", he says, "is already here (but unevenly distributed)".

Cobo has for years been working at the intersection between the future of learning, a culture of innovation and human centered technologies, and has as a result published several books at this regard. "I Accept the Terms and Conditions, Uses and Abuses of Digital Technologies" is the latest of them.

He has been distinguished by the British Council of Economic and Social Research (ESRC) and is an associate research fellow at the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, University of Oxford, among others.

Can technology on its own transform teaching and learning?

EdTech can be used to support different forms of learning. Today, for instance, via remote learning students can learn from home during school closures. It is important that EdTech interventions are designed and deployed to benefit all children. This means using technology that already exists or that is widely used, considering also low-tech solutions (e.g. radio, TV) and combining technologies for multi-modal delivery such as radio with text messaging.

Well integrated, technology can enhance teacher access to content, data, and expertise to improve teaching and learning. However, technology is not sufficient to transform teaching and learning. A comprehensive human and technical strategy is required to implement high quality EdTech interventions. This means bringing together partners including telecom companies, publishers, EdTech startups, radio/ TV operators but also educators, researchers and regulators, amongst others. Navigating all these dimensions requires effective education management systems to understand who and what needs support.

Most technology adoption in schools is gradual, slow-burning and aligned with the existing conditions.

Following Sir Ken Robinson, the educational system has fostered a view of intelligence that equals academic literacy, and academic literacy equals the needs of the industrial revolution. He also calls for a system where dance is as important as maths. What do you think about this? Which kind of intelligence should we be fostering now?

It is not surprising to hear that many educational systems emphasize the importance of developing STEM capacities. We live in a world heavily influenced by technological advances and scientific innovations. At the same time, we increasingly hear that social-emotional skills are critical. Which should countries focus on? Certainly, both approaches are critical and not mutually exclusive.

Much of what we learn during formal education, we will unlearn and relearn it again several times throughout our life. So, flexibility, as well as curiosity, are critical aspects to keep intelligence unfolding.

In addition to flexibility and curiosity, we need to develop an intelligence capable of dealing with complexity and in many cases, contradiction. I think that a curious and empathetic person capable of connecting the dots is in a much better shape to keep learning and adapting to the constantly changing world than someone who struggles to collaboratively work in a team, or who is only capable of memorizing large volumes of information but struggles to empathise with people.

What’s the impact of technology in the attention span and creativity of children?

I think that technology without guidance and support won’t make a huge difference. When technology becomes “invisible” and the center is the cognitive activity (e.g. curiosity, experimentation, collaboration) then we are increasing the opportunities for a creative work.

Something similar happens with attention. We need to learn how to train and administrate our attention in a world full of information. How do you self regulate? How exactly do we decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore? How do you avoid distractions while learning? These are the kind of questions that we need to promote when we talk about technology.

18 months seems to be an age prior to which TV and screens are strongly not advised. Why is that so?

Yes, there are guidance on that regard.

Experts and researchers today show that it’s not the exposure to the screens but the quality of the exposure that makes a difference. This means the level of responsibility taken by teachers, parents, and caregivers when children are in front of a screen is the game-changer here.

For example, adults use technology collaboratively with children or use it to engage and play with them, or interact with them regarding what they learned or discuss their experiences using technology. This would stimulate more beneficial outcomes than simply providing them with a screen. At the end of the day, technology is only a tool to support better learning. The key will be how to integrate online exposure into a larger process of development and stimulation.

What about social skills and emotional self-regulation? Can the abuse of technology by children hinder that too?

Sometimes to understand the impact of current and new technologies it is helpful to look at the past to see how we have adopted and adapted previous technologies and to draw parallels. For instance, today, very few people debate whether the radio hindered or over-stimulated social-emotional skills.

It is now widely agreed the radio can be very effective to promote cognitive or social-emotional skills, the trick is in the details.

In any case, I think you’re right when you mention the relevance of “self-regulation”. This is a critical skill that needs to be learned and developed. This is not a capacity that children acquire magically. It is developed during their interactions with others when they learn that they need to self-regulate emotions, ideas, and desires in a way that allows them to coexist in society. 

Can technology enhance learning in more grown up kids? At what age should we introduce technology in kids lives, and with what objective in mind?

After 30 or more years of research, we have learned that there is no simple answer to that question. For instance, digital technologies proved to be very effective to deliver information, facilitate collaboration, or enable distributed knowledge generation. However, there are also quite a few studies that show that when technology only delivers content without a well-planned pedagogical intervention, the results are not particularly impressive.

Our nature is extremely social, so when digital technologies facilitate part of this social component, learning is much more effective. 

From the past 10 years of the global expansion of social media, we have learned that we as humans like to be recognized by our community. This sense of togetherness triggers intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Well used, that social component can play a key role when planning EdTech integrations (regardless of age).

Many parents fear bringing up children in a screen free environment might result in poor performance at school and even less opportunities in adulthood. What would you tell them?

I’m a skeptic of magical formulas. Usually, extremist perspectives tend to generate impractical positions if not unintended consequences. For instance, 10 years ago or so when tablets were introduced, many people were excited about them replacing textbooks. ‘Kids won’t have to carry heavy backpacks with books anymore’, they would say. However, I don’t think printed textbooks have replaced (or will be replaced anytime soon) by tablets.

During the last few years, news has been highlighting that some parents in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools without technologies. Similarly, some countries have discussed or adopted policies to restrict the use of mobile phones in the classrooms. However, during the pandemic crisis, a large number of education systems all over the world relied heavily on digital technologies (e.g. mobiles) to facilitate learning.

As you can see, the pendulum is constantly swinging on this topic.

If I had the choice, I would never replace a good teacher with technology. But we have a shortage of good teachers, particularly in the most challenging environments.

Keeping that in mind, an effective and pedagogically sound integration of technology can help learners learn when those teachers are not available.

In your blog https://www.cristobalcobo.net/ you talk about the datafication of education and the need to mitigate the risks of a technology-enhanced education as well as the impact of the use of AI in education. Which are these risks?

Good use of data can help us be more effective. There is no doubt that digital technologies play a key role here. […] However, here it is important to understand the potential risk of heavily relying on systems that use artificial intelligence or similar technologies.

These systems are built based on algorithms (“opinions embedded in math” argued Cathy O’Neil) which are not necessarily objective. So, the challenge here is to develop associated capacities (data literacy) within the education system communities (e.g. decision-makers, principals, teachers) to integrate these tools without losing the critical perspective.

That means understanding that AI systems can have incomplete information, make mistakes, be biased (for instance, involuntarily automating inequality or segregation). That is why it’s so important to adopt mechanisms to ensure that these systems are fair, transparent, explainable, accountable technically but also ethically.

In your latest book (I accept the terms and conditions: Uses and abuses of digital technologies, 2020) you stress the importance of schools having programs designed to develop data literacies that help understand how data are generated, captured, and reused to redress the power imbalance that technology is leading to. Do you know of any country implementing such educational policies?

Instead of considering the data literacies as a new and stand-alone capacity, I prefer to look at them as an extension of digital competences and critical thinking.

These challenges might seem new, because of the novelty of these technologies, but they are not. The Socratic methods enables students to critically question what they see, read, hear, and do.

Any good education system is expected to prepare learners to question and think critically, regardless of the interpretation of reality (e.g. verifying if a news source is reliable; locating the source of a fake video). Here some relevant educational examples working on these challenges: