Technology doesn’t widen the education divide. People do that

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you – the reader – choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you’re in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular. It’s up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.

This week’s motion is: Technology widens the education divide. Arguing AGAINST the motion today is JOE FAY, who has covered the technology business, and the UK’s inability to produce enough technology specialists, for 30 years. Joe has two teenage children and therefore knows the damage technology can to young people – and the damage that they can do to technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted disparities in access to technology. Whole families having to share a tablet, or even a not so smartphone, and a flaky data connection are clearly going to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers with a suite of MacBooks and full-fat broadband.

Likewise, students might be expected to benefit when their schools can ensure a high-def camera in every classroom, and adequately planned lessons. Those whose teachers struggle to even send out a few Word docs with web links, not so much.

But, with children largely returning to classrooms, this should all be less of an issue in the future – the next pandemic notwithstanding.

Catching up on what they’ve missed is undoubtedly an ongoing challenge. But addressing the social and development issues caused by prolonged isolation and inactivity is arguably far more important. What worries me more is a broader misperception of what tech is for, and what it can do. It’s an easy soundbite for whoever is in power to say they want every child to be tech literate, and able to code, so that the country can compete with India, or China, or whichever straw man the government has chosen this week.

In the UK, technology is perennially pitched as some kind of cure-all that will solve the country’s perceived lack of innovation, sluggish productivity and general decline. Successive governments repeatedly declare their intention to boost STEM education.

But this would be far more convincing were it not coming from a cabinet chocked full of politics, philosophy, and economics graduates. Yes, the STEM sector is important. But so are – for example – the creative industries, which are worth well over £100bn to the UK economy. Pulling out like for like comparisons can be difficult. But in 2015 there were 1.7 million jobs in the creative industries with almost another million in creative roles outside the creative industries. By comparison, there were 3.2 million jobs in high-tech.

We constantly hear about shortages of STEM workers: from scientists and engineers of all descriptions to techies. But, judging from the skilled worker shortage list alone, Blighty could do with graphic designers, artists, musicians, dancers and choreographers. (Which makes last year’s adverts suggesting ballet dancers become cyber security practitioners all the more ridiculous.)

It can seem that the government wants to force children into STEM jobs, whether or not they want to pursue these sectors. I wouldn’t want to watch a ballet performance by someone who’d never wanted to actually be a dancer. I probably wouldn’t want to use an e-payment system designed by someone who didn’t want to be a programmer.

And I really wouldn’t want to drive across a bridge designed by someone who’d never really wanted to be an engineer. I’m not saying children should be simply encouraged to follow their dreams. But we should be focusing more broadly on developing confident young people, who are able to make informed choices about their careers. Technology is part of this, but we shouldn’t obsess about it.

So, I have to conclude that while disparity of access is a bad thing, “technology” doesn’t widen the education divide. It’s governments and policy makers and vested interests that have a cock-eyed view of both technology and education that do that. So, I urge you to vote against the motion. And to vote for political leaders that really understand technology AND education. ®

Cast your vote below. We’ll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate’s progress here.

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