That’s the message from Monash University academic Neil Selwyn, who says educators need to face up to what he terms “a fundamental threat to the living conditions and life chances of future generations”.
Selwyn has put fingers to keys in a series of provocative articles on the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) blog, calling out our unsustainable love affair with the latest technological gear.
“The ways in which digital technologies are now produced, consumed and discarded is of growing environmental concern,” he writes.
“[And the] escalating use of digital technologies in schools is set to become increasingly problematic...”
From 3D printers and interactive ‘smart’ boards, to the ubiquitous personal devices in the classroom, Australian schools are big subscribers to the notion that teaching 21st century skills requires 21st century tools.
Look behind the polished chrome and glass, however, and you’ll start to see that even the most modern examples of ed tech have some very 20th century problems.
For one, every digital device we use is created using enormous amounts of natural resources, including dozens of different elements.
“In the short-term, this extraction causes considerable environmental contamination and pollution. In the longer-term [it’s] simply non-sustainable,” Selwyn says.
The problem is compounded by the enormous cost of running the data centres that keep us online, not to mention the issue of toxic e-waste.
Selwyn says the environmental concerns are also underscored by a “litany” of ethical implications, including exploitative labour practices and “the deadly money trail associated with so-called conflict minerals”.
The magnitude of the issue would appear to point to a societal problem rather than something unique to education, but Selwyn is throwing down the gauntlet to teachers to change the game.
For one, educators are specially placed to reckon with the irony that the futuristic tools we’re using to prepare students for the future are compromising the very world they will inherit.
But teachers also have a great degree of sway in the issue, including the purchasing power to influence the burgeoning ed tech industry to change.
“Sure, in some ways you could argue that this has nothing to do with teachers at all, society needs to sort itself out and then education follows,” Selwyn tells Australian Teacher Magazine.
“But education is a really special little space for technology use. It could be a space where kids and teachers and parents and communities get to use technology differently.”
There are no “quick fixes”, the academic says, but there are things teachers and schools can do now to prepare for a future in which the way we use tech has non-negotiable limits.
Ethical procurement is one place to start. Selwyn suggests schools consider purchasing “refurbished, hand-me-down and gifted hardware” instead of brand-new products that will be replaced with the next round of models.
He’s also advocating a change from the ‘one device per student’ position of governments to a more communal vision of technology use that prioritises “mission critical” outcomes, or those activities that have genuine educational value.
Selwyn says teachers have a responsibility to interrogate their own part in what is an urgent situation, and if they don’t feel they owe it to themselves to do so, they certainly owe it to their students.