UNESCO’s Seminar on Digital Futures of Education Charts Path for Human-Centred Tech Integration

UNESCO Seminar explores AI in education, outlines strategies for equitable tech integration in learning.

On 17 April 2024, UNESCO convened the Public Seminar on the “Digital Futures of Education”. Attended by some 300 participants in-person and online, the Seminar provided a platform to engage with national experts piloting the Open School initiative in various countries and to explore strategies to steer the human-centred approach to the use of digital technology, especially artificial intelligence, in education.

Reflecting on the impact of the accelerated digital innovation on education, Ms Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, highlighted that education must not only adapt to these changes but also ensure more just, inclusive and sustainable digital futures. To achieve this shared goal, collaboration with all stakeholders is key. 

At the Seminar, a diverse group of country experts shared their respective national approaches to digital education. Notably, Brazil and Thailand emphasized the integration of connectivity, content and capacity as enabling pillars in their national digital education strategies. Egypt’s focus on digital learning materials demonstrates the country’s commitment to rendering digital learning accessible for all. Ethiopia’s reform agenda centres on the vital role of universities in spearheading the digital transformation of education and the digitalization of educational content. Ghana’s ICT Competency Framework for Teachers reflects a strategic prioritization of teacher development. Additional perspectives from Finland’s University of Turku in leveraging research to integrate AI into education management systems showcase an ecosystemic approach to harnessing emerging technologies for education. 

Exemplifying the tangible benefits of technology across varying contexts, these country perspectives also converge on the urgent need for robust governance mechanisms to ensure safety and human rights. Mr Villano Qiriazi, Head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe, shared insights on the EU Artificial Intelligence Act, the region’s legal framework on AI, and advocated for a human-rights-based approach to AI use in education. From a global lens, UNESCO presented its AI Readiness Assessment tool to translate the Recommendations on the Ethics of AI into actions, as well as its Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms to enable freedom of expression and inclusion while promoting a healthy information ecosystem in a digital era.

In education, UNESCO’s Guidance for the Use of Generative AI in Education and Research has outlined a roadmap for regulating AI in education and strategies to address its profound risks and impact on teaching and learning. One such risk highlighted in the 2023 Guidance is the inherent biases embedded in the generative AI tools – a concern also brought to the fore in a recent research report from UNESCO and the International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence, which revealed gender biases and prejudices found in Large Language Models. 

As highlighted during the Seminar, the rapid technological change presents opportunities and uncertainties alike, propelling us to reimagine schools so that they are not only more resilient in the face of disruption but are also more responsive to the evolving needs of individuals, society and the world of work – it is in this context that the “Technology-enabled Open School for All” project was established. Initiated in 2020, the first Phase of the Project will conclude in July 2024, and the second Phase has already been launched in early 2024. 

Following the Seminar, the national teams proceeded to an intensive two-day working meeting to review the Phase I achievements and strategize for the upcoming Phase II. Team members from the Phase I countries – Egypt, Ethiopia and Ghana – reported significant progress in advancing educational technology and empowering educators. Egypt established a new National Center for Distance Learning, benefiting 950,000 educators. In Ghana, national educational platforms were improved, an ICT Competency Framework for Teachers was developed, and 10 schools received ICT equipment, benefiting 1,000 teachers and 3,000 students. Ethiopia witnessed the project’s impact through equipping and training 12,000 students and 250 educators across 24 pilot secondary schools, along with the development of its first EdTech training manual and support for its new Digital Education Strategy (2023-2028).

During the technical sessions, the Phase II beneficiary countries – Brazil, Egypt and Thailand – began to formulate country-specific project interventions, aligning with their educational priorities in each country. This includes expanding teachers’ training in Egypt, advancing inclusion and environment-sensitive education in Brazil, and building on education for well-being and happiness in Thailand. 

As observed by Mr Sobhi Tawil, UNESCO Director of the Future of Learning and Innovation Division, if fully ingrained in national policies and practices, this project can act as a driving force for innovation and momentum to catalyze change. Ultimately, this project can serve as a pathway towards shaping the digital futures of education – one that prioritizes a human-centred approach that fosters inclusion and equity in the use of technology to support learning rooted in human contact and social interaction.

Alongside the Permanent Delegation of the People’s Republic of China to UNESCO, Ms Liu Mingju, Director of TECH4ALL Programme Office, representing the donor of the project, Huawei, reiterated their continued commitment to collaborate with UNESCO, with an aim to advance access to technology for all, especially those that need it the most. 

UNESCO, in cooperation with its partners, has been steering the human-centred digital transformation of school education through digital open school models with a vision to combine technology and human competencies to create a flexible, inclusive and quality learning environment while reinforcing education across physical and virtual spaces. With financial support from Huawei, UNESCO has been implementing the Technology-enabled Open Schools project in Egypt, Ethiopia and Ghana since 2020, and a second phase has already been launched in Brazil, Egypt and Thailand in early 2024. 

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