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MSPnet Blog: “Questioning assumptions: Connectivity leads to prosperity”

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posted March 13, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

My title may not sound like there’s a connection with STEM education, but here’s the link, at least in my mind:
Schools are under tremendous pressure to integrate more digital technology into the STEM curriculum — with special emphasis on Web-based resources and activities. “Technology integration” becomes an endemic problem for teachers (and their schools and IT and finance departments) to address. Because “technology” is always changing, driven by strong market pressures, the integration of technology (which? how much? for what purposes? with what results?) is very often not driven by pedagogical considerations, but by many others — obsolescence (sometimes real, sometimes not); purchasing economies (real or imagined); sales campaigns that suggest that the new product is so good that you’d be doing a disservice to your students and teachers by not buying it — the story is familiar enough.
Well, one of the lines of argument used to sell digital equipment, especially Internet-enabled equipment, is that connectivity by its very nature is good enough, productive enough of well-being, to justify massive investments in products and the necessary infrastructure to support them. It is this assumption that’s on my mind this week, stimulated by Audrey Watters’s March 3 Hackeducation news roundup.

Here is a nice, clear statement of the basic claim, from a report on the impact of the Internet in Africa:  “The Internet is a tremendous, undisputed force for economic growth and social change. Not only has it unleashed new forms of connectivity, but it has also provided an outletfor new forms of innovation, entrepreneurship and social good.”  You can see other such optimistic claims, mostly not evidence-based, here, in a story from the Council on Foreign Relations.   The Obama administration created the Global Connect International Connectivity Steering Group in 2015, whose mission is “Accelerating entrepreneurship and economic opportunity by expanding Internet access globally.” Whether this initiative continues under the new administration or not, its mission encapsulates assumptions about connectivity as a prime strategy for economic and social (including education) policy.

Yet in this area, as in others, caution is advised.  Nicolas Friederici and colleagues have published a paper examining the evidence for claims about the role of connectivity as a positive economic force in Africa, where live a substantial proportion of the estimated 4 billion un-connected people.  Obviously, economic development is a central concern for many of the nations of the global South — but is getting everyone on the Internet the best way to expend local, regional, national, and international resources?

Friederici et al. examined a collection of policy documents and reports on the impact of “connectivity”, and identified several common categories of claims.  For example, there are claims about how connectivity improves economic development or similar outcomes.  Some assert, in essence, that “by adopting [technology], a country about be able to transform into an information and knowledge-rich economy, and thereby reach higher levels of development.” [itals in original].  Others suggest “an indirect effect:  connectivity is seem to facilitate ongoing economic processes (e.g. through increasing efficiency and productivity) or enable new economic processes in the information and knowledge-based economy.”   Both the more vaporous (my term, not Friederici et al.’s!)  and the more theory-driven claims share the basic assumption that “participation in a globally integrated information or knowledge economy will produce growth and development faster than other types of economic activity.”  Finally, the documents also assume that connectivity will overcome digital divides, and integrate currently marginalized groups into mainstream economic life.

And yet. The authors note that “not a single policy cautions against connectivity potentially deepening inequality and existing digital divides, ” even though there is clear empirical evidence that this is a significant effect of our rapid leap to the digital world.

Moreover, there is an element that appears in the documents reviewed that will seem hauntingly familiar to educators in this country:  The assumption (the authors call it “optimistic technological determinism”) that when we deploy all this expensive new technology, it must necessarily be a Good Thing — so if it isn’t, the problem is “local factors” or “cultural factors” that prevent the arrival of the inherent goods of connectivity.   I have certainly heard such claims made about technology integration in schools — and for sure, I have seen cases where “school cultural factors” of various kinds play an important role in the fate of technology-mediated innovations.  However, acquaintance with teachers and schools in the throes of technology adoption (or not) has also convinced me that merely identifying such factors, or other aspects of “resistance,” is only a first diagnosis, and that there are underlying rationales, sometimes very cogent ones, which drive the attitudes of the cautious and the unwelcoming.   (As Ahab said to poor Starbuck, “Hark ye!  the little lower layer!” )

The available evidence seems to be that some of the touted benefits of connectivity can be documented — but very often, it’s the “haves” who benefit more than the “have nots.”  That is, the poor, uneducated, marginalized, or disenfranchized may reap no benefits at all, or if they do, the effect is proportionally much smaller than the benefits received by people who are better off, already more connected, and otherwise have pre-existing conditions such that connectivity has a catalyzing, releasing effect.   Friederici et al. note that few of these policy documents quote actual data to back up their claims, and that data are often just not available anyway.  Beyond that, there is an assumption that “all positive developmental outcomes come from an open and accessible Internet.”  With the exception of a very few reports, they find bad news is ignored or dismissed (e.g. by arguments such as those mentioned above).  One result is that the hunger for actual research to examine and test assumptions is dulled, and investments and policies are made and implemented based on speculation.

They conclude with a paragraph that has real application to trends in technology in education (and technology through education):

Our worry here…is that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve.  For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t. (pg. 17, emphasis added)

Note:  opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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This blog post has 6 comments, showing all.

connectivity or education

posted by: Amy Cohen on 3/14/2017 9:57 am

Kids roam on the web and seem to believe whatever they find that supports their pre=-existing tendencies. They don't seem to search out conflicting points of view or evidence for or against what they see in short bursts on "digital media". This means in part that the teachers (and parents and other thoughtful folks) who are trying to teach "digital literacy" aren't having much success against the tides of advertising and excitement.

wireless connectivity may be important in Africa where there is less wired-communication infrastructure. But the problem in the US is thoughtless uses of connectivity.

teaching skepticism

posted by: Paul Goldenberg on 3/15/2017 8:45 am

...seem to believe whatever they find that supports their pre-existing tendencies. They don't seem to search out conflicting points of view or evidence for or against what they see

Which, of course, makes them like apparently most adults, and not just the one who is most prominent in the news.

The inclination to search out conflicting evidence is pretty sophisticated. It is a key scientific habit of mind-you gain certainty about your own theory by trying your hardest to shoot it down and not being able to. In a different way, people involved in law do it, too, to try to figure out what opposing views could be argued with enough evidence and logic to be convincing. Perhaps that habit of mind-seeking out evidence and arguments that oppose your own belief-can be taught before one receives a Ph.D or J.D., but it certainly isn't a natural inclination. It's hard to teach to kids because it's hard for adults (the teachers) to have.

STEM Literacy

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 3/15/2017 8:46 am

I can understand that from a classroom perspective, the engagement with online interests is distracting. The behavior you see is contrary to the expectations of watching learning in progress and their products appear deficient in quality. Certainly, too, the concern for their expenditure of time is valid. The problem, however from my point of view is failure to an educational focus on the changing communication designs.

Technology has advanced from the demands of a society, following interests of the public is only part of the drive behind that advancement. Digitalization saves time, lowers costs and allows access. Further in math and science it is a bonding force. The ability for learners to collect data, model phenomenon and develop learning products that are relevant to their location and interests assists them to discover an identity within the STEM professions.
Basically, the opportunity lies in considering the interests and engagement with digital integration beyond the ease of traditional skills where it began, word processing, data structuring and image sharing, to ensure that STEM is better understood. The T is not just adding the internet access but enabling new and critical collaboration. Each new communication tool has a style, expectation and rules that make the user successful and through STEM a handle can be created that structures expectations of its use and application. It is up to us to develop that practice.

Connectivity leads to prosperity

posted by: Sara Silver on 3/15/2017 9:18 am

I concur, Amy. In the U.S., there isn't a 1-1 correspondence between so -called advances in digitization of information and literacy. Educators and parents need to be way more discerning and healthily skeptic of the next-best thing on the digital market. Brian's lengthy expose was insightful about what is/and isn't happening in developing countries with respect to the impacts of digital connectivity. Few are looking at competing explanations!

I reach back to an old-fashioned prescription: urge schools to institute an unplugged day each week. Initial mutiny will morph into some very interesting happenings.

Connectivity, education, and the economic master narrative

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/16/2017 9:38 am

I have really appreciated the comments so far, which reflect Amy's, Sara's, Paul's, and Betsy's long and thoughtful experience with technology in education.
A more generali point, however, is the "master narrative" that drives a lot of tech investment - which is that it's inherently an investment in a better world-- economically as well as educationally. The papers on Africa that I was citing are raising the need for nuance, and making the point that when one exaines actual data about actual outcomes, the picture is complicated enough to demand that we reason carefully about our investments of time, money, and talent. It means that policy and practice have to be more critical/reflective than it is.
The Master Narrative (akin to Gene Glass's "Education gospel") is so deeply established that it takes some real effort to see its presence and inquire about it.

Audrey Watters has an interesting essay called "The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release," which is an example of this kind of critique. (

Healthy skeptic

posted by: Mary Townsend on 3/16/2017 11:10 am

I found the thesis of this post rather disturbing, but not for the reasons others might think. Drawing comparisons with very different cultures is fraught with false assumptions. If it is good for a horse doesn't mean it should be good for a cat, poor analogy, cut the best I can do right now.

I agree with Mr. Goldberg, healthy skepticism should be taught, nurtured and celebrated in our schools. The prevalence of "group think" might be the most important topic for STEM education to dissect and understand.