By Emeritus Professor Junhong Xiao, Open University of Shantou

Educational technology (EdTech) is not neutral; it is neither culture-free nor value-free. Yet, despite its assumptions, preferences, biases, and embedded nature, each new wave of hype around an emerging EdTech in the West is immediately picked up by our Asian colleagues in open, distance, and digital education (ODDE) who appear to be eager to escalate the hype to a higher level or rush to prove its equal feasibility and/or effectiveness in the Asian context for fear of falling behind the (Western) world. The latest craze for ChatGPT is a typical case in point.

A search of publications about ChatGPT in education in the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), the largest Chinese publication database, in October 2023 when writing this feature, returned around 400 hits with the earliest publication on January 10, 2023.

The number would definitely be far more than this figure if we counted grey literature, not to mention the many “timely” workshops and seminars run by EdTech celebrities to preach their assumptions about the alluring prospects of ChatGPT, which are basically “borrowed” from and/or built on their Western counterparts’ claims.

Imagine all these “researches” were conducted within less than one year after OpenAI released ChatGPT and the earliest “research” was completed less than two months after ChatGPT went public!

I am not implying a wholesale dismissal of exotics such as EdTech from outside Asia; what I mean is that we should always avoid buying into these innovations uncritically, be they technologies or theories.

Earlier in my piece in Issue 19 of inspired, I advocated the contextualization – generalization – recontextualization cycle proposed by Professor Insung Jung of Seoul National University and also lamented our Asian colleagues’ insensitivity to culture or value-loadedness in relation to ODDE.

Educational technology (EdTech) is not neutral; it is neither culture-free nor value-free.

Recently, I serendipitously read an opinion piece by an Asian colleague, Professor Maria Mercedes T. Rodrigo at Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon, Philippines. Her article is entitled “Is the AIED Conundrum a First-World Problem?” and published in the International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education.

Professor Rodrigo was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the 2022 Artificial Intelligence in Education Conference. She shared her insights on the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence in education (AIED) in contexts less developed than many Western countries, which evolved into her article.

What interests me most is her collaboration with Western counterparts in recontextualizing educational technology innovations from the West in the under-resourced context of the Philippines since 2006.

Findings from her collaborative research with Western colleagues have been fruitful and surely contributed positively to the knowledge base of specific EdTech innovations concerned.

Her experience in this kind of collaboration is, in my eyes, the epitome of recontextualization which involves far more than hardware resources but also takes into account many other contextual factors such as educational system and regulation mechanism, ethic concerns, and socio-economic condition, among other things, in a specific context.

Just as she aptly observes, recontextualization is a contribution to existing research, hence further enhancing generalization of relevant findings.

Lessons from Professor Rodrigo are encompassing as well as generic in nature and therefore of relevance across other Asian countries. For example, the conundrum of AIED is the tendency to perpetuate poor pedagogic practices, datafication, and to introduce surveillance into the classroom, according to the “mainstream” literature in the West.

I appeal to my Asian ODDE colleagues to learn from Professor Rodrigo by adopting a context-sensitive approach to the research and praxis of ODDE innovations imported from outside our local context.

However, “countries such as the Philippines are so far behind (‘because we do not have the infrastructure to deploy AI-based educational applications at scale’, to quote her) that these problems are not even on our radar”, argues Professor Rodrigo who then suggests opening up “new avenues of research and innovation that address pedagogy, cognition, human rights, and social justice” in our specific context, which in her article refers to the Phillipine context.

These insights of hers are equally applicable to other exotic ODDE innovations and in other Asian countries. For example, flipped learning has been a hype for some time, which would be absurd if implemented among students in a poor resource context who could get by only with bare necessities.

What John Naughton, Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University in the United Kingdom, said about the One Laptop per Child project holds true when it comes to any EdTech innovation.

He argued that technological innovations should not be “grandly contemptuous of mundane questions” and that “in a society where the average income is less than $2 a day and the notion of children’s rights is as theoretical as time travel”, “giving them books, hiring more teachers or building more schools – or even paying families to send their kids to school” may be “educationally better” than giving kids computers.

Of the various contextual factors hampering the adoption of EdTech innovations in a particular country, cost and access are often ignored.

As detailed my paper titled “Critiquing Sustainable Openness in Technology-Based Education from the Perspective of Cost-Effectiveness and Accessibility”, I reviewed 3,059 primary studies published between 1969 and 2022, whose authors were affiliated to institutions in 70 countries, including developed, developing, and under-developed countries across six continents: Africa, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America, and South America.

Findings from my research indicate that only slightly over 1% (n = 32) of the studies took cost-effectiveness into consideration in the research designs and only slightly over 7% (n = 224) aimed at widening access/increasing equity with nine of them intended to achieve both cost-effectiveness and accessibility.

Furthermore, cost-effectiveness was considered from the perspective of educational institutions; none of the studies examined the costs which students (and their families) had to bear. This may explain, to some extent, the lack of sustainability of EdTech innovations.

In light of the arguments above, I appeal to my Asian ODDE colleagues to learn from Professor Rodrigo by adopting a context -sensitive approach to the research and praxis of ODDE innovations imported from outside our local context.

In other words, educators in Asia should always maintain a mindset of context-awareness in both praxis and research.