The short answer is no. The long answer goes something like this: technology could and does play a role in realising certain inclusive pedagogical aims, but do not drive radical change in and by themselves. And while technology can be designed with inclusion in mind, what inclusion entails vary: inclusion might refer to equal treatment, equal achievement; prioritize collaboration or personalisation; to schools as internally inclusive or as motors of inclusion for the wider society, correcting inequalities. Education can’t be made inclusive just with technology – and school can’t be inclusive in a society that isn’t.
I’ll first contextualise the history of inclusion as a guiding principle in educational policy, first for disabled children then as a cultural and social goal for schools, and its various interpretations for pedagogy and didactics. I’ll then focus on the promises of technologies for inclusive schooling, arguing they usually center just one aspect of inclusion, flexibility. This framing has limited potential, which
Inclusive schooling as a policy
Inclusive schooling becomes a key principle for the education of disabled children in the 1990s in the United States, following the Civil Rights movement and the desinstitutionalisation efforts. It referred to including disabled pupils alongside their non-disabled peers in the classroom, by contrast to other approoaches such as special education classrooms within mainstream schools or special education organisations. For some disabled children this mostly reflected changes that had long been underway. In France, for instance, there is good evidence visually impaired children had been attending mainstream schools in increasing numbers before inclusive schooling was codified in law in 2005.
The notion of inclusion in education however rapidly expanded. The 2000 OECD report on inclusive education focuses on disability, while their more recent reports emphasize students of different backgrounds and diversity more generally. Inclusion became a new available framing for educational policy and schools, justifying a wide range of policies centering schools as a means to address social and cultural inequalities in the broaden anxiety – often without given schools the means to pursue these expanded goals – and as economic inequalities increased. It also likely reflects concerns about observed ways schooling produces inequalities, running contrary to discourses about education as a meritocracy. It is worth noting that meritocracy itself is a fairly recent idea in education – one that had been criticized for introducing new forms of competition and undermining collective action.
Inclusion can be used as a motivation for a wide varieties of policies and pedagogies. At its most basic, educating children in diverse groups reflecting the wider society can bring benefits on its own. Many studies show that children participate in reproducing social inequalities in their interpersonal relationships. Inclusion needs scaffolding. But that scaffolding can’t happen in segregated settings.
How to scaffolds this inclusion (and the roles of technologies in doing so) is another matter. The wider availability of assistive technologies such as braille keyboards and screen readers or automatic captions has certainly played an important role in enabling (easier) access to learning materials. But technologies have also long been framed as opening new horizons for education, making it more inclusive by making it more flexible (and vice-versa). In turn, models of the learning process underpins the development of certain technologies, such as AI.
The promises of computers in education
Children and schools have long been an idea target for technology developers, framed by advocates across industry, policy and academia as a solution to schools’ ills, an opportunity to improve learning, shape better citizens and a more inclusive society. First, children are idealised as intuitive, naturally curious and prone to learning if only they were given the right tools. Long before personal computers, scientists framed computers as the perfect tool to develop learning personalisation at scale, encourage active exploration across media and even new literacies encouraging citizenship and participation. Whether this is true in practice is highly debatable – for instance, Failure to Disrupt explores the reasons behing the small to moderate learning gains made using intelligent tutoring systems, Disruptive Fixation shows the pitfalls of a school focused on gamification and digital literacies, while The Promise of Access examines how a school’s efforts to provide a computer to every student to encourage independent learning failed to achieve its objectives.
Second, children serve as metaphors for learning machines, with models of children’s learning process inspiring the design of artificial intelligence and vice-versa. For instance, constructivist pedagogy which posits the active construction (through trials and errors) of mental representations and errors was an inspiration for both the design of educational technologies and artificial intelligence.
Finally, children cristallize fears of a technological future in which those who won’t adapt to technology present and future will suffer. In The Code, Margaret O’Mara describes how Steve Jobs framed the Macintosh as indispensable for schools, opening a very lucrative market for Apple. If they are indispensable to schools, they become indispensable to families, as a way to keep up with expectations or to give an edge to their children. It is possible for instance that women were driven out of computer sciences in the 1980s in part because boys, more likely to be owning personal computers, changed teachers’ expectations of beginners. Today, parents are often caught between injunctions to support their children’s digital fluency while restricting use.
Flexibility, cooperation, collaboration?
Multiple theories of cognition and perspectives on improving education can be called upon to justify a focus on flexibility. A widely discarded (but still used) theory is that of learning styles . The core principle is that some people learn better aurally, visually, through physical manipulation, etc. A more promising approach is to consider multiple ways of presenting and interacting with representations and information, depending on the goal and the setting.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework emphasizing three aspects of learning design: different means of engagement, representation and expression. With regards to designing for accessibility, Universal Design more broadly was an invitation to account for ergonomic variability and to shift designers’ focus on fixing disable bodies, and instead design environments practicable for as many people as possible. The difficulty of suchh approach is to handle the complexity it introduces – and this might as well be true for the teacher and the pupils. The preparation of materials is costly in time and may demand abilities to use a variety of media tools making their preparation more complex for teachers than, for instance, activity sheets. In addition, inclusive content is concerned with not making assumptions about children’s experiences that would impact their ability to understand a problem and be evaluated on the right skills.
But UDL too emphasizes individual learners and their needs, rather than collaborative and collective approaches to learning. There again interpretations and implementations differ: what should be the goal of collaboration? When collaborating with peers, grouping by ability may lead to implicit tracking, but groups that are too heterogeneous might have difficulty collaborating.
Returning to defining inclusive technologies, collaboration in groups of mixed abilities has been a significant focus for research. One strategy is to design technologies for activities inspired by the education of disabled children. My Ph for instance looked at how special education teachers build lessons and activities involving all senses and making sense of their physical environment through diverse sounds, smells and more. They can then leverage that understanding in social sciences lessons. We could design technologies centering the use of all senses in learning, including collaborating to make sense of a situation.
Inclusion is a process, and shifting the perspective this way may help us finding ways forward. But inclusive technologies as personal tools rather than supporting collective organization will necessarily be too limited for the goals at hand.