Education technology and football refereeing

While education and professional sports are very different words, both educational technology (edtech) and VAR (Video Assisted Refereeing) are concerned with the application of technology to fundamentally human enterprises, with the intention of improving them for those involved.

Witnessing the roll-out of the VAR technology at the Men’s and<Women’s Football World Cup tournaments, and the Premier League, we can highlight the possible lessons for the application of technology in education.

With detailed television coverage and mobile phone footage from the crowd, the use of video to support the referee in football soon became inevitable. As the President of IFAB (the International Football Association who are responsible for the rules of the game) put it “With all the 4G and Wi-Fi in stadia today, the referee is the only person who can’t see exactly what is happening and he’s actually the only one who should.”

It was meant to eliminate an increasing number of obvious errors, and now the technology is in use across most professional leagues, with the referee able to refer to assistants who will analyse the footage, to determine the correct decision.

There are aspects where VAR really does help and improve the overall game, and the same is true with edtech. Goal line technology for instance has removed the infuriating disallowed goals when a ball has clearly crossed the line. And there are good practical applications of technology in education, such as being able to submit assignments online, or conduct tutorials at a distance, or rewatch a lecture, which give very tangible benefits to students.

Dynamic and imprecise

However, the intersection of very precise technology with dynamic, imprecise activity in football has led to incidents where the technology provides a false confidence around aspects that are not reducible to minute measurements. VAR decisions where a ball has brushed a hair on someone’s hand and are deemed handball, or where a player is offside by a fingertip, may technically be correct – but in reality the game and the rules were not developed to be so finely measured.

Analytics in education can be similarly be used to provide us with a wealth of precise data about a student – how long they spend looking at a resource, the number and average length of posts they put into an online forum, their performance across computer based assessments, and so on. This quantity of data can give us the belief that we can state a student’s comprehension of a subject to 0.1%, but as with football, learning is much more inexact than the measurements might suggest. Once we are in possession of incredibly rich and (contextually) accurate data then we can better inform our decisions. Evidence based decisions are a good way to progress, but we should also remain conscious of the plasticity of learning.

VAR makes us recognise and value the role of humans in the system. Arguably, the application of technology in cricket has been more advantageous, with Hawk Eye ,and an established video review system, to support increasingly complex decisions for umpires (although as we saw with the recent Ashes game, this does not mean that bad decisions cannot influence a game).

Learning analytics is the obvious parallel here. It can be used to help an educator identify if a student is struggling, or if a particularly tough part of a course is causing students to revisit materials often, or if key resources are not being used. In the online course delivery world, this type of data is the equivalent of detecting puzzled faces, stifled yawns or students staring out of the window in a lecture, and the educator can adjust accordingly. But as with learning analytics, there is a danger that VAR makes the data the most important aspect, and that decision could be made by AI system, just as teaching could be deemed a task for AI.

Making better decisions

Technology changes the behaviour of humans who make decisions. If referees and umpires know video technology will catch misdemeanours then maybe they will be less likely to give fouls. Similarly, an educator may not trust their own judgement about a student if the technology tells them otherwise. A consequence of the quantity of data mentioned previously is that only data driven decisions matter and are trusted.

Much like a lot of edtech, VAR hasn’t really solved the problems it set out to eliminate, at least in the manner people envisaged. There had been an increasing desire for video technology to be applied to football, to solve the bad offside decisions, missed penalty calls, and goals that should have been disallowed. “If only we had video technology, this wouldn’t happen!” everyone declared.

The introduction of VAR has gone a long way to alleviate such complaints, but it has also introduced a whole new set of issues, so now there are arguments about whether decisions should or shouldn’t have gone to VAR, and then whether the fine calls mentioned above really should have been given. The controversy has just moved location from the pitch to the review room.

Like the original injustices it was meant to address, one suspects that roughly these things will even out. But it’s difficult to say that in the end it’s really been worth it. In education, the introduction of technology such as MOOCs, AI or blockchain are often touted as solving problems of equity, access, scale or efficiency. For instance, MOOCs were meant to democratise education by making courses free to all. But the lack of tutor support in a MOOC has meant that they are best suited for experienced, confident learners. This is indeed what demographic analyses of MOOC learners has revealed, with the result that far from democratising education, MOOCs may increase inequality. While most forms of edtech find a suitable audience and purpose, they invariably cost more than anticipated, and don’t have the global impacts touted in their inception.

And while VAR improves some decisions, there is also the possibility that it dehumanises aspects of football. The crux of our enjoyment in sport is precisely that it is not an exact science, it is unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and conducted by humans. That is what makes it worth returning to.

Do we need more errors?

Technology can certainly improve it, but its application needs to be cautious and our expectations for its results need to be measured – it will not lead to a sporting nirvana devoid of errors. Enjoying and accepting the messiness of sport is part of its inherent appeal, and so it is with education. While education is more controllable and perhaps predictable, it is still an exploit we undertake because it connects to some very human aspect of self and identity, as with art.

As with VAR the role of technology in education is exciting, largely inevitable and potentially beneficial, but as we are seeing with the video technology in sport, it is to the detriment of the overall enterprise if it becomes the main focus.

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