April 11, 2013

Re-Examining Education Technology

#technology #education #development

Technology is having a positively disruptive impact on classrooms around the world. It is being fuelled by the functionality and affordability of consumer-friendly devices and the increasing accessibility of digital content, particularly via Internet. It is clear that the education sector, ready or not, is experiencing its version of the technology revolution.

The Changing Face of Education

Positions about what is technologies are best in an education setting are always relative. Smartphones, smart-boards, tablets and flat-panel TVs in the class are real options in some places; but not so much in other parts of the world where the cost of acquiring and maintaining high-tech gear is simply beyond the reach of most schools and students.  Yet, in this diverse spread of needs and wants, there is consensus on one thing: Technology is changing the face and nature of education, and schools and educators need to adapt.

But, it sometime seems there are more examples of failed education technology implementations, than success stories.  Well intended laptops-in-schools programs, or tablets-in-the-class initiatives morph into money-down-the-drain, or frustration-in-the-class outcomes. However, the technology per se, is seldom the cause for broken technology-in-education dreams. You normally don’t have to scratch too deeply to find that failures can be traced to: teachers not being properly oriented or trained; schools not being adequately outfitted, location inappropriate technology being deployed; or relevant digital content not available. However, a deeper exploration usually reveals a common root - leaders who did not sufficiently invest in connecting the dots between vision and implementation.

The Technology Imperative

There is, it seems, a disconnect between the promise of education technology in theory and manifestation of its potential in the real world. This disconnect may well stem from the outmoded way success in education is still measured. Exam results, not holistic student development, remain the primary measure of education success.

Adam Webster, a U.K. teacher and education technology blogger, wrote, “The problem with the real world is that it functions at a different pace and in a different way to a school. Schools don’t need to be progressive to be successful, they simply need to produce good results.”

It should come as no surprise then, that the education sector’s response to the disruptive potential of technology is more akin to that of the public service than the private sector’s own.

The private sector understands that innovation, efficiency and adaptability are not options, they are imperatives. Survival in today’s global marketplace mandates use of technology to remain competitive and relevant.  By contrast, learning institutions largely seem to function under some unwritten code that obligates them to maintain stability and predictability. This is far from an ideal paradigm for innovation or rapid evolution. Therein lies the inherent challenge with technology in education.

Students are graduating into a world in which technology is inextricable woven into the evolving fabric of society. Yet, under current education models, good exam results seldom require innovation, or creativity, or technology.  So unless the definition of relevant knowledge and learning is changed, no one should be surprised if educators have no real incentive to make the sweeping changes required to evolve the education system.

Evolving the System

Schools and countries should constantly ask “Is the education system adequately preparing students for the real world?” Any negative response should not be taken as an indictment, but as a mandate for decisive action.

Ultimately, technology should be embraced because it serves the need to provide both educators and students a quality learning environment. Examples at home and abroad prove that technology can transform how education content is delivered; engaging students, teachers and parents in interesting new ways in the process.

Video-conferencing software can be used in the class to link students with their counterparts in other countries. Multimedia libraries can be populated with local as well as international content to supplement the curriculum and extra-curricular activity.  Parents can use smartphones, tablets or computers to login to an online system to review their child’s progress and interact with subject teachers.  Students can access the Internet on their own devices for research, international collaborations or even for games and social networking – just like they would in the world they are being prepared for.

Still, real risks attend the benefits of technology in schools. Safeguards to protect users from inappropriate content have to be put in place and constantly assessed. Responsible use of technology should be communicated to students across subject areas. Additionally, strong emphasis should be placed on ongoing education technology training for teachers as well as parents.  It is also important that students be taught to value digital content creation, as a counter-balance to their natural inclination for content consumption. Schools should also cater for building internal technical troubleshooting and maintenance capacity to support student and staff needs.

Navigating the Future

With each forward step, the system evolves to serve the technology-driven demands of education in the digital age. The truth is, though, technology has been changing education for millennia: from slates, chalkboards, fountain pens and calculators, to laptops, multimedia projectors and touch-screen devices. Through every transition there was opposition; yet with every transition the nature of education evolved.

Today we find ourselves at another transition point. If we have learnt anything from the past it is that leadership, not technology, will determine how well and how quickly we navigate to the inevitable technology-driven education system of the future.