April 07, 2012

Rethinking Education and ICTs

#technology #partnership #global #education #development

For the first time, developing economies can realistically contemplate leap-frogging over traditional growth stages and constraints to accelerate development. This remarkable opportunity applies equally to local as it does to national economies. Cities, districts, states, and countries can leverage information and communications technology to jumpstart stagnant industries and create new opportunities for innovation and growth. However, such contemplation is only realistic if the educational systems which feed technological development with the necessary skills are overhauled.

Global competition, outsourcing, and technology innovation are devastating communities that cannot match the lower labor costs and more efficient production processes that lure businesses away. Staying competitive in the modern economic environment requires innovators, knowledge-workers, and critical-thinkers.

In the light of this reality, the deficiencies of the traditional educational model have become glaringly obvious, and increasingly untenable.  Simply putting more computers and Internet access in schools or laptops in students’ hands will not solve the problem if the educational system itself does not evolve.  A substantial overhaul of education and training to match the technology revolution and keep pace with continued technological development is urgently required.

Global Changes, Local Context

Certain concerns attend the rapid emergence of new technologies. If new technology increases production with less and less labor input then we are heading for a world with increasing numbers of marginalized individuals. We are already seeing this in the growing numbers of disenfranchised youth who are manifesting antisocial behavior and increasing lawlessness. The cost to business, to communities, and to families of this growing societal rot is all too well known.

The corollary to this is the steady exodus of highly educated, highly trained locals. This is almost inevitable in environments where the available jobs and economic environment do not produce a context for college graduates to use newly acquired knowledge or skill sets. There is, however, always a chance that providing these individuals with an opportunity to contribute tangibly to local development can be enough for some to stay.

Our response must therefore go beyond simply increasing the cadre of technology-savvy workers.  We need to increase our capacity to understand the impact of technology on society. This calls for relevant, values-based education.

We have to produce graduates of all disciplines with depth of understanding of their environment, and the linkages between technological development and human development. Educational programs have to be reworked to reflect indigenous realities and promote positive social values, while producing the talent for technological and economic advancement. Only then would we be able to boast of experiencing true development.

Technology is Not a Panacea

Both public sector and private sector stakeholders typically espouse a form of technological utopia, and a belief that application of technology is somehow a panacea to all the ills of the educational system. If we are not careful, such thinking can lead to a neglect of basic educational issues.

The current push to insert technology into education is not only coming from governments that are desperate to solve what they regard as the problems of public education. It is also driven by commercial companies seeking new and predictable markets for their products. These motivations are not always congruent or complementary.

Public policy in education must be driven by a development agenda that is broader than what commercial interest alone is capable of delivering. We must first ask ourselves what kind of society we are seeking to build. Only by answering that question can we proceed to debate what technological approaches are best to get us there.

Mind the Gap

Despite massive and growing investment in technology in schools, and despite the enthusiasm that has accompanied it, much of what takes place in education remains generally untouched by technology. Yet outside school, children are living increasingly digitally-saturated lives.

Internet access at home, in libraries and offices, together with the proliferation of mobile gadgets and devices have provided children with independent access to media technology. They are participating in an increasingly diverse and commercialized media culture. This culture is largely defined externally and is feeding a growing perception of local institutions—not just in education, but also business and government—as being out-of-touch, outdated, and increasingly irrelevant.

Governments, educators, and business leaders as well as policy makers must be mindful that this widening gap between expectation and experience is fuelling mounting frustration in students, employees, customers, and citizens.

Our media-rich technology world is creating appetites and expectations that are not easily satisfied nor are they always compatible with traditional norms and values.  The potential for moral corrosion can be compounded by ill-conceived or hastily implemented programs to push technology and Internet access at children.

Technology targeting youth should always be attended by access to relevant local content, and access to properly trained teachers and mentors. At the same time youth must also be immersed in an environment that fosters innovative thinking and reinforces positive values. Creativity must be both encouraged and celebrated.

Shared Responsibility

A modern educational system requires focus on securing the foundation of knowledge and skill during the first years of education. At a young age, individuals should be taught how to look for information and how to make effective use of gathered information as acquired knowledge.  At the same time, sustained, strategic engagement of teachers and trainers must be a priority.

We must avoid the temptation of using technology to perpetuate the model of shoveling canned material at students that they must cram and recite.  In addition to curriculum instruction, educators must play a vital role in imparting the values and mindsets necessary for their charges to make relevant contributions to society.  The evolution of the education sector requires a re-think of treatment, recognition, and development opportunities afforded to our educators. From compensation to structured capacity building, appropriate investment must be made in those entrusted with delivering education.

What we are teaching and its relevance to the kind of development we seek must be continually assessed and refined. Technology challenges existing approaches to teaching and training; offers new options for motivating students; and promises endless and exciting opportunities for creativity and innovation. The benefit is cyclical. Education drives technology innovation, which in turn forms the basis for education innovation.

In this regard, technology in education needs to be understood as more than an appendixed, device-driven undertaking. True education extends well beyond the technology, classroom, and curriculum. Education must be seen and approached as a shared responsibility of students, teachers and the national community.  After all, education is for life.