Unlocking the computer room

This article appeared in Issue 9 of Khanya – Education through Technology – 2006

Khanya has passed the 550 mark of schools having been helped to acquire computer facilities. This is over a third of all schools in the Western Cape. By the end of last year all secondary schools had been completed and the emphasis has now shifted to assisting all primary and ELSEN schools. With over 20 000 PCs in use and over 440 000 learners having access to the equipment, one would expect that the quality of learning has increased dramatically.

Has this happened? Indeed, in many cases it has. I often visit schools to check whether the service that the Khanya team is rendering is adequate and to determine where we can improve. It’s a heartwarming sight to enter the computer room and see the little ones engaging with the technology, improving their reading skills or keeping themselves busy with other curriculum activities. Many educators report a marked improvement in literacy and numeracy levels as a result of using the additional resources. It’s also encouraging to observe senior students using the facility to hone their mathematics or language skills, using the internet to broaden their understanding of subject matter, exploring a GIS software package to get to grips with the wonders of geography or using the computer equipment to simulate science experiments.

Yes, improved learning is possible when technology is properly harnessed and additional content material is made available to learners. The computer is very patient: it allows drilling and practicing to take place until the learner has reached the required skill level. As a bonus, learners become skilled in the use of the computer, which will be an advantage when entering tertiary education or the workplace.

However, during these school visits I often come across a school where there are no learners in the computer room. Sometimes the door is locked and a search party is sent to hunt for the key. The logbook in the computer room frequently indicates that the room is not used to its full capacity. If it’s true that technology can improve teaching and learning, how is it possible that the facility is not used every moment of the school day and beyond?

Is it because of fear? Fear of the technology? Not necessarily. Some educators may initially suffer from a mild dose of technophobia, but this is usually overcome when the Khanya facilitator patiently assists them in coming to grips with the technology. Fear of what, then? Perhaps it’s the fear that the computer will take over the job of the educator. “If the computer is used to teach, what am I going to do?” they may ask.

Is this sound reasoning? No. By embracing technology as a teaching tool, the educator creates additional capacity to operate at a higher level. There are some things that the computer can never do better than a human, but often the educator finds that there are not enough hours in the day to do all of these things. Since there are some things that the computer can do better than a human, or at least instead of a human, wouldn’t it be sensible to discover these areas and then utilize the computer room to create extra capacity for oneself? The end result will be the ability to operate at an elevated teaching level.

I want to appeal to school principals and governing bodies to encourage all educators to make ample use of the facilities that have been provided. Schools and local communities must be praised for the way in which they contribute to the establishment and upkeep of the computer rooms in their schools. It would be a waste to allow this investment to gather dust, simply because some educators may see technology as a threat. If a facility is available, but not used to the benefit of the learners, it’s nothing less than a crime. Learners are robbed of something to which they have a right.

There are many examples of schools in the province that are using their facilities to capacity. Some of these schools are already investing in additional resources. The learners in these schools are the fortunate ones. Technology has the potential to enhance the teaching experience, but a basic requirement is that educators must unlock the computer room.

Khanya commissioned the University of Cape Town (UCT) to do an evaluation of the degree to which technology can contribute towards successful curriculum delivery. This study spanned a two-year period and mathematics in secondary schools was chosen as the research area. The findings of the UCT team were conclusive: there is a high correlation between the time a learner spends in a computer laboratory, using mathematics software, and the learner’s performance in the final examination. To put this simply: if a learner spends a lot of time using the software, he or she can expect to do better than if there was no engagement with the software.

We put tracing logs on the computer networks of all Khanya schools and found that some schools were using their facilities optimally, while others only use them sporadically, seldom or never. Now, if learners in a school where the facility is underutilized perform poorly in their examinations, how will the mathematics educator, or the principal for that matter, justify this to the governing body? The governing body has probably approved the establishment of the facility and contributed towards it with the understanding that it would improve learner performance. So when the facility is available, but not utilized, serious questions need to be asked.

An interesting fact is that an increasing number of educators are investing in acquiring computers for personal use at home. They may use these computers for maintaining mark lists, typing test and examination papers and preparing learner notes. In addition, many educators who don’t have computers at home are willing to use the computer facilities at school to assist with their administration duties. There is no question that educators understand the value of technology. The problem lies in using this same technology as a teaching tool. Many educators are unwilling to use the computer facility as an integrated part of the curriculum delivery process. Why? As indicated earlier, it may result from a measure of concern that the technology is taking over part of their job.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that one of the reasons why some educators are hesitant to use the school’s technology facilities is that they have to move their class physically to another room. If the technology is available in the classroom, perhaps in the form of a cluster of four or five computers, a single computer and a data projector or an interactive electronic whiteboard, it would certainly make it easier for the educator to integrate its use in the teaching process. Educators can now use PowerPoint presentations to make lessons more interesting, integrate internet searches into lessons or use the computers for group work.

It’s for this reason that Khanya is now providing technology in classrooms at some schools. We believe it’s still best to provide a computer laboratory as a first facility to schools; it allows for IT training of all educators and serves as a general introduction to the use of technology in the curriculum delivery process. However, once the facility is optimally used, the next phase should not be a second laboratory, but rather the introduction of computers and related equipment into individual classrooms. Khanya has already successfully experimented with placing its “science lab” (four or five computers, an interactive electronic whiteboard, data logging equipment and science software) in science rooms. This allows the science educator to use the technology for every class group where appropriate. Single computers and data projectors are used as teaching tools in mathematics, geography and language classes.

In all these cases, the appeal to educators is this: please use your technology. Unlock the computer room, whether that room is the computer laboratory or a room with a single computer in it.

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