Technology patches for education

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 | education, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Ample evidence exists that technology can make a huge difference in education. Many teachers in South Africa use technology right now to improve their own teaching and to help learners to learn better.

Some teachers use interactive classroom devices to keep learners interested and involved in learning material. Others have flipped their classrooms: learners access content at home on mobile devices and teachers then use class time for stimulating discussions and making practical application of the material. Older computer labs are still used with great benefit by teachers for reinforcement, drill-and-practice and research. In all these cases teachers report significant improvements in learning outcomes.

However, we have not seen that technology has improved the quality of education in general. Pockets of excellence exist, which proves the potential value of technology in education, but in the vast majority of schools in South Africa technology has had no impact on education outcomes (even in some schools flush with technology).

Technology is a wonderful patch to improve teaching and learning.

No point in sewing a patch onto this cloth!

No point in sewing a patch onto this cloth!

But why can’t the patches stick? It has been said that one can’t put a new patch on an old garment. Why? Because the fabric of the old garment may be too weak to hold the patch and so the patch is simply torn off.

Is this the problem in education? Is the education system so threadbare that it cannot hold onto, incorporate, and integrate technology into the system? If so, what can we do about the situation?

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Tablets will not transform education

Friday, November 22nd, 2013 | Tablet, trends | Comments Off

“What a bold statement,” you may say, “particularly in view of the current proliferation of tablets and other mobile devices.”

Well, consider history.

In 1922 Thomas Edison reportedly said:

I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize [transform] our education system and that in a few years it will supplant the use of textbooks … The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture where it should be possible to obtain 100 percent efficiency.

Did this expectation come true?  In spite of the fact that some teachers used motion pictures with great success in their schools, we know that this medium did not manage to transform the education system.  What went wrong?

Edison based his prediction on a number of assumptions about this potentially powerful tool:

Content: He assumed that sufficient relevant content will be available in film format to cover all learning areas for all grades.

Affordable and available equipment: He assumed that motion picture equipment will be affordable and will be made available to every classroom.

Technology stability: He assumed that the motion picture will not be replaced by other technologies in the short to medium term, and will continue to be the first choice technology for entertainment and education of the masses.

Classroom integration: He assumed that all teachers will become skilled in using motion pictures as a substitute for textbooks and will change their teaching practices accordingly.

We now know that none of these assumptions proved to be true.  Yet, in later years, the same assumptions were made with regards to radio, TV, PCs, laptops, interactive whiteboards … and are now being made about tablets.  Let’s look at these assumptions again:

Content: In contrast with the erroneous assumption about content availability when the 1922 motion picture prediction was made, we can safely assume today that sufficient digital content is available as ebooks, educational software and even open education resources.  But now we are making another assumption: learners (and their teachers) will know how to find their way through the plethora of available content; the current under-utilization of such resources proves that this assumption is wrong.  This is clearly a case where more is not better, and the mere availability of content in no way guarantees that it will be used.

Affordable and available equipment: This is a more risky assumption; tablets are less costly than its PC and laptop predecessors, but how much will it cost – and how long will it take – to provide every child in the country with a tablet? For education to be transformed, more than a sporadic presence of technology is required; every teacher and child needs access to technology for it to have a significant effect.

Technology stability: Technologies have replaced each other rather rapidly over the years and the rate of change is accelerating; we can’t assume that the tablet as we know it today will be the device of choice in a year or two from now.  In fact, based on the history of technology, we can safely assume that it won’t!

Classroom integration: This is the most dangerous assumption of them all; it can almost be stated as a fact that it will take years – many, many years – to train and educate all our teachers to become comfortable in using technology for teaching and learning.

The flawed assumptions made in 1922 about a particular manifestation of technology are still being made today.  And we’ve only discussed four of them.

Until these suppositions become realities we can’t expect the tablet, or any other technology device, to revolutionize education.  A mere change in tools does not bring about transformation.

The full potential of technology can only be achieved if it is part of a complete rethink of education structures and practices.

Tablets will not transform education … unless we empower our teachers to become skilful users of technology!

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What is crowd speaking?

Monday, November 4th, 2013 | Blogging, technology | Comments Off

Most readers of this blog have the same thoughts about the use of technology in education.  Don’t you feel that it should be made a reality in our schools?

To give expression to our thoughts we may individually blog or tweet – we may even retweet a message when it resonates with us.  But our individual voices are soft and it frustrates us when we feel that we are not heard.

If a crowd of us speaks in unison, perhaps this will make a difference.

Picture credit: Wikipedia

Picture credit: Wikipedia

This is where “crowd speaking” becomes a possibility.  How can the crowd of us like-minded people speak together?  Social media provide the platform, and a tool like Thunderclap can concentrate our individual voices into one massive thunderclap.

It works like this: one person posts a message and others are then invited to allow Thunderclap to share that message on their behalf at a specific time.  The impact can be great.  For example, if 100 people agree with my message and give consent that it be sent to all their Twitter followers or Facebook friends, and each one of them has 100 connections, the message will go out to 10 000 people simultaneously!  What a powerful amplification of my small voice!

As an experiment, I have posted a message on Thunderclap.  Please participate, and ask your contacts to do the same.  Click here, and follow the instructions.  If this trial works, it may prove to be a valuable tool to get our message broadcasted … and hopefully heard!

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Not all e-learning conferences are scams

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013 | technology, trends | Comments Off

Some time ago I posted an article on a phenomenon I called The conference scam.  I received many messages through Twitter and LinkedIn of people who agreed with the sentiments I expressed about conferences dealing with technology in education.  It should be noted, however, that not all conferences fall into this category.

Last week I went to a conference for teachers in Bloemfontein, organized by SchoolNet.  What a delightful and worthwhile experience that was!  It was attended by over five hundred teachers and the presentations were done mostly by teachers who shared their experience … this was clearly not a money-making event, but one that truly helped teachers to hone their skills.

Over the next few weeks, two more conferences will be held that may be worthwhile to attend.

The Education Technology Summit 2013 is scheduled for 23-24 July 2013 and takes place in Midrand, Johannesburg.

Blended Learning: Perfecting the Blend is the theme of the The e-Learning Update – 2013 conference that will take place 6-8 August 2013  at the Emperor’s Palace in Johannesburg.

Have a look at the programmes of these two conferences and decide if either one, or both, will be beneficial to you.

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How to fix South Africa’s education

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013 | education, ICT in Africa | Comments Off

After the 2012 matric results were announced last week, the media – particularly the social media – were abuzz with comments from education authorities celebrating the results and defending the not-so-good aspects, and with criticisms from those who believe that education is failing the country.

A though provoking article written by Professor Mary Metcalf appeared in The Sunday Independent of 6 January 2013, highlighting the things that are amiss in our education system but giving clear suggestions of what can be done to improve matters.  Her recommendations are succinctly summarized by a paragraph towards the end of the article:

The five challenges are clear: improve success from primary school; reduce the dropout rate in Grades 10 to 12; increase the proportion of pupils who are passing at higher levels; focus on the provinces which have inherited the greatest portion of the apartheid devastation, and where the largest numbers of the poorest children live; and reduce the huge inequalities that are pervasive across the system.

This is a tall order!  And it will require us to pull out all the stops to overcome these challenges.

While addressing these issues, don’t overlook the possible contribution of technology.  How can technology help?   In some way, it can address each of the five challenges:

Improve success from primary school: Many teachers are already using technology in their classrooms to develop and improve literacy and numeracy skills of learners from Grade 1 up till Grade 12.

Reduce the dropout rate in Grades 10 to 12: After introducing technology, many schools have reported that it serves as a way of regaining and retaining interest in learning among learners who might have given up on their education.

Increase the proportion of pupils who are passing at higher levels: Technology can help to fill the gap where skilled teachers are not available, or where big learner numbers make it impossible for teachers to provide individual guidance.

Focus on the provinces which have inherited the greatest portion of the apartheid devastation, and where the largest numbers of the poorest children live: An injection of technology in these provinces, alongside other interventions, will accelerate the rate of improvement in the qualityof education.

Reduce the huge inequalities that are pervasive across the system: Technology has proved to be a great equalizer.

Who is responsible to address these challenges?  Professor Metcalf says that the state has a responsibility:

The Department of Basic Education has diagnosed these and other challenges, and has a clear and credible plan to address them in its Action Plan to 2014. The National Development Plan reinforces this. Achieving these goals requires strong educational institutions.

Both the Action Plan to 2014 (see Chapter 7: The Importance of e-Education) and the National Development Plan include the use of technology as important elements of a strategy to improve education.  But will the State be able to pull this off on its own?  The article concludes by appealing to all of us to make a play a part:

The first line of responsibility is with the department and its political and executive leadership. But it is also through citizens actively supporting teachers and schools, and working in partnership with provincial and national leaders, that implementation can succeed, and we can progressively make access to a quality public education for all a reality. To give this support is our individual and collective responsibility as parents and citizens, as is our parallel responsibility to hold officials accountable, to ensure fairness and that promises are kept.

The question now is: how can the private sector – particularly technology companies – work along with the national and provincial education departments to fix South Africa’s education?

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What is a MOOC?

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 | trends | Comments Off

MOOC is the new buzzword in education – particularly in the higher education lexicon.

What is a MOOC?  It is an acronym for a Massively Open Online Course.  Let’s unravel the meaning of this phrase in reverse order:

It is a course, since it is courseware prepared by universities (or other education institutions) for accredited programmes of study.

It is online, since anyone with an internet connection can access it.

It is open, since you don’t have to pay for it.  Well, most of the time a MOOC is free; sometimes you are only charged for assessment and/or accreditation.

It is massive(ly),since internet access makes the course available to anyone, anywhere on the planet.  The student body is no longer restricted by location or accommodation.  In theory, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people can enrol for a particular course.

One may wonder on what technology platform MOOCs will be made available.  This is not altogether clear at this stage; the idea of free, open, online courses is appealing to many but the definition  of the technology engine is still in its development phase.

The movement towards MOOCs seems like an attractive option for the beleaguered education system in South Africa, but time will only tell how useful it will be.  Poor internet connectivity, a lack of access to technology devices and low levels of understanding of e-learning are some of the barriers that we have to overcome to make MOOCs viable alternatives to class-bound courses.

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Technology encourages learner involvement

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 | education, technology | Comments Off

Recently I saw the following two quotations tweeted on Twitter:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. (Oscar Wilde)

Tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I’ll remember; involve me, I’ll understand. (Chinese proverb)

From the re-tweets and re-re-tweets of these snippets of wisdom it seems as if the sentiments expressed in them find resonance with many who are serious about education.

Telling happens when a teacher teaches or a lecturer presents a lecture.  A good teacher will also show … using diagrams, real world models, doing experiments, even showing video clips to serve as memory aids.  Sadly, that is where teaching in the classroom often ends.

Involvement of learners is important … but how do you accomplish this?  More than teaching and showing is required.  Involvement means that the learners must jump in boots and all into the learning material and participate in the learning process.  The result is that learners will make worthwhile knowledge their own because they have been active partners in the learning process.

You may have guessed where this is going – yes, technology is a powerful tool for teachers to involve learners.  The following are just a few of the many ways in which technology can take the classroom beyond a mere lecture room:

As the name implies, an interactive whiteboard (IWB) makes it possible for the teacher to involve the learners in the learning process in many different ways.  The good news is that some data projectors now have interactive features, which obviates the need for an expensive IWB, yet allowing for interactive learning to take place.

Learners love their cell phones and innovative teachers are already using these devices to draw learners into the learning experience.  Tablets play a similar role (for those who can afford them).

Where learners have access to the internet, they can create their own knowledge by doing research.  No more spoon feeding … learners can be taught to find, evaluate and analyse information and then synthesize what they’ve gathered into knowledge which they make their own.

Mathematical skills are acquired through practise, practise and still more practise.  Drill-and-practice programs are available on technology devices and these can be used to help learners to hone and own mathematical skills.

The screens of cell phones, tablets or computers encourage reading and the keyboards encourage writing.  Active use of these devices develop reading and writing skills … much needed in our country where the education system has not succeeded in “teaching” and “showing” these skills.

Let’s not just marvel at the wisdom of Wilde and the Chinese … put it in practice by harnessing technology to make learners active and eager participants in the learning process.

What learners will learn, experience and understand through active involvement is much, much better than all our well-prepared and smoothly presented lessons.

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Are South African schools ready for flipped classrooms?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012 | education | Comments Off

Before we can consider whether schools in South Africa are ready to have flipped classrooms, we must first be clear about what they are.

Not everyone understands a flipped classroom in the same way.  For the purpose of this discussion, I accept the following definition:

The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed.

According to this definition, a traditional classroom is one where a teacher first teaches by presenting a lesson or by giving a lecture (perhaps involving some class discussion); this is then followed by homework to practise the new things learned and to consolidate the knowledge.

In a flipped classroom, these activities are reversed: first the homework, which requires the learners to watch one or more videos of pre-recorded lessons or lectures.  These lectures are either created by the teacher specifically for the class, or they could be obtained from on-line sources.  They may contain on-line quizzes or other real-time activities.   When the learners come to class, they already have knowledge of the topic and classroom time is used by the teacher to help students to work on projects or engage in activities that will help them to make sense of the content.

What are the advantages of the flipped classroom?

The advantage of flipping the order of lesson and homework is debatable.  However, a clear advantages of this approach is that learners can work at their own pace.  If a lecture is not understood at first, it can be watched again and again.  Additionally, teachers can spend time in the class working more closely with individual learners, perhaps putting them in groups so that learners can benefit from peer engagement.

In a successfully flipped classroom a teacher’s contact time can undoubtedly be used in a more constructive way than in the old-style talk-and-chalk delivery mode.

Is the flipped classroom a new concept?

Studying material before coming to class is by no means a new idea.  Many teachers prescribe a pre-reading of selected portions from a textbook before learners come to class.  What is new in the flipped classroom is the way in which technology supports the notion.  Rather than passive reading of a textbook, learning material can be animated and made available in a variety of presentation formats and on a variety of platforms.

Can the flipped classroom work in South African schools?

The flipped classroom should work in any place in the world.  There are, however, two critical success factors that must be considered.

  1. The flipped classroom is dependent on the availability of technology.The child must have access to technology at home – technology that is connected to the internet.  How many of our learners have this type of access?  Some may argue that cell phones can be employed for this purpose – whether this is a practical solution remains to be seen.  Until we can ensure that every child in the class has adequate access to a technology device and the internet, the flipped classroom is not feasible.
  2. The flipped classroom depends heavily on thoughtful preparation on the part of the teacher.  The teacher must either create or source relevant lesson material and make this available to learners.  This requires that the teacher: must understand the lesson material; has access to technology; has experience in the use of technology for teaching and learning; and is able to create a lesson plan that contains both pre-classroom and in-classroom activities.  How many teachers in typical South African schools do you know who have these qualities?

Better not to flip than to struggle!

It is encouraging to hear reports from schools in South Africa where teachers have successfully managed to flip their classrooms.  But is this possible in all our classrooms?

Unless much more work is done to make technology available to learners, and to equip teachers with the necessary skills, it is unlikely that a flipped classroom will be successful.

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When an irresistible force meets an immovable object

Monday, April 2nd, 2012 | education, ICT in Africa | 1 Comment

What happens when an irresistible – or unstoppable – force meets an immovable object?  This has been the topic of many philosophical discussions.

Purists argue that this is a paradox: in a universe that allows for an irresistible force, an immovable object cannot exist, and likewise, in a universe where an immovable object is possible, an irresistible force cannot exist.

If, however, we ignore the laws of physics, this question becomes a useful metaphor.  Is it not an apt description of an encounter between a mother and a determined toddler or of what happens when a besotted man pursues an uninterested woman?  And does it not help to paint a picture of what happens when technological innovation tries to enter the ultra-conservative sphere of education?

The advance of technology is relentless.  It has penetrated most areas of human activity.  Medicine, engineering and commerce did not prove to be immovable but allowed technology to transform them for the better.

Education in South Africa is, to date, relatively unmoved by technology.  With the exception of a few pockets of technology adoption, little is done to allow technology into schools to enhance teaching and learning.
How long will it take for the waves to wear the rocks down?

The example of the unstoppable force of wave after wave bashing against immovable rocks has been used to explain what can happen in the hypothetical situation of an irresistible force meeting an object that’s immovable: eventual erosion of the object.  But this can take centuries!  We can’t wait for technology to wear down the education system over time – an immediate solution is required.

If technology continues on its unstoppable course (which is inevitable), and education continues to be unmoved by technology (which will be a tragedy), a disaster is inevitable … one that will leave South Africa with a digitally illiterate cohort of learners.

What can you and I do to avert this catastrophe?

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Could teachers soon be replaced by technology?

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 | education, technology | 2 Comments

The proponents of technology say, “YES.”  The education fraternity says, “NEVER.”

This question is discussed in an interesting blog posting on the blog Education Land, maintained by a teacher of English in Saudi Arabia. A few interesting comments, giving some food for thought, are found in this posting.  For example, the following observation is made:

Computers and technology already serve as teaching aides. Whether it’s teaching children their ABC’s or helping a college freshman memorize the periodic table, technology for educational purposes is already available.

Is this the future of education?

It is already possible for technology to take over some of the functions of teachers.

As technology tools become cheaper and more readily available, we can anticipate that it will take over more functions of teachers.

Will technology ever replace teachers?  Perhaps not completely, but it can go a long way towards filling the void where there is a shortage of teaching skills.

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