Essay, Uncategorized

Technology In Education: Are We Addressing The Real Problems?

Imagine two villages separated by a lake. The only way anyone can get from one village to the other is by swimming across the lake. How do you make travel easier? You could start a boat service or you could build a simple wooden bridge. You could even build a concrete bridge so that vehicles can ply easily between the villages, encouraging more trade in the process. Even better, how about an ornamental, architecturally splendid bridge? Why not? It could bring in some tourism revenue for both the villages in addition to making transport more efficient (if you set aside the question of short-term cost-benefit).

Here is the point: every solution offered was a response to a fundamental problem. In fact, the term solution itself is inappropriate in this context as it denotes the closure of a problem. We respond to problems, but we do not necessarily solve them once and for all.

Yes, technology can help address the problem of engagement — but with the caveat that it should be used in the right measure by an involved teacher.

Now, imagine someone trying to install a fixed size bridge between multiple villages regardless of whether they are separated by wide lakes or narrow rivulets. Such an act is neither a response nor a solution.

The use of technology in education is somewhat like the use of bridges in these scenarios. It could be an effective response to some fundamental problems or it could be just an object that can be placed anywhere without any tangible benefit.

So, what are some of the problems plaguing our education system? To begin with, most schools run by the government (except Kendriya Vidyalayas and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas) have almost been reduced to “low income” institutions. With the near absence of children from middle- and upper-income groups, there is hardly any parental or community pressure on these schools to perform. With the weakening of the public education system, we see schools being divided across economic hierarchies — from international schools for the very rich to government schools and budget private schools for the poor.

In a study, Jean Drèze and Mamta Murthi found that states with higher literacy among girls had lower fertility rates. This is a forceful reminder of the direct impact of female literacy on the economy of our states. In fact, research studies on the social benefits of education mostly confirm what we intuitively know — that education can not only bring about economic improvements in people’s lives but also improve their awareness about health, civic responsibilities and social rights. There is no doubt that educational inequity hurts our economy. But how do we respond to this problem?

“Technology can amplify great teaching but it seems technology cannot replace poor teaching,” says Andreas Schleicher.

Before jumping to conclusions, it might be wise to pay close attention to what Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, says. He claims that technology seems of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. And that, according to him, is the most disappointing finding in the latest OECD report on the use of technology in education. He couldn’t have put it better when he says, “Technology can amplify great teaching but it seems technology cannot replace poor teaching.”

That brings us to the question on pedagogical practices, both in government-run and private schools. Are our practices in sync with the way children interact with the world outside? Are we able to engage our students and kindle in them some passion for the subjects we deal with in classrooms? Can technology enhance engagement and make learning more interactive? Animations, simulations, and virtual laboratories are all fairly stimulating ways to engage students, so, yes, technology can help address the problem of engagement — but with the caveat that it should be used in the right measure by an involved teacher. That is to say, a teacher who not only guides learners to discover the concept she is dealing with but also demands that students think about it, question it and articulate what they make of it.

We need more intensive student-teacher interactions, multiple learning experiences and a genuine research orientation — not standardization, conformity and an over-reliance on textbooks.

Let us examine an education methodology where students are expected to make use of the internet for research: school projects. If you consider many of the projects that students turn in, it is quite likely that you will encounter plenty of instances of copy-paste from the internet, especially Wikipedia. Access to digital media is one thing, but enabling research skills is something far more complex and difficult to do. So, if traditional pedagogy as practiced in many schools in India encouraged rote learning (which is equivalent to copy-pasting from textbooks, teacher notes and guides to one’s memory), digital copy-pasting for projects is no different. In fact, it is even worse because the act of physical copy-pasting does not involve one’s mental faculties as much as in mental copy-pasting.

Education technology should be guided by pedagogical considerations, learning sciences and the phenomenon of social learning in school contexts. Blending technology with chalk and talk is not the answer. Active economic and social agents of tomorrow (even today) require deep conceptual understanding, critical thinking skills and the ability to innovate. For this, we need more intensive student-teacher interactions, multiple learning experiences, and a genuine research orientation — not standardization, conformity and an over-reliance on textbooks. If intellectual interactions in the outside world cannot progress without technology anymore, you cannot keep technology away from schools either. The question of how is still open.

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