The digital tsunami

By Michael Rice

A veritable digital tsunami is sweeping over education.

Students, teachers, educational institutions, governments are being swept along by a tidal wave of enthusiasm for what they believe is going to solve all our education problems. The primary driver for this desire for transformation in education is the challenge of global competitiveness in the 21st century. It is generally accepted that if countries are to meet this challenge, they are going to have to join the communications revolution. If we are going to be globally competitive, our education system is going to have to embrace e-technology and digital content.1

Spoilt for choice

Exciting developments are taking place in the US, Britain, Ghana, Kenya, India, Taiwan, China and Bangladesh where educationists are rapidly switching to e-tablet technology and digital textbooks as a means of enhancing learning.2 And South Africa is not lagging behind.3 Cellphones, smartboards, computers, e-readers, tablets and laptops are ubiquitous. We are spoilt for choice. And therein lies a danger. As with all enthusiasms, there are going to be – and there are already – casualties.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many schools are learning the hard way that insufficient planning is costly. Spurred on by enthusiasts and ambitious parents, many schools are spending vast amounts of money on equipment without thinking through what their educational aims and objectives are. In their enthusiasm for the new technology, they forget that their primary function is the imparting of knowledge and understanding, that teaching comes first – and they end up putting the cart before the horse. A lot of costly mistakes can be made by investing in technology without first considering what it is to be used for or how it will be used. Planning is vital.

Be realistic

Few schools start with a shared vision. Without a shared vision that drives a strategic plan, a common sense of purpose and direction that enables people to work together is impossible. A technology Realistic User Policy, strategy and objectives must be presented to teachers, administrative staff, boards, parents, pupils and other stakeholders to get their buy-in. Realistic expectations must be set, with timelines for implementation and measuring results. And regular follow-up must take place to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Plan properly

Planning should include an existing infrastructure audit of what already exists and how it is being used in the school, and what is needed. The SchoolNet South Africa self-assessment rubric on e-readiness and e-maturity4 is a useful document – not only for schools contemplating starting out on the information and communications technology (ICT) journey, but as a checklist |for those that have already progressed somewhat down the road.

It’s all about the right tool for the job. Technology does not drive teaching, but rather creates a learning environment that offers more exciting student-centred learning opportunities. It is a mistake to choose a device and then wonder what to do with it. Plan thoroughly. Don’t rush. Plan not only what technology will be used, but how, by whom and to whom it is going to be introduced. Planning must prioritise bringing everyone on board. Strong leadership is crucial. Implementation succeeds or fails according to the support it gets from key staff, especially the principal.

Look to the future

As many people as possible must be involved. This means board members, the administrative staff, teachers, pupils and their parents. It must be expected that not all teachers will have the same level of commitment. Young teachers are often more aware of the possibilities, simply because they tend to be more techno-savvy. Older teachers are often intimidated by new technology. It is important to keep tabs on both enthusiastic and reluctant adopters. Teachers often feel isolated. Support – moral, technological and professional – is vital. Teachers are quickly alienated by systems that crash. Access to timely maintenance and repairs can have a dramatic impact on teacher frustration. Costs extend far beyond implementation. A plan for maintaining, upgrading, repairing and replacing hardware and software is essential. Maintenance is an unavoidable expense.

Make sure everyone has the technology they need to do their job, or teachers may see the effort as a failure. Failure breeds failure; success, success. A roadmap published on the staff notice board of expected key outcomes and learning milestones with regular updates can make a valuable contribution to keeping everyone informed. Communications are important. As much as anything, planning is about managing people.

Ensure continuity

Ongoing professional development must be a priority. Because digitisation in education is still a new field, changes take place all the time and people can very easily get left behind or overwhelmed by the rate of change. All teachers should be required to attend in-house training, but a one-size-fits-all approach must be avoided. Training should be focused as far as possible on individual needs. Teachers must feel confident about how to use technology, and how to integrate it into their teaching and assessment. This is easier said than done. Teachers seem to be much busier than before. Online training seems to offer a solution, but may be more appropriate for the highly motivated.

Choose champions

Good results are most often obtained by a core group with a champion. It is vital that the programme has a champion on the staff, who is the technology facilitator and/or media coordinator. The core group should have brief frequent meetings to monitor progress. The champion will need strong support, financial and otherwise. Most schools only ever make real progress when they have the support of someone with a bigger vision than that of management.

The champion must be comfortable with technology and unafraid of change, and must be ready to share their expertise. The champion should not only be a technology specialist, but should be able to provide pedagogic support at the same time. Support for the project must occur at all levels and should be perceived in terms of a partnership, rather than simply as propping up or filling the gaps. The establishment of peer coaches on the staff has many advantages.

The digitisation of the classroom involves a paradigm shift in education. It is more than simply introducing new technology and software into the classroom. It involves a complete re-visioning of teaching and learning from the role of the teacher as facilitator and curator of knowledge, to pedagogies and the learner as an independent, self-reliant but collaborative maker of meaning.

Ask the key questions

The challenge for teachers is how to make the best use of technology and digital content to support their own continuing education, and how to adapt their classroom methodologies and teaching styles to the demands of a new world. That is, to make learning more student-centred, interactive, collaborative and flexible. So, one of the first questions to confront a school that wants to digitise is: ‘do we opt for one device brand and insist that everyone uses only that brand, or do we allow our administrative staff, teachers and pupils to bring their own devices to school and use whatever is to hand?’

The answer to that question will depend to a large extent on what sort of software the school intends using and what sort of platform will best serve their needs: Android or Google or Mac OS X or Lynx Open Source? But there is a more important question lurking in the background: ‘what are our educational objectives?’ If a school opts for the first of these two options on the grounds of maximising efficiencies, it certainly solves a major compatibility problem, but it might result in locking the institution into a system that limits its options. On the other hand, a school might decide that its priority is to prepare children for the world they are about to enter with its plethora of different devices made by different companies with different operating systems, and so go for a mixture of operating systems and brands. The downside of this is the logistical problems of getting different systems to talk to one another.

Caveat emptor: technology is only a tool

There are no instant solutions in education. It is a mistake to start with the technology. It is only a tool, and only as good as it is fit for purpose. Applying new technologies to the same old way of doing things is not the pathway to success. Equally important, don’t choose a device that encourages teachercentred methodology. Poor teaching plus technology is simply expensive poor teaching.

Michael Rice taught in several schools and lectured in English at the Johannesburg College of Education ( JCE), University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and other tertiary institutions. He has also served as special advisor to the minister of education. He founded the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools (PETS) Foundation, which is generally committed to researching the viability of introducing e-tablet technology and digitisation as a means of enhancing learning in the South African education system and circumventing critical obstacles impacting on teaching and learning. Rice has designed a workshop for schools contemplating implementing digitisation. Contact him at e-mail: pro.civitas@mweb.co.za.

References:

1. Most countries share this view. See, for example, http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/technology.

2. Independent Education has covered these kinds of developments in every edition. In addition, see sites like http://thestartupmagazine.co.uk/index.php/global-growth-e-learning/ and http://www.economist.com/news/business/21567972-schools-africa-are-goingdigitalwith-

encouraging-results-tablet-teachers to access further reports on global e-learning initiatives.

3. See, for example, http://www.rattleandmum.co.za/2012/03/30/ipads-comingto-a-school-near-you/.

4. See, for example, http://www.schoolnet.org.za/about/abt_today.htm.

Category: e-Education, Winter 2013

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