At a recent e-Learning Africa conference in Uganda, attended by 1,500 delegates from 68 countries, a lively debate was organized on the above motion, asserting the prime importance of the Internet in today’s education. Educators for the Pros and the Cons of the motion presented strong arguments but, in the end, the e-Learning Africa audience voted to defeat the motion.
This defeat was remarkable and a hopeful outcome, given the hype that has proliferated throughout Africa concerning the potential of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to transform learning. OLE has been engaged in this debate since its beginning. It was clear from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, that a narrow focus on providing computers to students in the developing world would fail to generate substantial improvements in education. The evidence that technology by itself does not lead to an improvement in learning in, or even outside of, the classroom was abundant.
Nevertheless, two widespread myths persist today about how students can become educated through the use of technology. Both myths are heavily promoted by those who benefit from the sales and uses of technology in education. Even the phrase “e-Learning” tends to promote the false idea that technology can be a “quick fix” for improving education.
The first myth is school-based. It builds on the fact that most schools lack highly quality teachers and asserts that schools can be made more effective with technology that can make up for that lack. This myth assumes that students will be able to learn in school what they need to know by clever computer games and programs that go well beyond what the teacher knows and can teach. This myth assumes that teachers will, at best, passively go along with those changes, or be replaced by technology, and that the students will learn what they need to learn in order to pass their examinations – those examinations that determine their future. Installation of expensive computer labs in schools, or simply providing every child a laptop, are common examples. The evidence, from extensive attempts with this approach, in developed as well as developing countries, proves that a narrow focus on introducing ICT into schools fails to improve learning.
The second myth bypasses schools. This myth asserts that schools are too rigid and incompetent to reform education and that therefore “out of school” programs – after school, home-based, and on weekends – can make up for the failings of schools. Out-of-school programs are designed to help both those enrolled in schools, and the millions not enrolled in schools. Such well-intended and understandable approaches help some children but fail to meet the test of providing a quality learning experience for all children. Programs that rely upon private funding, whether as a social benefit or for-profit, cannot fulfill our common responsibility for reach every child. Only a strong public commitment to every child and fulfill that responsibility.
Virtually everyone agrees that a quality education is a fundamental right of every person and a basic responsibility of every nation. However, there remains a huge gap between the stated policies of most nations and their actions. This is true not only of so-called “developing” nations but virtually every nation. Why is this the case?
A major barrier to improving schools is the widespread, but invalid, belief that most public schools cannot be improved. Let’s address the myths that underlie that sense of helplessness. Both are wrong.
OLE’s experience in Rwanda, Ghana and Nepal has made it abundantly clear that, under the right conditions most public school teachers with whom we have worked are eager and more than able to become substantially more effective as leaders of learning. We have also seen public schools become alive with active learning. Students are coming to school an hour early in order to read. Parents are bring to school children who previously were working in mines or on farms because they have heard from other children that something different and important is happening in their school.
In sum: given a fighting chance, most teachers and most public schools and their teachers can become highly effective.
Building an effective education system has similarities to building a good home. You don’t start with a hammer. You start by becoming clear about what you want your home to be like and what you need to fulfill your goals. Then do you choose someone who can help you translate those goals into a design that meets your goals. At that point you can order the materials and tools you need to build your home. The process should be the same for designing and implementing an education system. We should start with our goals – what kind of a society do we want to have? What kind of citizens do we need in order to sustain such a society? What knowledge and skills are required? Should Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) be its focus? Or should History, Community, Democracy be emphasized? Who has the knowledge and skills we need to create such a system and what tools can be helpful in achieving those goals?
OLE believes there are three essentials for ensuring a quality education for all: a) powerful leadership, b) high quality open education resources and c) continuous monitoring and improvement. None of these are easy to achieve but, with commitment, investment and time they can be achieved. ICT can be employed for achieving each of these three essentials.
Leadership is key, beginning with what students experience. OLE has found that skilled coaches, working in the classroom with students and their teacher, is a highly cost effective way to transform learning from the traditional “talk and chalk” to a more engaging and effective activity-based learning. The students pick up the changes quickly and make it easier for the teacher to adapt their own approach. Teachers quickly experience themselves in a more positive way as “leaders” of learning teams.
But leadership development cannot stop in the classroom. Improving our schools is as much a political challenge as it is a pedagogical one. Both require our time and attention. Headmasters need to learn the skills required to help their teachers, parents and communities acquire the new attitudes and skills involved in a more engaging school and community environment. Courageous leadership is also required from regional directors, and national administrators and politicians. Each of these levels requires strong leaders who listen to the needs of the children and their communities and then take the actions needed to improve learn for all.
Open Education Resources are also required. Here technology makes it possible, at very low cost, to ensure that every person in the country has access to those learning resources that are essential for a strong and democratic society. This can begin with an open national education library that is freely available to anyone with access to the Internet and extend to a free public library in every village. At extremely low cost, those essential learning resources can reach even the most remote villages and homes of a nation as a free public library.
Finally a dynamic and continuously improving learning system is necessary. This is particularly true today as the rate of change in almost every aspect of life is accelerating. Education can no longer rely upon yesterday’s information. Our learning systems must be dynamic, continuously improved and based on frequent feedback from its users. Here, again, technology. ICT can be used to hear from citizens about their needs and concerns and to respond to them by providing new resources relevant to those needs and concerns. ICT can be employed to provide a voice to literally every person in a nation. concerning the resources required for them to enjoy their rightful freedoms to earn a living that is adequate to their needs, to feed themselves and their family, have access to health care and to be free from fear.
ICT is not the most important thing for education. But there are many ways it can be used to improve learning and to create a more viable society. Let’s first be clear about the kind of society we want to build and then employ ICT’s in the process of getting there.