More than fancy IT machines
Even with all the changes promised by the digital revolution sweeping education, teachers' roles remain the same.
They should be role models and mentors, moral touchstones and inspirational. They should maintain discipline and focus, create an exciting learning environment and stimulate creativity, curiosity and initiative. They need to challenge pupils' thinking and open up a world to them of undreamed possibilities and opportunities.
Of course, there is much more to it all than that. Successful teachers have to be masters at planning: selecting and managing resources, facilitating and mediating learning, planning and managing follow-up work, integrating assessments, keeping records and holding people accountable.
They have to reconcile in themselves the creative and the bureaucratic while keeping the integrity, wellbeing and intellectual development of the individual child at the forefront of all their educational objectives.
Technology has the capacity to liberate teachers from a great deal of the drudgery of teaching. The information and communications technology (ICT) revolution in education presents teachers with a unique opportunity to give real meaning to student-centred teaching.
Properly managed, it can liberate teachers to do what they do best — open young minds to the excitement of discovering the world in all its complexity and diversity.
At the most mundane level, technology can make the logistics of planning, marking and keeping records much more efficient and less time-consuming. Marking could be cut by at least 50%. But the best use of technology and digital content in the classroom promises much more than saving time.
The challenge facing teachers today is how to adapt traditional classroom methodologies and teaching styles to make the best use of technology and digital content.
This means teachers will have to become facilitators of understanding rather than purveyors of information. What I call the "mugs and jugs" school of education is no longer tenable. New teaching methodologies and strategies need to be explored. Applying new technologies in the same old way is not a pathway to success. It is a tool — and only as good as the teacher using it.
Training is key. Teachers need to be familiarised with what is available — that is, the content, software and devices. Different devices have different functions that can be combined in a variety of ways.
For example, interactive whiteboards can be linked to tablets or readers in the classroom so that the teacher can see at a glance how individual students are coping and which ones need supplementary or stimulus material.
Teachers need help to evaluate, develop and use digital content, use search engines efficiently and find open-source content. They need to know what drills and practices the software will get pupils to do. For example, interactivity is a popular catchword and selling strategy for purveyors of commercial software.
However, there is much more to interactivity than merely pushing a button to confirm a right or wrong answer. Teachers must be trained in how best to exploit the interactivity of devices to promote collaborative learning and research.
Training must be tied to ongoing professional development. Some teachers on the staff of any given school will be comfortable with the new technology, but it can safely be assumed that there will be those whose experience of ICT will not have progressed much beyond cellphones. The initial training of teachers should include the use of devices and demonstrating an understanding of the concepts related to ICT and the opportunities they provide in the classroom.
Training might be needed for teachers to use computers to do their administrative work: lesson planning, setting tests, marking and keeping records. They will need to know how to log on to a network.
Training would teach them to manage files, store material and arrange it systematically so it can easily be found when it is needed.
Integration is key
They will need basic word-processing skills, including PowerPoint, and help with creating slide shows, preparing worksheets and developing interactive resources. Teachers will also require professional support and development in facilitating whole-class discussion, incorporating online resources in an integrated way and using subject-specific software to equip pupils to explore content.
It should be clear from this that the digital classroom still relies on the teacher to teach and to make sure the pupils stay focused. If the teacher is not in command, it does not matter how good the device or how sophisticated the software is.
The key is in training — but here a word of warning: finding the right programme for the right teacher is vital. Training must be specifically tailored for specific needs. Digital teaching without focused and sufficient professional development is guaranteed to be short-lived. Above all, match teachers with training.
In terms of lesson planning, material can be downloaded from the internet. Many websites contain databanks of multiple-choice and other test items. Tasks can be set that require pupils to do research on the internet and process information.
Teachers should take care not to underestimate their pupils' ingenuity and capacity to source information — they are much more technologically savvy than many imagine. For example, pupils in rural areas in the Eastern Cape use cellphones to access Wikipedia using MXit.
The tasks teachers set should ask open questions that require pupils to identify and gather the information they need. Questions should be phrased so that once pupils have gathered information, they need to analyse, integrate and evaluate it and present conclusions. It is the best way to avoid mindless copying and pasting.
Slipping in a language exercise
An added advantage of setting this type of task is that each task can also be an unobtrusive language exercise. The spelling and grammar check facilities can encourage pupils to edit their texts and make several drafts before submitting their work. The ease with which drafts can be edited can be used to good effect. Language skills, generally, can be greatly enhanced because tasks can be presented to a real audience rather than just to the teacher. For example, groups could work on producing a class newspaper that could be published on the school's website. This would involve interviews, research, opinion pieces and straight reporting, costing, different kinds of writing for different purposes, editing, layout and visual presentation.
YouTube for Schools lets schools access free educational videos while limiting access to other YouTube content. Visit YouTube.com/Schools.
Michael Rice runs the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools Foundation. This is the third in his five-part Mail & Guardian series
on digitisation and education