Crossing the teaching Rubicon

Revolutions do not sit well with the teaching profession. We are a conservative lot. We resist change. We have seen too many instant solutions, too many grand plans.

And, to make matters worse, many of us cannot bear the thought that the children we are teaching probably know more about computers than we do. We prefer to be in charge, not dependent on fuses that fuse, electricity that fails without warning, software that inexplicably does not perform as expected. There is nothing more reliable than a piece of chalk, we believe.

For all that, there is no escaping the fact that the future in education is digital. The arrival of smartphones, Kindles, iPads and the social media has already had an impact on the way we conduct our lives. It is even speculated that they are changing the way we think and conceive ourselves, the very structure of the brain.

The South African education system has no choice but to join the digital revolution if we want to compete in a global economy. But do we have the imagination to recognise the challenge for what it is? Do we have the political will to meet it? Do we have the money? Do we have the technical expertise? Have we the capacity to provide broadband or wireless connectivity to all our schools? Most important of all, do we have the vision and means to inspire and train our teachers in the most effective classroom methodologies that make the best uses of digitisation?

The information communication technology (ICT) revolution presents us with a unique opportunity to give real meaning to student-centred education. Digitisation can enable students to take responsibility for their own learning. Digital texts can be interactive. They can provide online support in the form of stimulus and supplementary material. The most up-to-date research is instantly available online through Google or Wikipedia.

Digital content
Textbooks often take more than a year to be updated and usually longer to be created. Digital content allows textbooks to be kept up to date easily. At the push of a button, every child in every school could receive all the texts they need on the first day of the year. It would eliminate the need to print, store, transport and distribute huge loads of paper at enormous cost – to say nothing of the political embarrassment and allegations of corruption, centred on Limpopo, we are now seeing.

E-readers that have a “text-to-speech” function provide an extra tool. In the South African context, it means students who are learning in a language that is not their mother-tongue can have access to bilingual texts and support ­material. Digitisation provides an opportunity to give reality to the policy priority of mother tongue education.

In terms of classroom management, the logistics of keeping records, preparing lessons, tests, exams, marking schedules and timetables are much easier. And digitisation makes immediate feedback possible – a big bonus for teachers because it would cut marking by up to 50%. Multiple-choice tests, too, can be assessed instantly.

There always must be a “but” and here it is: our education system needs to overcome the digital divide. Few schools have broadband and wireless connectivity. Some teachers are computer geeks; others are barely literate.

Nonetheless, teachers must be competent to evaluate software content, especially that which claims to be interactive. There is more to interactivity than simply pressing a button and confirming a right or wrong answer. MXit, for example, has experimented with interactive stories for teenagers written in episodes that could fit on a cellphone screen.

In the experiment readers were encouraged to comment on the plot, characters and action of the stories. They could even comment on or correct the language and communicate with each other and the author about the development of the stories. The first episode received more than 150 000 hits – and the possibilities for language development will be obvious to any language teacher.

Other “buts” include security and codes of conduct. Security is a major concern. Firewalls and filters must be in place to prevent viruses and hacking.

The physical security of devices must also be taken into account. But the devices could be custom-made for education and a particular user, which would make them useless to anyone else if they are stolen. With the mass adoption of computers by schools, the insurance industry will have to create policies that are affordable.

Each institution will have to develop a code of conduct or acceptable user policy to ensure the responsible and educationally appropriate use of computer resources. Such a policy can help to head off areas of conflict before they arise.

Cellphones are one of the least expensive technologies, but also one of the most controversial tools for use in teaching, for instance. Many schools are just as likely to ban them as they are to embrace them for educational purposes.

Certainly, cellphones have improper uses in a classroom. But if these uses can be controlled, modern cellphones or smartphones – which really are fully interactive, hand-held computers – can help teachers to take advantage of digital content and have a positive impact.

A clear vision
Planning is essential. Schools need consensus on what digitisation is meant to achieve. They need a clear vision informed by specific goals and a detailed strategy. Instead, what is largely the case at present is that large sums of money are being spent on devices and software without a clear set of educational objectives in mind.

A question that must be addressed early on is: How can digitisation be integrated into teaching and learning? The answers to this necessarily require a clear understanding of what the educational aims and objectives of the institution are. It must be remembered that the technology is only a means to an end and will only be as successful as the teacher who uses it. Essentially, it is about choosing the right tool for the job. Do not choose a device and then wonder what to do with it.

Change is seldom smooth and trouble-free – and education transformation is challenging. Communications will be vital here, so involving staff, pupils, parents and the unions in the planning phase from the beginning can help to avoid failure.

Michael Rice runs the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools Foundation. He taught at the former Johannesburg college of education and was special adviser to Kader Asmal when he was education minister (1999 to 2004)

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