/ 31 October 2014

Digital learning needs a light touch

Digital Learning Needs A Light Touch

South African education is increasingly concerned with how information and communications technology (ICT) can effectively be integrated into schooling.

Technology is a potentially powerful educational tool and yet its impact on pupil outcomes is not

conclusively established and its uptake and usage in schools has been variable, with the spotlight often falling on the actual device or service being used.

The focus of the latest Teachers Upfront seminar, held last month at the University of Johannesburg, was on the implications and challenges of using ICT in teaching and learning.

Ansie Peens is the principal of Sunward Park High School in Gauteng, a former model C school where the majority of pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds and township-based primary schools.

Sunward Park is a success story – it is the first public school to have gone completely digital.

Teach the way they teach
Peens explained her rationale for pursuing her three-year dream of ICT integration in her school: “If children can’t learn the way we teach, then we should teach the way they learn and in the language they understand.”

The school uses edu-boards (interactive whiteboards) and tablets, and content is delivered by wireless intranet, giving pupils and teachers access to a range of resources.

A pupil management system and dashboards ensure that tests are marked immediately and scores recorded, that every child is engaged in every period, that pupils are tracked and classroom management automated. Added to that, lessons are recorded and distributed within the school and the school has developed an interactive edu-board especially for science teaching and learning.

“The [pupils] are loving it,” said Peens. “The school is quiet and children are keen to get to class.”

She said that pupils were encouraged to lead problem-solving and innovation in the school and that the focus was on making a difference to them both attitudinally and academically.

The school’s successful implementation of e-learning has been showcased widely and Peens is helping Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi to pursue his dream of integrating ICTs into teaching and learning in the province.

Take the leap
Take the leap, Peens urged other schools, but make sure that pupils are given content that enhanced their learning and was relevant because “e-learning is not a textbook on a tablet”.

She also warned that going digital took not only time but also patience, and that training and change management were needed for the successful uptake of ICTs in schools. She added that it was vital to consult parents and school governing bodies.

It’s clear from her example that the role of the principal is a key ingredient for success. As one audience member said: “If the principal does not buy into and lead ICT integration, the process won’t work.”

It’s not easy to replicate this success, though, and we need to attend carefully to the lessons.

Dr Reuben Dlamini, head of information and educational technology at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, said that “if technology is to be used to enhance learning successfully in South Africa, then we need to learn about our local context and do research into South African examples of successful practice, like Sunward Park High School”.

He cautioned that ICT adoption was not just about providing ICT infrastructure and pointed out that the chances of successful ICT integration were, in any case, limited by the uneven access to technology in South Africa. “Computers continue to be a luxury and very expensive to acquire and maintain, yet computing devices are the single point of entry to digital literacies.”

Skills development
He called for meaningful skills development programmes for teachers that developed their confidence and competence with technology.

Not enough was known about teachers’ attitudes and intentions about ICT and Dlamini wondered whether technology was being imposed on teachers because they were being trained in unintegrated and ineffective ways.

He called for those teachers who were already using ICT effectively to model good practice to their peers.

His colleague Tom Waspe, a lecturer at the Wits school of education, built on this approach by calling for careful and critical thinking about the claim that ICTs could transform education or boost pupil attainment. He said that “there is no conclusive evidence that ICTs improve [pupil] outcomes” and that “there is a huge gap between the promise of what ICTs can do and the reality”.

Waspe said the focus should be on combining content, pedagogy and technological resources. “We must not get too excited about technology and forget about content – content drives pedagogy, which in turn should drive technology.”

Dr Jacqueline Batchelor, a senior lecturer in mobile learning in the learning technologies unit at the University of Johannesburg’s science and technology education department, discussed both pre-service and in-service teacher development.

Little exposure to ICT
Alarmingly, the majority of pre-service teachers she encountered during training had little exposure to ICT in their own schooling, and about half of them used ICT for the first time at university.

To make matters worse, “there are rapid changes in the field of technology and for them to keep pace is at times daunting and overwhelming”, she said.

Recognising that pre-service teachers needed additional exposure to good practice in using technology for teaching and learning, Batchelor insisted that education students be partly responsible for their own professional development by each creating their own network that could sustain their continued learning throughout their professional career. “This way they learn to learn from others and change their mental model,” she said.

She also argued that they should further their education through doing massive open online courses (Moocs).

Batchelor said their Mooc could focus on any topic of interest. Teachers should also keep a reflective diary “and pay attention to the pedagogies and the way the online space is used to facilitate learning”.

As for successful in-service teacher initiatives, Batchelor described the ICT4RED (ICT for Rural Education) project in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape.

This project has taken the approach that technology is not given but earned. It has successfully developed a game-based approach to teacher development, which uses badges as part of an “Earn as You Learn” system that acknowledges teachers’ demonstration of technology skills in the classroom.

Batchelor concluded by urging practitioners not to be technocentic and, instead, to focus on creating meaningful learning experiences with the help of technology.

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive of the Bridge education network. The Teachers Upfront series of seminars is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education