Teachers and techies must unite

(John McCann)

(John McCann)


A few months ago I was part of a team that was invited to speak at an educational technology event in Cape Town. It was intended to bring together developers, coders and educators to discuss new developments and needs in the growing “edtech” sector.

The participants were primarily tech-leaning people who left me encouraged by a sincere interest and commitment to improve educational outcomes and quality, even if they weren’t experienced in education. Improving access, quality and equity in education is going to require a wide range of stakeholders, perspectives and new ideas and the IT and software development community has much to offer.

The event highlighted the ability of apps, software and digital innovations to improve learning outcomes, increase access to information and make many school and classroom processes more efficient.

The technology has already revolutionised other industries and sectors by disrupting norms and reimagining whole systems. The same potential exists in education.

Yet, as the presence of technology has increased in all aspects of our lives, so too have the concerns about its unintended negative effects on individuals and society. In an article in The Atlantic Stephen Marche wrote, in response to several studies on social media and loneliness, that: “We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socialising, we have less and less actual society” and continues that the effects are resulting in increased rates of narcissistic behaviour and physical illness.

The television show 60 Minutes recently aired an episode in the United States on brain hacking, the supposed practice by tech companies to design apps that users’ brains will find addictive.

This and similar issues are especially critical in education, and in South Africa, where access to education is enshrined in the Constitution and the common hope is that education can actualise the vision of a just, equitable and democratic society. We rely on education to teach young people tolerance, teamwork, empathy and care — and if not in our schools and classrooms then where?

While fearlessly pursuing solutions we must ask whether innovations of any sort are good for improving learning for the individual and society in general. I worry about an educational landscape eager to seek “teacher-proof” solutions that regard teachers as obstacles in the learning process and are designed explicitly so that they don’t require a teacher to do more than read a script.

Although technology will and should reinvent the role of the teacher in the classroom, we cannot forget that in an era of increased loneliness and social exclusion the role of teachers to bring humanity, warmth and community is critical.

Marche goes further and believes that: “We need professional ­carers more and more, because the threat of societal breakdown, once ­principally a matter of nostalgic lament, has morphed into an issue of public health.”

Ironically, in response to the findings of some studies, that artificial intelligence (AI) can exhibit racist and sexist biases, The Guardian quoted a computer scientist at the University of Bath who said: “A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.” Thus the emotional and social dimensions of teaching have never been more important, and yet they’re also overlooked by those in the profession in favour of content and “hard skills”.

The untapped potential of edtech is in redefining what teaching and learning look like, and for us to place that conversation in the context of society — and to ask ourselves what kind of people we want to become. If we are content with teacher-proof solutions that make teachers obsolete and learners self-absorbed then that will emerge.

But if we can envision an educational landscape in which technology creates the opportunity for deeper relationships, community and ­personal liberation, then that reality will materialise.

We need more innovation in education, not less, and that includes all that tech has to offer from apps and bots to AI and blended ­learning.

We must hold to the promise of education in helping to build the democratic fabric of society — and to participate in the vision of education into the future. Technology could be a key driver in creating a ­healthier society if that is its prescribed purpose.

outh Africa, despite its educational challenges, might be uniquely positioned to forge a powerful vision of educational change driven by innovation and technology.

Lisa Delpit, a noted educational scholar, writes: “I believe that in our American educational world of numbers, reductionism, mechanistic ‘human proof’ curricula, and robotised interactions, the African world view could provide our salvation.”

The emergence of edtech in South Africa provides an opportunity bigger than just improved outcomes for learners — it gives the educational sector the chance to reimagine the application of technology from a different perspective and contribute globally.

For this to be true, educators and techies must work together to promote an innovation framework that emphasises personal liberation, relationships, inclusion, community, culture and a more equitable society. It’s one in which educators collaborate across sectors to provide quality instruction and loving learning environments while always keeping sight of the big picture. And in the process, it might be more than just South Africa that finds its salvation.

Nigel Richard is the managing director of the Global Teachers Institute, which works to strengthen teacher capacity by transforming the way teachers are taught by refocusing professional development on ideas of consciousness development and social change. Follow him on Twitter @nigelbrichard 

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