A clear link between technology and its supposed contribution to education is still hard to establish
Former South African President and Noble Laureate Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. He left unanswered two questions: Why do we want to change the world? And what needs to be changed? The call for “change” is something we have been accustomed to. The need for radical reform in our jaded education system and integration of technology to give it a new lease of life is something we hear all the time. But there are no policy reforms or changes to back it up.
In the past one decade, there have been huge investments to integrate technology into a learning process all across the globe. While the West has been able to reap much benefit, the poorer countries are still looking for ways to reap the benefits of technology.
Nepal is no exception. The government has introduced various programs to integrate technology in education. The investment on hardware for increased connectivity with District Education Offices, matching grant for community schools to set up computer labs and ‘one-laptop per child’ scheme are some examples here. Nepal’s National Center for Educational Development (NCED) has also started delivering classes for grade 10 students through live streaming from its studio in Sanothimi.
The Department of Computer Science and Engineering of Kathmandu University has launched a program that draws parallels with the globally trending MOOC (massive open online courses). Moodle (acronym for modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment) allows for extending and tailoring learning environments using community sourced plugins. The aim, as cited in their website, is to make online learning possible and providing free online degree courses. Others like ‘pustkalaya.org’ have been working to provide learning contents for students across Nepal. The latest to join the bandwagon is Samsung. Their official website proudly proclaims to have installed Nepal’s first Samsung Smart classes in Shree Birethanti Secondary School, home to nearly 230 students.
Needless to say there has been a constant push for integration of technology in the learning process. Unfortunately, most such efforts have fallen through. It perhaps makes sense to try to understand how the world has moved from no-technology to technology integrated education.
The first stepping stone vis-à-vis technology incorporation started with the greatest inventor of modern times, Thomas Edison. In 1913 he famously declared that “it is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture”, predicting that books would soon be obsolete in the classroom. Nothing of that sort has happened.
Perhaps the first real use of technology came with the magical machines called computers in the 1960s. It was the time when the world was swept by “computer euphoria” and it was expected to do wonders in the field of learning. The anticipated benefits did not come by. It took a while for everyone to appreciate and accept the fact that those “magical” devices alone would not be able to contribute much.
This happened because one, computers were deemed rather “sterile and barren” boxes that failed to easily communicate with common people. Two, the teachers who were so used to teaching using chalk and board, found it difficult to transition to this new medium.
They also needed special skills to operate these machines. Three, these devices were expensive.
The next major leap was when these machines made a transition from “sterile black boxes” to interactive devices that would not just communicate but were also user-friendly.
The machines no more had black screens where one would need to type in commands even to do a minor task. This, in the 1980s, ushered in a new era whereby computers started becoming friendly. One could intuitively use the features of the system without much external help. Navigation was easy within the system. Furthermore, there was a graphical interface that was pleasant to ‘play’ with. Nonetheless computers still failed to catch the fancy of many.
What explains this non-use of computers in teaching and learning?
One cited reason was higher production costs of software. As programs got “rich”, their expenses rocketed with the vendors selling licenses for astronomical sums. The interface was designed more to creating a visual delight for end users rather than for learning. They looked nice and bright, but failed to accommodate the needs of educators and learners.
Also, many had come to be skeptical after past promises of computers failed to materialize.
What followed is where we stand today—the age of information superhighway. With the advent of internet, coupled with falling cost of hardware, the reach, use and accessibility of computers have grown exponentially. Suddenly, a complex technology became ubiquitous. The late 90s saw the emergence of a new prefix in all walks of life—commerce became e-commerce, banking transformed into e-banking and learning became e-learning. The content put up on a web made a gradual transition from version 1 to 3. In essence, with the advent of Web 2.0, people could collaborate and contribute to a website and not just soak in the information that was put up. Web 3.0, also known as semantic web, is defined as a phase that allowed people to connect and helped them access not just information but also knowledge.
So is it all honky-dory now? It’s hard to say. A clear link between technology and its supposed contribution to education is still hard to establish. YouTube has started to serve as an alternate classroom. Sites like Coursera and Khanacademy have hundreds of courses for students. But it was the West which benefitted from this IT revolution, once again leaving the East far behind.
The push for integration of technology in classroom teaching and education is there for all to see. But so far it’s all been about keeping up with global progress, the notion that if everybody is doing it so should we. There is still much to learn before we can effectively harness the power of computers to improve our education outcomes.