Aug 072012
 

Being in southern Africa has given me a new perspective on the debate over technology and education.

We shrink distance and build empathy by storytelling. Empathy, as Gloria Steinem once said, is the most revolutionary of emotions.

In the Global North, apart from a polite conversation in the New York Times and the Guardian, it has become a generally accepted truth that money spent on technology is money well spent. The stuff’s cool, the kids seem happy and anyway, who has time to talk? Laptop programs are being replaced by iPad programs and Salman Khan is a household name. If your kid’s classroom isn’t flipped, you’re probably a bad parent.

Recently, though, some murmurs of concern have bubbled up: does filling classrooms with computers actually increase the quality of education? One upside of devastating budgets cuts is that calls for proof that money delivers impact are getting louder. Most people are well-equipped to join the debate, voice their opinions and vote. We might also consider asking the children: a recent student newspaper at a wealthy London school carried an article begging teachers to stop spending money on technology, not least because the boys’ locker rooms were full of discarded interactive white boards.

In the Global South, however, many parents, teachers and learners are having these decisions made for them. Governments are eager to bridge the digital divide, while well-intentioned donors and foundations are tripping over in their haste to wire up classrooms and get everyone online: it’s physical, impressive and has great ‘before and after’ appeal.

But does technology increase learning? Not if:

• Power is unpredictable, bandwidth limited and download speed snail-like

• Computers are regularly stolen

• There aren’t enough qualified IT teachers or money for training

• Nobody knows which websites or software to use

• Computers break or do weird things that can’t be fixed

• Computers can’t be upgraded regularly, virus-protected and maintained

• The are no projectors or printers.

So what then should tax and donor dollars be spent on in the Global South?

Unless you have a transcendent skill the chances are that it is your personality and your people and communication skills that will play the greatest single part in determining your future success

People.

In the North too.

Here’s why:

Unless you have a transcendent skill – art, entrepreneurship, languages – the chances are that it is your personality and your people and communication skills that will play the greatest single part in determining your future success. Teachers see this every day. They also help young people develop their identity, their confidence and their mastery of how to move through the world. They act as mentors, guides and role models. Technology does not.

Technology distances people and prevents them from connecting and learning from one another. Of course it facilitates some kinds of connection, but not the kind we need most.

At one of the UK’s outstanding state (public) schools, all non-core curricular teaching time has been filled with a school-designed relationship curriculum. Many young people, particularly those from complicated, traumatised or deprived backgrounds, haven’t been shown how to form relationships – with one another, authority figures, their parents or siblings.

Whilst online bullying, sexting, inappropriate contact by predatory adults and young people intentionally or unintentionally witnessing hardcore pornography are clearly problems, so too is the fact that we just don’t talk anymore.

One more thing: whilst technology can certainly be engaging, recent research has found that a new digital divide is opening up, as children from lower income families increasingly use it for ‘time-wasting’ – games, social networking and watching videos.

One of the Global South’s great advantages is that it can leapfrog the North’s mistakes. If it’s too soon to see what those mistakes might be, then it’s too soon to make significant investments.

One of the Global South’s great advantages is that it can leapfrog the North’s mistakes. If it’s too soon to see what those mistakes might be, then it’s too soon to make significant investments.

So what do we spend those donor dollars on?

Identifying future teachers, school leaders, governors and trustees and giving them the best training and support we can:

• Supporting them through college

• Pairing them with mentors and master teachers

• Providing clear job descriptions, regular evaluation and professional development

• Paying them reliable and reasonable wages; creating structured and secure careers

• Equipping classrooms with basic supplies

• Giving all school communities access to a library

• Guaranteeing every child access to safe bathrooms

• Ensuring that all students have at least one meal a day at school, uniforms, including shoes, bus fare and textbooks.

 I felt pretty strongly about this, but thought I’d just check with a couple of experts. Since I’m here at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, I asked 2 of their most recent graduates:

I is from Ghana, where her brother is a teacher. Every day he has to cross a river to get to his school but many of his students will not be there, because there is work at the plantations. Like many of his colleagues he is demoralised and badly paid and has little hope of things getting better.

F is from Mali. There are not enough schools in the region she comes from, so she is going to start one. She already has backing from a powerful set of supporters, who were no doubt as impressed as I when they learned that 2 years ago she spoke no English.

For both girls, technology is a low priority.

Finally, the front page of one of last week’s newspapers carried the headline ‘IOUs Instead of Cash Stun Teachers’. Their pensions were raided for wages, but now neither are being paid. Inside was the separate story of a recently discovered cache of textbooks, destroyed and abandoned, never delivered to schools.

So teachers first. When the fundamentals are in place, by all means bring in the technology: train the teachers, invest in maintenance and let technology’s magic work. But don’t forget that before we had technology we had imagination, and one another. We can’t afford to lose either.

  2 Responses to “Teachers v Tech: No Contest”

  1. ‘But don’t forget that before we had technology we had imagination, and one another. We can’t afford to lose either.’

    Great quote-think I might use that in future.

    Excellent article, especially for us here in South Africa where very little in the realm of providing quality education seems to be happening.

    This kind of analysis is so important for us to ensure we don’t make more unnecessary mistakes.

  2. in contest between tech and teacher i will opt for teacher…teachers r actually god in face of human…or human in the face of god…then how fucking internet can replace god…yes i do belive that tech can enhance education like a catalyst …

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