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Stop Wasting Children with ICT4E Assessments

Rob van Son

A large problem with educational evaluations of any kind is that the “public” (aka, the media) are only interested in national and international competition scores, like the PISA scores. Any reflection on the value of these competitive tests for the children is lost in the media noise.

It seems that it does not matter so much in what you excel, only that you excel. Not coincidentally, this was also the main driving force behind the Chinese imperial examinations in the previous post.

In academic circles, there is a lot more interest in really measuring performance. But in these studies, very specific questions are asked in relation to bounded problems. Nothing like, “Are computers useful?”, because such a question is unanswerable in principle. There are well researched evaluation methods, see the companion post by Mary Hooker. A lot has been learned how children respond to formal education, and how they will learn (better). So the question is, why are these methods not used?

To get a glimpse of an answer, it is illuminating to listen (literally) to David Hestenes who has done ground braking research on the understanding of basic physics in students. His talk “Na├»ve beliefs about physics and education” is available on-line as a presentation and audio talk.

Simplified to the bare basics, almost everyone seems to believe that education is about the transmission of a substance, called knowledge, to the memories of the students. The schools function as a retail outlet of knowledge. Evaluation of education centres around determining how much of this substance ends up inside the heads of the students. Research has shown that students can indeed reproduce a lot of the factoids sprinkled in the teaching and textbooks when tested. However, when tested in ways that require real understanding of the basic concepts, a majority of students fail completely (see examples in the slides).

His research brought David Hestenes to the conclusion that all teaching methods that are based on “transmitting knowledge” instead of “recreating knowledge” (aka Constructivism) fail to change the naive preconceptions of students.

Summarizing the above in combination with the previous post, there is little hope that ICT4E assessment as it is organized today will uncover anything that will actually influence educational practices. History is plainly against us. A full blown assessment about “Is [fill in ICT4E solution] a cost-effective improvement” will take years to complete, cost serious amounts of money, and will be irrelevant when published. The worst effect will be the delay which will deprive yet again several cohorts of school children in poor countries of adequate education.

I think we must take a common sense approach instead. While waiting for the dissemination of the results of scientific research into the general population we should start with trying to find common ground with teachers, politicians, and parents. That is, seek for approaches that will allow all involved to reach a consensus on that will benefit children now.

Computers alone have benefits

Computers are useful in disseminating information, eg, electronic books, libraries, wikipedia, and as communication devices, eg, email, IM, video. They are great for writing and calculations and can greatly improve collaborative efforts. They are also great at stimulating children to read and write, eg, email, stories, their own blog, to explore their society and the world, and to get exposed and experienced in new languages. And they require and exercise skills that will be valuable in the workplace later.

There might be problems in languages with very little digital content for children. However, experience taught us that the existence of a large “market” of on-line computers is quickly followed by content. Even if the content has to be free (as on the Internet).

Computers in education have more benefits

One really unique benefit of computers is that it is possible to set up applications that allow students to practice skills that could before only be practiced in the presence of a teacher. Teachers can then spend more time on children who need personal attention.

This has been used in language learning for decades. Speaking practice, and reading and writing assignments, have been automated before. Students listen to recordings and record their own speech. Just listening to recordings of your own voice helps you correcting mistakes. There are currently even (limited) applications where a computer application can actually help students correct their writing and pronunciation.

As an example, I will plug here a Free Software (GPL) project to learn Mandarin tone distinction in which I participated: SpeakGoodChinese.

Enough with Assessments – Implement Already

I conclude that schools that lack resources like books and libraries, and over all, the required number of qualified teachers, will greatly benefit from implementing sensible ICT solutions that substitute for these shortages and improve teachers’ effectiveness.

All parties involved seem to agree that ICT solutions could ameliorate a least some of the problems in resource poor schools. But this approach also implies that ICT solutions should not be restricted to the classroom. Practice, studying, and reading should be done at home, collaboration and communication is done everywhere. What use is it to have school books and email on a computer when the student has no access to the computer?

There is obviously one caveat: ICT can only be useful if the (real) total cost of ownership can be made bearable.


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