The question is not whether, but how ICT can be useful in education
The opening statement of this Education Technology Debate was titled “Is ICT in education a revolution or a fool’s errand?“. This is a puzzling question. Over the last decades, there have been many studies on the introduction of ICT in education. So why is it that we can still have a debate about the usefulness of ICT in education? Why has the matter not been settled after three decades of debate?
I think the continuation of the debate is for a large part due to the fact that the question is stated wrong. ICT is not one simple “application” that can easily be evaluated once and for all. ICT is a huge and complex cluster of ever changing technologies that have extensions in almost every aspect of industry, commerce, and private life in the developed world. The question should not be “Whether ICT is useful in education?”, but “How can ICT be made useful in education?”. Not because ICT is some magic spell that will solve all problems, but because ICT is needed to provide the children of the world the education they so desperately need.
I would like to step back from the question of how to make specific ICT solutions useful in particular schools, to the question of what is required to give children the education they need. And then look into the matter of how this might be achievable by deploying the tools we have, mainly ICT.
A good overview of the scientific studies on the use of ICT in education was written by Magdalena Clara (2007) for the CERI-KERIS (2007) meeting and her paper can be seen as the background of my contribution to this debate. The other papers in this meeting give a nice overview of current thinking (CERI-KERIS, 2007)
The first question to target is what is the aim of education? It is not high grades on standardized tests. But what is it?
A global view: Wealth, health, and happiness
World wide, people spend trillions of dollars on education. Educational spending constitutes around 5% of global GDP. A “simple” question is now: Why do people spend so much money on educating children? And often other people’s children? What do they hope this money will achieve?
The aim of educational spending can be compressed into a sound bite: To improve the future Wealth, Health, and Happiness of the children.
Future income and prosperity is foremost in the mind of those who advocate education. Children that receive an education will be more productive as adults. Hence, they will be able to earn more income. This wealth will benefit the whole community.
Moreover, it is well known that both personal and family health improves with the level of education of the parents, especially the care giving parent. This health improvement comes over, and is independent of, the increase of socio-economic status that results from education (e.g., Yuyu Chen and Hongbin Li, 2006). All school curricula contain implicit and explicit health related components, like disease prevention and dietary advice. This way, schools provide a major contribution to public health.
The last item, happiness, might sound rather vague and “new-age”, but has been at the foundation of every educational system I have ever seen. A primary cause of preventable suffering is ignorance and social misadaptation. The common cure has been moral teachings. Children have been taught moral lessons under the guise of religious, political, or civic education since the dawn of civilization. To avoid the endless confusion about “morals”, “life-style”, “civic duty”, and “freedom”, I prefer to say that education promotes the future happiness of the child as a member of the community.
Globally, people consider these effects of education so important that they are willing to spend close to 5 cent per dollar earned on education. Do the educational systems of the world deliver? For many children of the world, they do. However, for far too many other children, they do not deliver on any scale of educational achievement. In the (very) long term, education worldwide could be improved to adequate levels by supplying more teachers and more resources. But in the long term, we are all dead, and these children out of school. In the short term, the only solution would be to dramatically increase teacher productivity. That is, to let each teacher educate more children better. A daunting task, indeed.
Increasing teacher productivity
Education is a service “industry”. Over human history, a single teacher has been able to handle around 30-60 pupils at a time, with no real increase of numbers over time. It should be understood that group sizes of 30 pupils and less are certainly preferable for the quality of education. The ideal seems to be adequate teacher quality (training), groups of 20-30 pupils, all at comparable educational level, with text books and some other materials available. Reality in many regions is, deficiencies in teacher training, up to 60 pupils of varying levels, and few or no text books or other materials. A description of such schools can be found in Oscar Becerra (2010).
The challenge is to improve educational quality in such schools without the ability to supply more teachers on short order. That is, to increase teacher productivity, defined as the cumulative increase per teacher of earning capacity, family health status, and happiness of the students. It is obvious that there are no practical ways to actually quantify “real” teacher productivity. Well-known proxy measures are increases in some skills, e.g., reading level and mastering of arithmetic. However, it must be remembered that these are just proxy measures.
So the challenges to improve teacher productivity are, in no particular order:
- Supply teaching materials
- Improve teacher’s mastering of the curriculum
- Improve teacher handling of groups larger than 30 pupils
- Improve teacher handling of diverse groups of pupils
The only two known ways to improve productivity in a service industry are education and ICT, i.e., networked computers. Education was the problem to begin with, so this leaves us with ICT as the only short term way to improve teacher productivity in the schools as described by Oscar Becerra (2010).
The question now that remains is, can it be done at all? Can teacher productivity be increased? Or are we forced to admit that there is only one solution: Supply more teachers? I sincerely believe that it is possible to improve teacher productivity in the short term and so improve education in disadvantaged communities at a reasonable cost.
The remainder of this contribution is an attempt to argue the possibilities of ICT4E for improving teacher productivity. As a model for this discussion, I take the OLPC 1:1 distribution model as described by Oscar Becerra (2010). In this model, every child and teacher has a personal laptop and there are network connections between the laptops, at least around the school building. There is a periodical update of library and software materials, possibly through an Internet connection of the school or by exchange of some storage medium, eg, a portable computer disk.
Teaching: drill and debate
Wayan Vota started his introduction with a reference to Plato. If we go back to classical Greece in his spirit, we can see two opposing approaches to teaching, which can be simplified as the Spartan and Athenian way. The Spartans raised their children to be good soldiers. The aim was to be practical and the tool was the drill. The Athenians raised their children to be good citizens. The aim was to become politically engaged and the tool was the intelligent conversation.
Very appropriate, the face of Spartan education is a mythical state reformer, Lycurgus, who organized all life in Sparta around military power. The face of Athenian education is a historical philosopher, Socrates, who taught by debate, or rather, guided conversation. Obviously, the above is a caricature of historical Greece. But the aim of these sketches is not historical accuracy, but to characterize archetypes floating around in the educational world.
The current debates between “traditionalist” and “constructivist” models of teaching are also debates between Spartan and Athenian models. In the end, we obviously need both. Some skills are better learned with practice, or drill. Other skills are best learned by guiding students to find their own solutions.
It is easy to envisage a hundred people doing drills in an exercise field but it is difficult to imagine more than a handful of people discussing a question at a market place in an orderly fashion. The same can be seen in a school. A classroom with sixty children can easily recite exercises together or all copy a lesson from the blackboard. However, it is difficult to see how a teacher can give personal attention and feedback on performance to all children individually in such a large group.
When teachers are strained due to large groups, little time, and few teaching materials, they will fall back to drills to get any teaching done. When the strain is relieved, it is natural that the balance will be shifted to more individual guiding at the expense of drill practice. Teachers, schools, and parents will have to adapt to this shift. There will be inertia against change as it will be initially difficult to evaluate the value of the new teaching against the known outcomes of the old methods. For instance, writing essays or organizational skills are more difficult to judge than correctly reciting lists of facts.
There is one thing missing in the above argument. That is the fact that all education requires motivation. Especially in children, the most important job of the teacher and the parents is to motivate the pupils (by stick and carrot) to learn, whether it be drill practice or not. The main motivating factor in education is relevance (e.g., Oscar Becerra, 2010).
Targeting teacher productivity: The role of ICT
The above global, birds-eye view of educational practices has been made to set the stage for a discussion on how to assist failing schools. Against this background, we can more easily discuss how ICT can be recruited to help increase teacher productivity. For simplicity, and a good sound-bite, think of ICT as the technology to deliver Information, Communication, and Tools to teachers and students.
As a starter, if there is one major role for ICT in education, it would be the distribution of Information in general, and teaching materials in particular. With current technology, it is possible to compile a mobile library that a child can take home. Electronic text books solve a lot of the production and distribution problems in teaching materials, as well as allowing easy updates. If every child has access to a computer in class and at home, it becomes very easy to supply every child with up-to-date text books and a portable library. And the library does not have to be limited to texts and pictures, but can include multi-media resources. This is an obvious application of ICT4E that has immediate effects.
Motivation in education is to a large extend a matter of relevance of the curriculum and inter-personal relations at school and between school and parents. In general, more relevance and better contacts tends to result in better motivation and better educational results (e.g., Oscar Becerra 2010). The role of ICT is two-fold.
General office automation software can help with better student records and parent contacts. Moreover, with teaching materials and text books available in electronic form, they can be adapted more easily to local situations to make them more relevant to the children. There is a consistent trend that long term student motivation increases after the introduction of ICT in schools (Anja Balanskat, 2007; Oscar Becerra, 2010).
For a national supplier of teaching materials, it is relatively cheap to assemble additional, localized, information to supplement a standard electronic text. For instance, biology lessons could be supplemented by examples of local flora and fauna, instead of a single text with a national selection of plants and animals that might not be very relevant to the children. Such localization is expensive in the production of paper text books, but very cheap in electronic text books.
With electronic distribution and school based storage, it becomes much more practical to make teaching materials relevant and attractive to the children. Which will help improving motivation in school. Note that this distribution model also allows for easy distribution of supplementary materials for the teachers. Thus also allowing for better teacher preparation.
The Spartan model: Drill
It is a truism that to learn anything you have to practise. In martial terms, “an army fights as it trains”. In general, more practise is better to the extend that children that spend more time on a certain subject tend to master it better. This can be called the drill aspect of education. Often, it is not so important how a particular skill is practised, as that there is practise at all. There is a huge pitfall in relying on drills. The underlying assumption is that the drilled skills can be applied in real life. But any expectation that children can generalize and extrapolate from the classroom to the real world is at best a speculation waiting for proof.
The point of drill practice is that there is only a limited scope for supervision. The only condition is that the student performs the exercises correctly. If she does, no teacher or other supervisor is actually needed. So it is no surprise that “drill and test” practices were the most popular targets of educational software (e.g., Report to the Ministry of Education New-Zealand, 2000). Drill and test software comes closest to the “ideal” of relieving teachers from supervising children.
Drill and test software can generate unlimited numbers of exercise questions and track student performance. Progress of the children to the next level can be made conditional on performance at the current level, so students can progress at an optimal pace. Teachers can easily follow the progress of students from a distance and check whether they actually practice. Unsupervised practice might ideally free up teacher time for helping pupils that need personal attention, while not hampering the progress of those who do not need personal help. Such software is already in widespread use.
The next step in using drill and test software is to delegate it to times the students are not expected in class. If teacher supervision is not needed, the practice can be done at home or elsewhere. Class time can then be used for other purposes.
The Athenian model: Guided conversations
Education does not consist of poring a substance called “knowledge” into the heads of individual students. Teaching is a social interaction. Any attempt to structure education without social interactions between teacher and students is destined to fail. The social aspect of teaching is most clearly visible in the Athenian, or Socratic, model of educating by conversation.
In the Athenian model, students are taught to argue, debate, and find their own solutions. This prepares students to the real world, where they will have to collaborate with colleagues to face problems never encountered in school. The basic assumption behind this method is that the debating, researching, and learning skills can be applied to effectively master many relevant subjects.
ICT can still help in this phase of education. The crucial part of this guided conversation is that it is about communication between students and between students and teacher. And although we know there is nothing better than a face-to-face talk, other means of communication can substitute if face-to-face time is not available. Video conferencing, conference calls, Instant Messaging (or twitter), Wiki discussion platforms, school web-sites, and email correspondence are all useful ways to communicate at a distance.
It is possible to extend the classroom face-to-face conversations into electronic collaborations, with electronic conferencing as communication channels. It is well known that peer guidance is the second best thing after teacher guidance. The decoupling of group work and guidance from the classroom and school times to virtual groups, or virtual classrooms, would allow children’s supervision and guidance to be shared by different teachers (if available) and peers. If network connections are available, children could be working in peer groups that could span classes or even schools and supervision could be shared over teachers and (older) students.
The main advantage of such a virtual classroom set-up would be more efficient use of teacher time. With virtual classrooms, the teacher is not restricted to a particular place, and sometimes even a particular time, for teaching. Virtual classes do not have to demand all of a teacher’s time continuously, but she might be able to distribute attention over several tasks and virtual classrooms. In some situations supervision can be partially delegated to other students.
From the student’s view, virtual classrooms separate them (from the distractions of) other children that might be present physically, but do not partake in the same lessons. Virtual classrooms can allow children to be taught interactively while not actually, physically, present in the same classroom. Thereby giving children the benefits of the Athenian educational model, while not demanding everyone to be present at the same place at the same time.
Obviously, there is no point in trying to organize all teaching in virtual classrooms where children stay at home. This is not how education works. Certainly not with small children. But many aspects of normal classroom interactions, like group work and home work, can be made much more efficient using collaborative software and simple communication channels, like email or drop-boxes. These technologie becomes more relevant when coping with situations where children have only half day lessons due to a lack of teachers and classrooms.
An important criticism of the Athenian approach to education is that leaving the actual learning of subject matter out of the classroom leads to the pitfall of the sophists. People who could eloquently argue for or against any standpoint on any random subject without mastering even a single one themselves. The real strength of the Athenian method is that it teaches students to master skills and solve problems themselves in collaboration with peers. Lifelong learning might seem a mirage in schools struggling to provide for education now. But if there is one thing that we know for sure it is that children in school today will have to learn a new set of skills at various times in their working lives. School should prepare them for this re-education, if at all possible.
Criticism: Can ICT4E actually work in the developing world?
The above is all nice and well, looking at ICT4E as an option to improve education in less developed countries. But what if there is no alternative to more and better qualified teachers? What if we simply have to give up and wait for that (elusive) moment the required quality and quantity of education can be delivered to the children the old way? What if the current generation of children cannot be helped at all and are “lost”? This is more or less the position of Kentaro Toyama in his contribution to this debate and an earlier article (Kentaro Toyama, 2010, 2011).
Critics of investments in ICT4E can point to monumental failures in introducing technology to aid in development. In each individual case, the reasons for failure are complex and intricate. Generalizing, even over-generalizing, it can be said that all the really hard problems of humanity have at their root social problems. Economic, agricultural, industrial, and technological solutions are all only effective if they are also able to solve some of these social problems. The problems of under-development and failing education are not different.
The received opinion is that technology, like any other “solution”, will only work if it is integrated in the social structure. It must become an integral part of the lives of the people. There are remarkable exceptions to this rule. Few communities have had problems with embracing tele-communications technology, i.e., movies, radio, TV, or fixed and mobile phones. If you allow people a chance to hear, view, or speak other people, they will grab it with both hands. All these communication technologies have caused revolutions in the lives of people all over the world (e.g., Charles Kenny, 2009). But in general, it is true that an externally supplied solution only works if it can be integrated in the life of those who receive it.
Criticism is generally directed towards Educational Technology (Kentaro Toyama, 2010) which is treated as some field separated from general ICT. The conclusion then is that as delivering Educational Technology has failed to solve problems in X cases, it must be dismissed as a possible solution to the problems of the developing world. However, the fact that ICT can be used in education does not create a separate, isolated field of ICT4E.
In reality, ICT are a cluster of hard- and software technologies for the control, communication, and handling of information and multi-media. This cluster of technologies is more extensive, diverse, and volatile than anything produced by humans before. These technologies have changed the face of industry, commerce, and private life the world over, e.g., it allowed the economic rise of the BRIC countries. Deciding now that none of these technologies can be harnessed for education in poor communities seems at least premature.
The question Can technology benefit failing schools? is meaningless and cannot be answered with Yes or No. In my opinion, the only real question is How can technology benefit failing schools?
Discussion: [ICT4E] is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes (Adapted from Edsger Dijkstra)
The Spartan drill delivers skilled workers, the Athenian debate produces educated citizens. We want children to be educated to become both productive workers and engaged citizens. For such an education, students and teachers need good, up-to-date information and teaching materials, good tools to work and practice with these materials, and communication channels to collaborate and interact with peers and teacher.
In this context, ICT4E becomes Information, Communication, and Tools for Education. Every school will benefit from such ICT4E, but I expect that schools that are overstretched by the limitations of the resources of their country will benefit most.
Any improvement in the situation in schools, and the introduction of new tools and possibilities in general, will lead to changes in education itself. If the implementation works out well, the balance of teaching will move from drill practise towards more “Athenian” style teaching. Children will start to learn new things. New things that might not fit easily in the existing evaluation models. Schools should be prepared for such changes. And schools should prepare teachers and parents for such changes.
In light of the quote from Edsger Dijkstra, what part can the computer, or ICT in general, play in education? I think the analogy to the telescope is very apt. A telescope is a personal access point into astronomy. A computer is a personal access point into an educational world of tools, connections, collaborations, and information. Such a computerized environment can help to raise students and teachers above the isolation and resource limitations that hold back education in so many parts in the world.
What is exactly demanded from ICT4E, and how the demands should be prioritized, is a matter of local requirements. 1:1 Laptop programs, e.g., the OLPC program, are the most thorough of such applications of ICT4E. And the paper by Oscar Becerra (2010) illustrates such a program. Many more can be found at the official site of the OLPC program, or at the independent site, OLPC News.
1:1 Laptop programs tackle all problems at the same time: Dissemination of teaching materials, communication and collaboration, and both general and specific tools useful in school. So a 1:1 laptop program is very likely to solve those local problems that can indeed be solved with ICT. But such 1:1 programs are complex and costly and not the be all and end all of ICT4E, e.g., see Magdalena Clara (2007) and this debating site itself. For a large number of reasons, 1:1 programs might not fit the requirements of individual schools. In the end, it all depends on the needs and resources of the school (Michael Trucano, 2007; InfoDev.org).
Back to the original question “Are ICT investments in schools an education revolution or fool’s errand?“.
ICT in education can be a revolution, like text books or black boards once were. But just as some text books turn out to be useless, not all applications of ICT will be revolutionary or even useful. Every human endeavour can fail. And we know that ICT4E has had its share of failures. But as I argued above, the question is not whether, but how ICT can be useful in education. Because, short of “growing” teachers on trees, there seem to be no other option to improve education for the generation that is now entering schools in the developing nations.
Anja Balanskat (2007). “Comparative international evidence on the impact of digital technologies on learning outcomes: empirical studies”, CERI-KERIS 2007
Oscar Becerra (2010). “What is reasonable to expect from information and communication technologies in education?” Educational Technology Debate, Computer Configurations for Learning
CERI-KERIS (2007). International Expert Meeting on ICT and Educational Performance
Yuyu Chen, Hongbin Li (2006). “Mother’s Education and Child Health: Is There a Nurturing Effect?”
Magdalena Clara (2007). “OECD Background paper ‘Information and Communication Technologies and Educational Performance’“, CERI-KERIS International Expert Meeting on ICT and Educational Performance
ETD (2009). “Assessing ICT4E Evaluations”, Educational Technology Debate
InfoDev.org. “Quick guide: Monitoring and evaluation of ICT in education initiatives”, Web Site.
Charles Kenny (2009). “Revolution in a Box”, Foreign Policy November/December 2009
Report to the Ministry of Education New-Zealand (2000). “A Review of the Literature on Computer-Assisted Learning, Particularly Integrated Learning Systems, and Outcomes with Respect to Literacy and Numeracy”, UniServices Ltd
Kentaro Toyama (2011). “There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education“, Educational Technology Debate, ICT in Schools, January 2011.
Michael Trucano (2007). “What do we know about the effective uses of information and communication technologies in education in developing countries?”, CERI-KERIS 2007