Technology in Schools: We Need to Get it Right

Published on Friday, 10 February 2017
Technology in Schools: We Need to Get it Right

The topic at a side conference at the recent World Economic Forum this year – “Robots Vs. Humans: The teacher of the future?” – was deliberately provocative. Sponsored by Education International and the Varkey Foundation, the discussion among education activists and officials was a lively exploration of the value of teachers in a technological age.

The consensus? Technology done right will help teachers tackle coming challenges in innovative and inclusive ways and there is no more valuable factor in a quality education than a great teacher.

No surprise there. The importance of teachers to student success is among the most studied and settled education facts of both the last century and the current.

Still, there is one economic variable that affects this otherwise universal valuation of teachers. I call it OPK and it stands for Other People’s Kids – a way of looking at teachers that would be a dark prospect for your own offspring becomes a rosy scenario when seen through the OPK lens.

In a recent study into the operations of Bridge International Academies, a private education corporation supported financially and politically by organizations including the World Bank, Pearson, the UK government, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a Bridge employee said:

“We do not plan any lesson. We follow the tablets to the letter. We are robots being directed by tablets.”

Computer tablets that is. Onto which highly scripted standardised lessons are uploaded, complete with instructions to be delivered word for word by unqualified staff, usually high school graduates given two to five weeks training focusing primarily on how to use the tablet and how to market the institution.

How scripted? Every pedagogical activity is pre-set and scripted including instructing staff when to ‘Pause’ when to ‘Circulate for 30 seconds’ when to ‘Rub the board’ and when to tell pupils to ‘Close your textbooks.’ And, staff is monitored remotely to make sure the script is followed to the letter.

When we criticized this practice we were accused by some of trying to stifle innovation. Without the OPK lens, the word would not be “innovation.” If it were my child and probably yours, the word would be “experimental” and an experiment devoid of the pedagogic understanding and focus teachers, parents and communities embrace.

Unqualified teachers were among a number of reasons Uganda ordered all 63 of the Bridge schools to be shut down last year – not because of technology, because of a business model that maximizes revenues by denying basic standards.

Despite this record, Bridge was a “Gold Level” sponsor of the recently concluded Education World Forum, the annual closed-door meeting of education ministers and government officials that attracted heavy criticism by global education unions and civil society groups for the recognition.

It is time to move forward with a credible approach that integrates technology into instruction and learning in a deliberate manner. We need to get this right.

The OECD and others have concluded the potential benefits of new technologies can be realised when teachers, the qualified professionals with the expertise in pedagogy, are involved in the design and development of appropriate technologies.

At the same time, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher has said "the reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today," that education systems heavily invested in information and communications technology have seen  “no noticeable improvement" in PISA test results for reading, mathematics or science. He said some of the best-performing education systems have been “very cautious” about technology in the classrooms.

There is no doubt, that resources developed and manufactured by industry, along with the continuing advances in technology, will continue to play an important, enabling role in improving teaching and learning. But the quest for higher standards begins with the recognition of qualified teachers as the leading agents in the development and delivery of opportunity through a high quality, engaging and relevant curriculum. The professional judgment of teachers and educators in questions of pedagogy must be respected – we are not simply information delivery systems.

The society we will be living in tomorrow will be heavily influenced by the decisions we make about education and schooling today. And not just for our own children. In the end, Other People’s Kids matter to every one of us.

Last modified on Friday, 10 February 2017

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Fred van Leeuwen

Fred van Leeuwen is the General Secretary of Education International. Education International represents organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe.
It is the world’s largest federation of unions, representing 30 million education employees in about 400 organisations in 170 countries and territories, across the globe.

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