Has technology been good for education?

Technology in the classroom can be distracting, and I don’t just mean for the students. All too often it is the teachers and policy-makers who are losing focus on education goals. In so many situations, the focus is on using devices in classrooms, whether that be tablets or obsolete notebook PCs that have fallen out of favour with the consumer in the “real” world.

In Silicon Valley, investors, when evaluating a new company, start with a simple question: “What problem does this solve?” Why? Because people don’t buy products and services, they buy the benefits those products and services produce. Customers want solutions.

There is no reason that we should treat technology in education differently. We should always be focused on the specific problems technology can help to address. We should never be seduced by the appeal of putting shiny, expensive new products in classrooms simply to make ourselves feel “cutting edge” and “dynamic”.

I am struck by one example of “progress” that may well be counterproductive. Many schools are now moving to eBooks, but I’m not convinced this is solving any real problem beyond making children’s backpacks lighter. I would argue that the benefits are few, while the costs are potentially great. Many educators, such as the celebrated US teacher Nancie Atwell, believe that children retain far less information using eBooks compared to traditional books. Levels of overall engagement with eBooks also appear to be significantly lower.

Another area that merits greater thought and scrutiny is the introduction of iPads into classrooms. Many expensive private schools in the US now give all their children iPads. I have no doubt the students are very pleased with this decision, but are we sure this is a good use of funds, especially when most children now carry comparable capabilities around in their pockets on their personal smartphones?

Let me be very clear: I am not anti-technology. Far from it. I just believe that we can often be too excited by some developments to calmly assess their benefits.

Where I do see technology as particularly useful is in scaling access to quality education where there is a shortage of properly trained teachers. Massive Open Online Courses may not represent a true alternative to in-classroom learning, but they do allow access to high-quality university courses to those who have traditionally been barred by geographical or financial limitations.

At the Varkey Foundation, we are using the relatively old fashioned Very Small Aperture Terminal, or VSAT system, to develop education. The technology, highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Education report, is enabling us to bring educational expertise to a growing number of classrooms in Ghana. Using cheap satellite video links, we are bringing experienced teachers into 70 girls’ schools across the country.

In India, in places where staff attendance rates have been particularly problematic, schools are now using fingerprint technology to address the issue. Teachers must scan their thumbprint each morning to show that they have turned up. As one might expect, an enforceable system that comes with a financial penalty for those not clocking in has led to significantly higher rates of attendance.

These are both great examples of how a relatively simple use of technology can have a tremendous effect on education.

Technology offers great opportunities to address needs in schools, but it must be used in a targeted way. Digitizing existing methodologies does not guarantee benefits and may even have a negative impact. Technology can be transformative, but only when applied to solving specific problems and creating real innovation.

Author: Marc Boxser is Head of Online Learning and Global Director for External Relations and Strategic Initiatives at GEMS Education.

Image: Elementary school children share an electronic tablet on the first day of class in the new school year in Nice, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

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