When the Internet began to increase in popularity in the mid-1990s it wasn’t hard to hear two loud, polarized groups within the education community. The non-adopters were stuck firmly in the past, tenaciously holding on to a correspondence-school model. In fairness to them, they had spent significant parts of their career in developing an effective correspondence model of education—carefully-constructed handbooks, mailing lists and distribution centres—and could not see how the Internet was going to make things any better. When suggestions would arise regarding the need to “move to the digital world” reasons like these would be brought forth to justify inaction:
- The Internet is too slow and unreliable.
- We have to provide equal access to all and the Internet is only something that a few people have.
- We have excellent content available for print; much better than that amateurish-looking, hastily-constructed stuff on the web.
- People won’t understand how to use it.
- It’s too expensive.
Then there were the zealots. To them the Internet was the answer for everything and, thanks to it, education was about to change fundamentally. In a few years, schools as we knew them would be no more. The digital world would set us all free!
We can see now that neither group was right. In time, as the Internet grew in speed, reliability and, most importantly, popularity, correspondence courses were phased out everywhere in favour of web-based ones. As time passed hose clever but amateurish digital developers and teachers became seasoned, skillful and disciplined professionals.
Despite the zealots’ predictions schools were not left abandoned, and while homeschooling continues to be on the rise among some parts of the population, there are no serious efforts underway to eliminate so-called “bricks and mortar” (we use concrete, steel and wood in NL) schools as institutions.
Networked devices, though, are everywhere. Most students from grade 7 onward carry their own mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and “pods”) and even more have computers at home with Internet access. Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are present in a large fraction of our classrooms and most of them depend on the Internet for content. The use of multimedia sites such as YouTube is common. Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard™, Desire2learn™ and Moodle are, thankfully, finally starting to take root in our face-to-face classrooms (although not fast enough for my liking I might point out). Even some groups are coming around to the notion that social networking is not all bad.
That said, though, the question still remains: Has the widespread existence of electronic communication tools really transformed education or are current uses just extensions of methods that are really centuries old?
Think about it. Here are sentiments often expressed by many parents, educators and students:
- IWBs are a waste of time and money. Many IWBs are not used in an interactive way. After all you can only hold the attention of a class for a few minutes when only one or two gets to participate at a time. Besides, truly interactive content is not as pervasive as you might think. As such they are little more than expensive projection screens that lie dormant most of the time.
- Class time is boring spoon feeding. Much class work is done through PowerPoint-style presentations. While these are clearly superior to similar work done on chaulkboards or regular whiteboards, the methodology and philosophy are really not much different—specifically show students the ideas and expect that learning will take place as a consequence. Note that’s not to suggest for a minute that teachers don’t take advantage of more interactive methods—they do, but these don’t involve the IWB.
- iPads and such are useless toys. iPads and related devices, while no doubt fun to use, are not often put to good use. They are expensive to obtain as class sets and, at the moment, rather hard to manage. That is, ensuring that the appropriate apps are installed is rather laborious. Besides they also offer the student an immediate on-ramp to distraction: unwanted social networking (again note that this is not to suggest that all social networking is bad. It most certainly is not! It’s only bad when it gets in the way of learning.) and irrelevant content. Besides, as was pointed out earlier, the content for pad devices is still in its infancy. Additionally while pads and pods are great tools for consuming content they are not always a great choice for creating it. In the end, at this moment, pad type devices are little more than easily-broken and rather expensive books and bad paper substitutes.
- PCs are a waste of money. Finally we come to PCs. While there is no doubt of the power and usefulness of these devices, once again, much of that potential has gone untapped. While the tools for creating content, whether it be text, audio, video or some hybrid are powerful and affordable, the tools for interacting with content are still not great. Much of the available educational content amounts to little more than automated book page turners and videos—again a throwback to the sixties. Besides most of the computers found in schools are just donated leftover junk and rarely work properly when needed. When they do it’s really only at great taxpayer expense.
Well now, isn’t that a pile of negativity! Now, lest you walk away with the notion that I am anti-technology, let me state that those sentiments do not reflect my own experiences and opinions. How about letting me go back through the four bullet points, this time with opinions that are closer to my own:
- IWBs are a waste of time and money. While they certainly can be a waste if misused or under-used the fact remains that a huge quantity of useful content exists and is freely-available if one takes the time to find it. Furthermore when given good content, students love interacting with IWBs. It’s important to realize that the IWB is only one of many useful tools that exist in modern classrooms so you should not expect them to be the only tool used. That’s the problem—too many make a fuss about them as if there are to replace whet was there before. No! They are an addition, one that will take time to learn how to use effectively.
- Class time is boring spoon feeding. Now that is just nonsense! While there are no doubt that there are teachers who insist on spending all of class time droning on, subjecting the students to “Death by PowerPoint,” these individuals are very much the minority! Besides, a well-designed presentation (clear and logical, containing good visuals and of the appropriate length) is a very effective teaching tool…one more in a large toolbox!
- iPads and such are useless toys. Students love interacting with these devices and the amount of quality content out there is growing. Besides, class sets do not have to be purchased. Many students are happy to bring their own, so only partial class sets need to be available, and management software for this (which loads the apps as needed) is becoming more and more widely available. Some examples are here and here. Like them or not the fact is that for the modern child these are the books and magazines. …and so much more so suck it up!
- PCs are a waste of money. Nonsense! While, yes, there is a dearth of truly immersive courseware the composition and research tools freely available already justify the purchase. While there is some truth to the notion that many schools are technologically backward the overwhelming trend across the developed world is toward increased professionalization around the acquisition and support of classroom ICLT.
So what is it I’m trying to say? Yes, it looks like this is just a bunch of waffling. In one group of bullets one point of view was presented and in another set of bullets basically the opposite was presented. So am I just wasting your time? No.
Here’s what I’m saying: those who claim that computer hardware and software is (a) useless or (b) the one best thing are equally wrong. The whole issue of Information, Communication and Learning Technology (ICLT) is far more complicated than all of that. While modern day electronic computing and communications equipment has had a profoundly positive effect on all parts of society including, yes, education the fact remains that there has been widespread wastage of money and effort and, as of now, there remains much unexplored and unrealized potential.
But the work continues.
And as long as the focus is on teaching and learning and as long as people are willing to do the hard work required to get the procedures down there will continue to be real improvements.
Just be wary of the snake oil sales force—it’s out there.
Next: There’s a lot of jargon surrounding eLearning. Besides the expected BS there’s some good ideas wrapped up in many of the the new terms.