Schools and Learning

technology-and-schools1

A thought struck me as I was trying to come up with a suitable topic to write about here today. Information Technology has not changed schools at all. Yes, it has made research much easier and more efficient. And word processing is not the chore it once was. But whilst technology has fundamentally changed the way the world is viewed, it has not fundamentally changed the way we learn. We still exam in the same way, and we are still expected memorise and learn in the same way. My key point here is that schools need to catch up or risk being made redundant.

The key promise of technology has always been to help make the lives of its users easier and more efficient. One of the major problems however with technology is its power to disrupt, disrupt old ways of teaching and learning but also disrupt one’s routines and lives. With the ubiquity of increasingly connected devices today, one would think that computers have made all our activities much more straightforward. The fact of the matter is, however, whilst much of the world has advanced into the digital age, humans are still only able to process information in an analogue fashion. The constant distractions made by such applications like Facebook, are welcome when one has nothing better to do, but inevitably end up becoming a drag on time when one has a dateline hanging over his head, and simply reflect most people’s inability to simply sit down and write for an hour or so straight.

My premise is that ultimately, schools lack the ability to prepare students for a world where they are always connected and expected to be available 24/7. Whether it be via text message, Blackberry or phone call. Education has for hundreds of years been all about learning the necessary skills for that particular area which you have an interest in working in. This has changed on some level in that research can be conducted easily and quickly over the Internet, and lower level tasks can be outsourced quickly or just as quickly performed by one’s self with little effort.

One of the biggest problems with education on a whole then is the role of examinations. Whereas it remains one of the most essential means to test a student’s academic ability, the modern world rarely expects someone to sit down and plug away at a task for hours on end that he or she has spent months revising for, only to forget what happened in the past three hours ten minutes after the exam, and find out that he was wrong in the narrowly defined parameters of the examination. The modern world has moved beyond that and requires a method of testing more in line with the nature of work today. Am I saying that we completely do away with exams? No, that would be ridiculous, but perhaps testing of one’s abilities should involve more cooperation among students, more time given to thresh out ideas and an opportunity to express an opinion rather than repeat what has been learned previously under controlled conditions. An exam hall, the place where one is to be at his most creative and most ready for work is one of stifling boredom and one that I feel will completely disappear in the next ten to fifteen years.

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson made the claim that schools kill creativity by placing an overwhelming focus on being right. (See TED) My contention then is that technology has the power to resurrect that creativity, but only if one knows how to use it. Out of the box, every Windows PC possesses a video editor, every Mac, a video editor, an audio editor and a photo editor. There are countless websites available to create your own content, from one that would transform your face into a Simpson’s character to a comprehensive system of blogging for which one can post his thoughts, creations, ideas however misguided or wrong they may turn out to be. If schools are to succeed in educating the next generation of students, schools must teach students to use the tools of the internet and a curiosity as to how new services and new paradigms in the web can help foster that creativity.

Testing should also reflect this paradigm shift in the way which technology shapes our world. Why are we not allowed to use our laptops to take an exam? When everyone knows that in the real world, should be we require a quick refresher or an analysis of an issue we would simply pull up Google or the various specialist databases that are available online. The fear, of course, is that students will cheat with these devices available to them during an exam. My response then is that our conception of cheating has to change. Yes, wholesale copying and pasting of another’s opinion should be forever be labelled as a despicable act of intellectual dishonesty, but maybe opening up the exam hall to the bounties of modern technology will allow students the leeway to be much more creative and much more productive in the exam hall.

An even more revolutionary suggestion might be to open up exams to collaboration. Allow people to bounce ideas off each other during an exam, allow the flow and exchange of ideas, possibly through instant messaging, or another monitored form of communication, let people draw on each other’s shared ideas and build on them during an exam, the so-called Open Source method. This is the way anyone is expected to work today and should we not be tested on our ability to collaboratively create a better piece of work? This may cause difficulties initially but I believe will be much more reflective of the way society works in this day and age.

My ultimate claim is that it is no longer enough to be educated. One has to possess the technical know how to use technology in any size and form in any line of work. This coupled with the need to be widely educated rather than deeply educated more than clearly indicates that the old ways of focusing on purely scientific ways of measuring talent should be de-emphasised. Technology can help aid such an education, to create discerning learners, ones who will not be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.

  • An interesting article.

    I am not sure that I agree that education is unchanged, since many of your suggestions have long formed the core of many computer science courses taught at liberal arts colleges. Here are just a few examples from classes that I have taught at the college level:

    –Team Term Projects, which begin with single paragraph descriptions and must be developed by small teams of students through requirement definition, design, development, test and delivery.

    –Course specific wikis, to create collaborative definitions for key concepts and terms.

    –Multi-part exams, including a significant take-home analysis and modification of code, which students are encouraged to work on together.

    –Pre-published essay questions sets, which students are encouraged to study together, from which I choose particular questions for the test.

    Ultimately, these methods mimic the workplace, which values cooperation, but also evaluates based on individual contribution.

  • Zia Zek

    Daniel!

    I think your article is deep stuff. I’ve watched Sir Ken Robinson’s talk too.

    Laptops in exams… hmm… that is an interesting idea.

    You should write more of these entries.

  • It’s not by me, Zek… 😛 It’s by Jerrick…

  • Thanks @Jim Perry

    First off, Let me point out that what you say is quite region specific and subject specific, and would probably be more applicable to American schools more than say even the better schools in the Asia Pacific region or even where I’m studying right now in the UK. Nevertheless, I accept that there are some more forward looking schools and also agree that some of their ideas are even further along than I could have thought.

    Having said that, what my article calls for is something closer to a full scale revolution of education, and naturally I accept that there will be some resistance and some inertia. This is to be accepted, what I predict will happen is possibly a slow change that will take place over a decade or so. But nevertheless, I believe in optimism and truly believe that schools will continue to grow and improve.

    @Zia Zek

    Thanks for your comments. 🙂 I will definitely try and write more for Tech65, in my absence from the Podcast!

  • Lars Hyland

    Jerrick, nice post. Interesting to hear these views from someone currently studying here in the UK. There are changes afoot but while there are good examples of more aligned learning experiences that prepare people for real world work and activities, they have yet to go mainstream within the education system as a whole, both at school and higher ed levels.

    Have a look at my latest blog post for a fresh video of Sir Ken presenting his current views summarized in his new book The Element.

    • @Lars WHERE would I find your blog? Or, could you just post the URL of the video of Sir Ken?

  • I so agree that info technology has not changed schools. However, I would argue that it HAS changed students – radically. Teachers seem to make the mistake of approaching computers as though their role was to be ‘expert’ and as such, to intro the world of computing to students…not so! Teachers are not the experts when it comes to info technology, their students are – and teachers will not, should not try to catch up.
    Increasingly, teachers will need to approach learning with their students as a collaborative adventure – where all members contribute to the teaching and support of learning. I would argue that the best teachers have always taken this approach.
    So, one change that schools should make is to formalize and recognize the role of students as tech support in schools – take that burden away from teachers who don’t want it anyway.

  • I completely agree that schools have not changed, but would argue that students have. Teachers remain the subject-area expert in the classroom, as it should be, but their students are now the technology experts. Teachers can not, and should not try, to catch-up.
    The only successful way to teach in a tech-integrated classroom (and with students carrying their own powerful, personal tech in their pockets – there is no longer any such thing as a tech-free class), is to approach learning as a collaborative adventure where all participants learn (teacher included) and all participate in teaching and supporting learning. The best teachers have always taught this way.
    One change that I would suggest for schools is to pour less $$ into teacher tech PD, and formalize the support role that students can (and already do) hold. Create a formal structure for students teaching each other, teaching teachers, and even providing trouble-shooting tech support. Some schools already do this, and find that students who might normally get lost academically, find a meaningful purpose. Teachers in these schools can focus their energies on their subjects, and stop worrying about running a race that they can’t hope to win.

    • Wow. I cannot believe that I’ve received so many responses to what was obstensibly an article I wrote on a whim.

      @Lars I’m glad to hear that changes are afoot, if only they can be integrated quickly enough for ME to benefit from them :). Having said that, I’m currently sitting in Warwick University’s Learning grid, which purports to be a great place for people to learn and provides the right kind of atmosphere for such a purpose. I see facebook and movies all round and not very much studying. 🙂 I think students should be apportioned some blame too for schools not living up. Nevertheless this Learning Grid has become the dejure place for Mugging (see the Singaporean colloquial definition). And ostensibly that’s the reason why I’m here today.

      @Sheila What an idea. Letting the students set the agenda Tech Wise. And what an enlightened one that is. I agree with you, but at a higher education level, this idea needs to be instituted and be allowed to run its course. The problem with schools I think on a whole is every 3 or so years there is a whole new cycle that starts and often student led initiatives do not get the follow through that they deserve.

      Thanks everyone for reading and commenting it is so heartening and I promise I will write more for Tech65 😀

  • NTT
Jerrick
It has long been said that no good deed goes unpunished, and Daniel must have been really good in his last life, because he is now inflicted with having to manage our former International Correspondent, Jerrick Lim. On his way to a career in the law, Jerrick has spent some time in the United Kingdom, giving him an appreciation of such delights as Rhubarb, Pimm's and cold grey weather. Jerrick deals with many aspects of technology, but favours such aspects as Aviation, Portable Devices, and Automobiles. He also fancies himself a gamer but has not finished a game proper in a long time. Email Jerrick at: jerrick at tech65 dot org or visit his personal blog
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