Technology in school education - Ensuring Learning India S1 E.008

In the previous few posts, this blog discussed above the need for slowing down the pace of curriculum, teaching to the level of the kids at their pace and need for assessments. This post discusses the role of technology in all these aspects, issues with the current technology based learning tools, challenges in integrating technology in classroom, challenges from the governance perspective and few points on the evaluations on technology based learning tools.

Tools that help teachers also help students indirectly but for the sake of simplicity, they are still categorized.

Technology for teachers  Technology can help teachers in the following aspects.

1) Streamlining admin work: Teachers have to do a lot of administrative work as part of their job which often includes communicating with parents, sending messages, updating mark sheets, correcting homework and so on. Tech products can help streamline all of these. An app which sends message to all parents on one tap, a tool through which teacher can assign homework to students and track the status, tool which also corrects the homework and so on.

2) Aid in teaching process

a) Demonstrating experiments: Some experiments can't be demonstrated in classroom. Videos, simulations and images do a good job of communicating the essential aspects of complex phenomenon.

b) Granular diagnosis: In a previous post on assessments, this blog discussed that diagnosing students' difficulties is an important aspect of the learning process and the difficulties may vary across students. If teachers have to normally do it, they would have to design customized assessments for each child and spend lots of time analyzing the patterns which is humanely impossible. It is easier to do this through technology, a product which analyzes students responses on a set of questions and gives an automated report to teachers on the learning difficulties being faced by in their class.

c) Customized remediation: After diagnosing the problems, students have to be helped regarding the same. If all students aren't facing same types of difficulties, then each of them needs different type of remediation which again is an intensive and time consuming process for a single teacher to do. A smart tech product can do this.

3) Collaborative learning platforms: Today, there is little interaction between teachers to share their problems and there is no established platform to learn from others. Technology can serve as this platform connecting teachers from all across enabling sharing of information between teachers.

4) Remote teaching: Live video classes can be a good work around in cases where there is lack of teachers.

Technology for students

1) Learn at their own pace: Some students may learn slowly and some may learn faster for the concepts taught in classroom. Students who learn slowly can practice and learn at their own pace and similarly students who learn faster can learn advanced concepts, through a good technology tool.

2) Practicing questions: Paper based worksheets have their own limitations. Technology makes it possible to generate lots of dynamic questions especially in mathematics which can help students practice and strengthen their concepts and computational speed. 

3) Collaborative learning platforms: Students may get many doubts which they may often feel inconvenient to ask others or they may not find someone to get their doubts clarified. Technology platforms can serve as platforms enabling peer learning process.

Problems with technology tools today 

One, many technology products in education today are addressing the administrative aspects in schools like smart classrooms, app to ease communication between parents and teachers and so on. While, this may be necessary, there is relatively little focus on the core important areas related to learning like diagnosing students’ difficulties, customized treatment and so on. There are some learning tools available in the market but they are just practice tools with a dump of questions or mock exams.

Two, lack of an integrated approach. A good learning tool should be able to teach using appropriate pedagogy, understand students’ difficulties, engage and motivate children, and the ability to use the data of students’ responses to make intelligent decisions. Many tools don’t have this balance, either they are excessively focused on engaging the kid with good visuals but with little emphasis on making learning happening or excessive focus on pedagogy without engaging the child or not leveraging data enough to generate intelligent responses.

Three, the broader issue with the discourse on technology in education today is that, often technology is seen as substitute to teachers.  As discussed above, a good learning tool is a combination of pedagogy, engagement and motivating the child. Technology is still not advanced yet to perform all of these. In such scenario, it is best to be used as a complementary tool to teachers. Most technological interventions neglect this aspect and assume that computer alone will teach in long term.

This is also reflected in the studies conducted around these, where teachers are replaced with technology and if it doesn’t show results, the whole theme of technology in education is stamped as being a fad.

Problems integrating technology in classroom

One, comfort levels with technology. Most teachers aren't tech savvy and hence using computers is a mental block to them.

Two, beliefs. A teaching methodology is a belief. Teachers should believe in the philosophy of using data from students’ responses in their teaching process.

Three, time constraints: Teachers in a typical school where these are being implemented currently are overloaded. With tight timelines and pressures to complete syllabus, this becomes an additional workload instead of easing it. This again underscores the need to slow down the syllabus so that teachers will have the bandwidth to leverage these.

Four, lack of trust: Technology is often pitched as substitute to teachers, not as complementing teachers. This creates trust issues and complicates the process of creating buy in from teachers and stakeholders.

Problems in public schools and technology based interventions by NGOs

One, weak governance capacity: Apart from the usual problems of electricity and reliable internet connectivity, technology tools suffer the same problems that most other interventions suffer, lack of implementing capacity. If some teachers are not teaching properly in a school, the technology provided also won't be utilized properly.

Two, lack of vision. Technology is equated with distributing tablets and setting up computers in schools. Two things are mostly not focused – (i) the purpose of technology. Is it to show videos to children or Is it to diagnose students’ difficulties or is it to help students practice or something else? (ii) a technology tool is good as the content that it has. Merely distributing tablets and computers without ensuring good content in it defeats the purpose.

This results in numerous issues that are observed today. If the purpose of computers and tools isn’t communicated and teachers aren’t trained for the same, they wouldn’t be clear on what to do and hence computers and tablets remain idle in store rooms. Without appropriate content, the tablets aren’t of much help. This is narrated as failure of technology while it is actually the inability to use it properly.

This also underscores the importance of sequencing. If computers and tablets are rolled out without content, then by then time the aspects of content are built, these would have been damaged.

The Inter-American Development Bank’s technical note on technology in education identifies some of the above problems. Hope this turns into action soon.

Note on evaluations on ICT tools

In an earlier post, this blog discussed about a caveat in interpreting results of evaluation called Intra Hypothesis validity. Technology in education is a good example illustrating this. The idea being there are broadly two types of evaluations, evaluating a theme and evaluating a product.

Theme is the abstract idea and product is the implementable solution of the theme. In some cases, there aren’t many ways of implementing the theme and in those cases, the conclusions drawn from the operationalized product can be generalized to the theme. For example, reservations for women in politics is a theme. The operational models aren’t complex. Hence, the results from such evaluations can be generalized to the theme of reservations for women.

On the other hand, teacher training is a theme. There are various possible ways to operationalize this theme. Hence, any evaluation on a teacher training is essentially an evaluation of that particular form of teacher training and the results from this can’t be generalized to the whole theme of teacher training.

Four points are to be made in this regard.

One, technology in education is similar to the above where there are multiple ways to operationalize this theme. Any evaluation of technology in education is an evaluation of that particular form of product and can’t be generalized to the whole theme of technology in education. There are studies which say that there is no effect of technology while there are some which say that there is a big effect. The point being, all of this depends on the way the product is built and is much of the engineering and pedagogical aspect and this is the major constraint.

Two, there is little scope for identifying successful transferable mechanisms that are independent of technology. More than evaluations, researchers tend to look at mechanisms that led to the results which can be used in other contexts. The problem with tech tools being, the broad aspects necessary for a successful tool are known and the major constraint is making them happen. Thus, it is difficult to identify mechanisms independent of technology.

Three, learning through technology tools requires self-motivation and perseverance. Thus, when these tools are evaluated, motivated students might be getting larger gains while an average student mightn’t be. Due to this, the average effect might turn out to be zero. Hence, carrying out an heterogeneous analysis (analyzing variance in scores) is important in evaluations involving technology based learning tools.

Four, the concepts taught through technology. There are some concepts which are relatively easier to be taught. These just require attention for some dedicated time. In contexts, where this personalized attention isn’t available, technology can play a huge role. However, the same technological tool or product may not be effective for teaching higher level concepts which includes complexity.

Overall, there is need to focus on learning aspects, have a vision for technology in education - outlining purpose of technology and ensuring participation from all stakeholders, instead of a piece meal approach, and more than all focus on the content and pedagogy which is the major constraint as of now in today in making tech based products work.

On that note, in the next post, this blog would discuss the aspects of pedagogy that need attention.

Stay tuned and do subscribe to the blog.

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