By Andrew Ngozo
Education - Then and Now: The Pros and Cons
From teaching mathematics in Ghana to built educational technology in Uganda and observed technology use in townships in South Africa, Kentaro Toyama, WK Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, former lecturer at Ghana’s Ashesi University, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, believes that, if anyone has ever looked over the shoulder of a child with a smartphone, they will see someone who is not using educational apps but playing video games.
The reality, he explains, is that digital tools in education require a lot of effort to use well. “This is effort from students, parents, educators and administrators. Indeed, more often than not, these gadgets are a distraction and not an aid to learning. As such I am of the opinion that the older generation had it much better. They could learn without ‘blingy’ graphics and cognitive
candy to detract from a nutritious education,” says Professor Toyama.
Granted, every parent in the developing world, and anywhere on the planet, wants a good education for their offspring. However, it is common knowledge that good education is neither easy nor cheap to get. With information and communications technologies abounding, one may then argue that a good education is surely but a click away. Professor Toyama differs: “There are no technology shortcuts to good education. For underperforming primary and secondary schools or those with limited resources, efforts to improve education should focus, almost exclusively, on better teachers and stronger administrations. Information technology, if used at all, should be targeted for certain, specific uses or limited to well-funded schools whose fundamentals are not in question,” he argues.
To back these assertions, there are four different lines of evidence that it is incredibly difficult to have a positive educational impact with computers – including the fact that the history of electronic technologies in schools is fraught with failures, that computers are no exception, and that rigorous studies have shown this. Technology, at best, only amplifies the pedagogical capacity of educational systems; it can make good schools better, but it makes bad schools worse. Moreover, technology has a huge opportunity cost in the form of more effective, non-technology interventions and many good school systems excel without much technology.
“The inescapable conclusion, then, is that significant investments in computers, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets in education are neither necessary nor warranted for most school systems,” Professor Toyama contends. In particular, the attempt to use technology to fix underperforming classrooms (or to replace non-existent ones) is futile. And, for all but wealthy and well-run schools, one-to-one computer programmes cannot be recommended as a good method.
A number of reasons can be cited to explain why technology is not a substitute for good teaching. According to Professor Toyama, quality primary and secondary education is a multiyear commitment “whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest”. Though children are naturally curious, they nevertheless require ongoing guidance and encouragement to persevere in the ascent. Caring supervision from human teachers, parents and mentors is the only known way of generating motivation for the hours of a school day, not to mention 8 to 12 school years. While computers may appear to engage students, which is exactly their appeal, the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst. Therefore, he says, no technology, today or in the foreseeable future, can provide the tailored attention, encouragement, inspiration, or even the occasional scolding, for students that dedicated adults can, and attempts to use technology as a stand-in for capable instruction are thus bound to fail.