Tech the panacea for education?

My dad often reminds me that he belongs to the calculator era, I to the computer era and my children to the era of tablets, smartphones and wearable gadgets. Technology has come a long way and defines our lives in a big way — from Facebook to Whatsapp, to applications of technology such as online learning, e-commerce, mobile wallets, etc. According to a report by Common Sense Media (a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents and educators navigate the world of media and technology) cited by a CNN article, teens in the United States spend about 9 hours every day using media.

Not surprisingly, technology has also found its way into the education space in a big way. Khan Academy, Coursera and other online learning portals are some examples, which provide access to the best Professors to anyone and everybody, thus democratizing education. In India, various models are being developed to deliver education, most notably to the poor in remote areas through tablets. Laptops are a commonplace in classes these days to take notes. Asynchronous learning offers the flexibility to students (and to teachers like yours truly) to learn (and teach, respectively) when and where they want. Undoubtedly, technology is going to revolutionize the way we think of education.

However, it is quite unfortunate that like in other fields, we think that technology is the panacea to all the ills and just by integrating technology we would have solved the problems in the education space. Let us take some real life examples.

Asynchronous learning

It is great to have the freedom to learn when and where one wants to, especially when you are being taught by the best in the world, aka Coursera. However, when applied to a curriculum specified context, this can lead to some very undesirable consequences. A prescribed curriculum eliminates the freedom to learn what one wants to. Due to the necessity of writing the end term exam, there is a time constraint. Both of these could significantly reduce the passion to learn and this could have serious impacts on learning outcomes. As per a recent article in the Times, at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (an online charter school based in Ohio, USA), for every 100 students who graduated on time, 80 students failed to graduate. The article further goes on to say that the average graduation rate at online schools is a mere 40%. This is when the national on-time graduation rate has hit a record high of 82%. Online learning could also lead to a loss of socializing skills.

Use of laptops in classrooms

It is thought that laptops do wonders for learning. Notes cannot be lost. More so, they offer various advantages from a sharing and collaboration point of view. However, a recent randomized trial study at the US Military Academy titled “The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance” found evidence to the contrary. Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18% of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers.

The biggest disadvantage of tech

While the above are issues that one needs to be careful about, there are other issues of much greater importance with the use of technology. Most people mistake education with literacy. They equate education to the delivery and the learning of the ABCs, the 123s, the calculus, demand and supply, etc. Technology can be very useful in delivering these, ie, in delivering content. However, a child, especially in the formative years and even later, needs to dream, visualize, think, search, reflect, etc. The problem with tech (just as in conventional education) is that it gives us the impression that this is the complete menu. (For those interested to learn more about this, read “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”) That tends to limit a child’s horizon about the whole gamut of options and opportunities out there, which then leads to lower levels of learning. Apparently, Steve Jobs found his zing when he met with a hermit in India, not in some business / tech school.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, technology is a great lever in delivering literacy especially to the poor in remote areas. However, one needs to guard against the supposed all-encompassing power of technology to deliver education. For that, you need real men (and women), in flesh and blood.

PS: This post was originally posted on May 28, 2016

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