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Educational Technology - the screen is brighter on the other side

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christina's picture

student ipad 014

Image credit: Brad Flickinger

The smell of old textbooks and chalk dust, the sound of ruffling papers and screeching blackboards  as children mimic the scribbles ahead of them into  their own workbooks.  This picture begins to look almost entirely different as you step across the digital divide into the modern classroom, where the traditional educational setting is being replaced by interactive white boards, tablets and a much easier "copy and paste" function. Despite the advantages of educational technologies, South Africa may not be ready to make the shift and accept Edtech as an overall solution, due to the large disparity between the privileged few who have access to these resources and those who do not. 

Educational technology is increasingly becoming more of a priority internationally and nationally. “Children and young people are growing up in a vastly changing context. No aspect of their lives is untouched by the digital era which is transforming how they live, relate and learn”1. Educational technology or Edtech is the study and practice of facilitating e-learning by creating and using appropriate technologies to further an educational agenda.

The world is evolving so rapidly that the skills that were taught yesterday are quickly becoming redundant today and in agreement with Lisa Nielsen, Director of Digital Literacy and Citizenship in New York City, "We must prepare our students and teachers for the world of today, not the classrooms of yesterday." Therefore, there is a great need to reinvent school curriculums and implement new technologies and teaching strategies to equip today's learners with these new skills.

Besides the fact that new sets of skills are in demand, it is also important to improve the universal skills required for any education such as reading, writing, mathematics and problem-solving etc; since technology is also able to facilitate and improve these proficiencies. In fact, educational technology opens a myriad of educational opportunities, many of which will be the focus of following blog posts.  

Some of the benefits of educational technology include:

  • Better simulations and models - digital simulations and models can help teachers explain concepts that are too big or too small, or processes that happen too quickly or too slowly to demonstrate in a physical classroom. For example, why mixing two chemicals is dangerous, or how an electrical current passes through a circuit. The Concord Consortium develops open source software for teachers to model scientific and mathematical concepts.
  • Global learning - the internet allows for wider participation which can be used as a platform for long distance learning. facilitates language lessons online with video conferencing.
  • Virtual manipulatives - allow students to play with the idea of numbers and what numbers mean practically. For example, "If I change this value and I move things around, what happens?". The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives has an extensive database of these tools.
  • More efficient assessment - technology allows teachers to assess students on a digital platform, which is easier to mark and provide feedback. Digital information is easier to manipulate and analyse; therefore it saves time and provides teachers with a more efficient means of assessing students and the success of their own teaching strategies. Loops is a program that helps teachers collect real-time assessment data from their students.
  • Multimedia and storytelling - using multimedia to communicate ideas and information assists students in understanding complicated concepts by engaging with other senses such as sight and sound.
  • E-books - are a great educational resource that is cost efficient and practical. More electronic textbook vendors (open source and commercial) are launching and these provide the opportunity for learners to carry only one tablet around, rather than 5 heavy textbooks. CourseSmart is an e-textbook vendor that rents their content.
  • Easily accessible course materials - in addition to having electronic textbooks, educators are also able to use the internet to post course material online, which allows students to access the material easily and from any location. Moodle is a free Course Management System (CMS) that educators can use to create effective online learning sites.
  • Subjects are made easier to learn  with the development of new educational software that have been researched and specifically designed to meet the aims and study objectives of a particular subject.

It is evident that educational technology has a lot of potential in improving the educational goals of modern society. However, these benefits are not easy to come by. An infrastructure needs to be put in place to accommodate educational technology, before any of these benefits can be seen to make any significant difference in the education sector. Although, educational technology has this great potential, it is much more complicated to put these ideas into practice, especially in a South African context.

South Africa is a divided nation with the most unequal wealth distribution in the world. It is more likely that educational technology will be widely implemented in wealthy private schools that can afford these technologies and can afford to train teachers to use these technologies strategically. However, this will only serve to widen the existing social gap and the digital divide.

It is really the underprivileged, public schools that need access to the opportunities offered by educational technologies. This is a difficult task, and since government finds it a daunting task to deliver text books to schools, there seems to be little hope that they will ever be able to deliver iPads or other mobile technologies either. It is an unfortunate reality that the socio-economic status of a school and its students may act as a barrier to their access to a new means of learning. However, there are strategies that could work to extend these experiences to less wealthy public schools, by bringing mobile learning to the forefront, for example. These and other strategies will be discussed in future blog posts, as I evaluate different educational technology initiatives, resources and how these can be use to tackle important educational issues in the South African context.