Building Education with ICT
Building a house
Suppose you were told that you were going to be on a team to build someone a brand new house. Consider it for a moment. You might be excited. A new house for someone to live in! Think of everything that the residents will be able to do in and around their house. Think of the stability and protection that house would provide. Think of the satisfaction related to helping build that house. It would be great!
Now, imagine that you go to a meeting to discuss launching the building project. To your surprise, you find yourself listening to a sales pitch about a new set of power tools. “Okay,” you think to yourself, “I suppose that some good tools are important. I’ll listen.” The sales pitch is great, and your whole team finds itself with access to all the latest power tools. They have interchangeable parts that make them multi-purposed and really powerful. Your boss even makes a rousing speech about the wonderful housing you’ll be able to make now that you have the latest power tools at your disposal.
Finally, to your dismay, you are dismissed with grins and high-fives. Dismayed because there was never any discussion about the house and never a blueprint to be seen. Nor was there ever any instruction about the best ways to use the tools. But boy, are people excited about the tools. You try to talk to others about the problem of needing a plan, a coordinator, a timeline, some accountability, and all the materials. But everyone else just assures you that since people have been building houses for so long we’ll do just fine!
Houses and Technology in the Classroom
Well, to some extent, this is a depiction of the current state of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education. It is, to be honest, perhaps too negative of an assessment. Yet there are many analogies that can be found in the use of ICT in education across the globe with the ‘power tool’ scenario painted above.
Consider a quote from ICTs for Education. A Reference Handbook. Part 2: Analytical Review by Haddad, W. (2008b) “To "tech" or not to "tech" education is, … not the question. The real question is how to harvest the power of ICTs to make education relevant, responsive, and effective for school settings and lifelong learning" (p 7). Haddad’s conclusion: we must have power tools! There is just no other conceivable way to make houses.
Contrast Haddad’s view with Venezky’s conclusion in his ICT in Innovative Schools report (n.d.): “this study offers little to suggest that ICT acts primarily as the instigator of educational change" (p 11). Well, if ICT doesn’t change things, what does? According to Venezky, you need proper curricula, strong leadership, appropriate pedagogical models, peer support. In other words, a strong plan, good coordinators, accountability and a good vision of the house you’re building.
Unfortunately, there is little data available to date that can show us if the educational processes with ICT tools are globally more effective than standard models. We are still not able to conclude that using power tools always ensure better and stronger houses built more quickly. This does not mean that these powerful tools are not worthwhile. Instead, we see that these tools are supporting efforts for change and attempts to re-envision what education could or should be.
Davis (2015) points to some studies that show that mathematical skills may be enhanced with the use of specific tutorial software and we do see a significant and increasing trend in the acceptance of ICT in the classroom (Johnson, et al., 2015). In addition, the steady rise of online courses and virtual schools in North America is making ICT infrastructures essentially imperative for institutions in that region, whether they are proven to be effective or not.
With all of these caveats in mind, it is worthwhile to take a look at some of the trends in ICT taking place in the world. As we do, we’ll try to ascertain what lessons can be learned from all the efforts so far.
When reading reports about ICT around the world (see Fritschi (2012); Haddad (2008a-c); Hylén (2012); Isaacs (2012); Lugo (2012); So (2012); West (2012)), several overarching realities become startlingly apparent. The differences in worldview and national development alter the state of education in general, and greatly change the way ICT tools have been used.
To illustrate, let’s compare the state of ICT in North America (Fritschi, 2012) and that of Africa and the Middle East (Shafika, 2012). What we see in North America is a thorough penetration of mobile technologies (e.g. cell phones) built around an already robust and ubiquitous internet backbone. As a result, the growth of Bring Your Own Device or 1:1 laptop initiatives is notable. Here, the call is for new pedagogical approaches such as adaptive learning technologies (Johnson, et al., 2015). Moreover, the concerns being discussed relate to whether or not ICT is helping or hurting educational gaps along demographic lines.
Consider the differences between ‘stereotypical’ houses that would be constructed in Africa and North America, and you’ll start to understand how vast the comparison in educational ICT use is as well. In Africa, the infrastructures are much spottier. Mobile technologies are much more pervasive than other wire-based communication platforms (like wired internet), which are unreliable and only sparsely developed. As such, Shafika (2012) shows us educational efforts to teach math through text-based cell phone curricula. Even with this kind of effort, they are still struggling against deeply engrained gender and socioeconomic divides that prevent complete penetration into all African households. Thankfully, despite all of the barriers, the MoMath Project is seeing some success. So not all is lost.
What lessons are to be learned from these contrasting lands? First, it becomes clear that ICT power tools are NOT a one-size-fits-all panacea for global educational problems. Without changes in cultural norms, worldviews, infrastructures and national educational standards, even the most thorough roll-out of a 1:1 iPad initiative in Africa would surely fail in every significant measure. These are tools, after all, not plans or visions. A tool is only useful when the person (or institution) using it is skilled, empowered and equipped.
Second, we must understand that not everyone is trying to build the same house. The goals of education are not globally mandated; the desired outcomes of education vary nation by nation. We can acknowledge that it is good that the UN wants Education For All. But until the nations, cities and villages of the world align with that ambition, ICT power tools won’t change the current realities and inequalities that exist.
Third, we must avoid the buy-now-get-vision-later, techno-envy driven decisions that can be seen in almost every country. Even in the USA recent failures in the Los Angeles school district reminds us that we are not immune from poorly driven decision making on embarrassingly large scales (Chambers, 2014; Lapowsky, 2015). Richardson, Flora & Bathon (2013) remind us that leadership and vision are of crucial importance when attempting to implement or sustain ICT innitiatives.
Positive and Powerful Tools
We have much to learn from our failures, both local and global. Nevertheless, we also have inspiring and useful success stories to consider as well. Sometimes the power tools really are effective at trimming excess, empowering innovation, and more. There are many insightful and inspiring descriptive reports (e.g. Kolb, 2011; Murphy, et al., 2014; Staker, 2011; Fritschi & Wolf, 2012) that highlight the use of ICT in general, or those of Mobile Technologies (MT) in the classroom more particularly. We’ll end this review of ICT by looking at some of the more encouraging aspects of ICT in North America.
First, the number of Educational Management Information Systems and integrated Learning Management Systems are substantial and of high quality (Haddad, 2008c). These systems are a definite boon for schools that have stable internet and have found ways to sustain the integration of internal networking infrastructures. Systems that automate the ability to store, aggregate, display and communicate student information easily and quickly are powerful tools for communication and administration.
Second, the generally broad availability of the internet unlocks on exponentially increasing amount of information for students and teachers alike. Online learning communities, Massive Open Online Courses, virtual field trips, educational video libraries and more are all easily available to anyone willing to look for them. These tools are usable by teachers of any philosophical bent; from the most formal lecturer to the most exploratory constructivist. There is virtually no limit to the kind or amount of information available.
Third, the development of new and innovative applications (apps) for computers and mobile devices are quickly unlocking powerful means for students to analyze content, synthesize or create materials, and collaborate with others. Both Kolb (2011) and Murphy, et al. (2014) give thorough detailed analysis for the many ways ICT is being used in the classroom. It is simply not possible to detail the breadth and depth of these tools in a condensed report of this kind, not to mention that any attempt of summary is bound to be outdated in very short-order because of the rapid fluidity of services and apps being developed (and deprecated).
What Are We Building?
After considering just a small fraction of the information available regarding ICT in education, it becomes clear that we should proceed with thoughtful purpose. What is the goal of our education? What houses are we building for our children and our nation? To slip ICT into the ‘must-have’ list of tools simply because we want 21st century housing leaves those questions unanswered. Without clear vision, strong training, and careful evaluation of our adventures in the use of ICT, we will simply be chasing the winds of change. But that is not the only possible outcome.
Our challenge is to rise above changing for change’s sake. Let us consider how we can use these powerful tools to solve difficult problems in our classrooms. Let us find new ways to empower students to own their learning through thoughtful uses of collaboration or LMS systems. Let us embrace the accessibility of information through mobile technologies to minimize time spent on information transfer and maximize concept exploration and application. Let us find ways to foster responsibility, a love of beauty, and a desire for Truth with every tool at our disposal. And Let’s do these things so that our children have beautiful, well-balanced, robust hearts, minds and souls to live in!