A new landscape in education: Educational technology


January 11, 2015
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A public discourse about the transformative influence that technology can play in the classroom has yet to generate enough steam in the political life of Canadians. With a federal election scheduled for May the 2nd – and the simmering discontent about the education system always seemingly nearing a tipping point – candidates will offer a multitude of perspectives.

Their political rhetoric will be united in subtly shunning some of modernity’s insights on how to rectify a watered-down and uninventive curriculum, by not investigating them: educational technology.

While politicians are scurrying to stockpile votes and shore up political capital to advance their careers, a proactive citizenry must actively engage in grass-roots conversation that will inspire real-life solutions. The election season provides us with the perfect opportunity to put the spotlight back on high tech learning, and refocus our energies on retooling the education system with a worthwhile experiment.

The digital transformation is resulting in a sweeping paradigm shift that influences all strata of the social spectrum, especially Generation Z or the Facebook generation. They exhibit similar tastes and utilize the same modes of communication – they Tweet, are informed through Reddit, photostream on Flickr and upload their videos on YouTube.

Their penchant for what is trending and their undying love for rapid speed is indicative of a monoculture that technology has proliferated. This glimpse into the psyche of the Twitter generation provides critical insight, as there cannot be a paradoxical disconnect between the sociocultural reality of students and their academic life.

Rolling-out a new curriculum requires synthesizing the two approaches to education – the “traditionalist” in one corner, and the “modernists” in the other- and minimize the wedge between them with a pragmatic solution. Bridging the divide will require compromise, and would ideally be based around research-based studies that delineates what has worked for this current generation of students, and what has not. Unfortunately, because it has only recently etched its footprint in the sands of the public psyche, research into educational technology are in its infant stages, and are thus not as compelling. Government is not being given correct IT Consulting to see the educational technology that exists to lessen costs and improve education.

Dialogue must thus be rooted in the sociocultural arguments that each side puts forward, and reconciling them is the best way to move forward. Driving an educational makeover requires a bipartisan outlook, and there must be an open acknowledgment that exists on both sides of the aisle. Before moving forward, we need to assert that there is no magic bullet to solve the education question – but both sides have their meritorious points that need to be considered.

The author believes that the best way to elucidate and clarify the debate is to construct a fictional dialogue, albeit one that is backed in real positions that have been put forward by their respective advocates. We will attempt to emulate an organic discussion to establish clear lines between the sides, and see them from their point of view. The “modern” education advocate will will be “ME,” while the traditionalist proponents will be represented as “TR.”

ME: Let’s start with the obvious – students will have the whole library at their fingertips. Students are given the chance to flip through thousands of e-books and online articles, at blistering speeds, without having to leave the comfort of their seats. Everything will be a click away. No longer will they have to be frustrated by books that are not available or are currently being borrowed.

TR: Everything being a click away is problematic because turbocharged search queries and digital devices breed laziness, exacerbate short attention spans and will make students more impatient. Students have to struggle for a worthwhile endeavor. The pursuit of knowledge ought to be a bit onerous and demanding, and cannot be fully nurtured without physical books.

ME: Struggle? Onerous? Isn’t education supposed to accommodate students and give them all the necessary resources and tools to learn? What is a more expansive and can provide better opportunities to access millions of volumes of reading materials than the digital world? Our generation has the ability to do the unimaginable by bringing all of the world’s great books, literatures and learning materials under one umbrella. It sounds magical, yet it’s very real and can be attained.

TE: There is no arguing the fact that the digital world holds what no library in the world holds. It even has the potential to hold all the books in the world. But while students are able to access great resources in the digital world, everything will become less meaningful if it comes too easily and it doesn’t build as much character. Integrating digital technology en masse, will undercut efforts to instill in students the need to engage in active agency. By greatly undercutting the library from the everyday student experience, you are taking away an important element of the academic formula.

The library culture is an important element of education. Studies have shown that just being around books actually energized one’s learning faculties, and their absence weakens the intellectual development of students. Substituting a real library for a digital one on your iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab is not the same thing, and we should not treat it like it is.

ME: To say that students will abandon library if we standardize digital technologies, like the iPad or Galaxy Tab, is misrepresenting the future reality. It aims to scare people away from their adoption. High tech learning is not meant to replace libraries but to supplement them and coexist with what’s already in place. Introducing digital technologies on a wide-scale will not be a “gateway” to take over the hallmarks of schools, such as libraries, teachers, educators, cooperative learning and so forth, which fuels unfounded speculation. Its after-effects are not as extreme or extensive as you’ve portrayed them to be.

TE: While this may be far-fetched, a critical component of education is being lost with a full-scale adoption of digital technologies. Was it not far-fetched that just 10 years ago, that social media medium and SMS were going to overtake human contact as the main modality to communicate? It was, but it’s done exactly that.

The thing with technology is that nothing seems to be beyond its power of reach, and nothing seems to be impossible for it to do – or at least what its advocates are projecting. Incredible speed is its calling card. It has already changed our lives in countless ways, why should we not fear for what it may do 20 or 30 years down the line? It could very well replace teachers, and cut-into social interaction between classmates and teachers.

ME: Again, it’s fallacious to make fanciful speculation and justify it by saying that since technology is making headways into our everyday lives and has great potential, that it will replace everything as we know it. Innovation in technology will not replace teachers. It’s irrational to even think so. We need teachers to guide and clarify the coursework for our students. Students need guidance, and while technological integration will make things more accessible for everyone, it will not affect the core of education, the backbone of which are teachers, class discussions, debates in the classroom etc.

TE: To be dismissive of the possibilities is precisely what we should fear. Technology, in a short time span, has made unbelievable inroads into other most sacred and revered institutions. It can easily replace teachers and I can even envisage how it will be rationalized and sold to the public. The selling point would revolve around reducing taxes – because paying teachers, constructing school buildings, and so forth – would no longer be necessary. Another selling point would be that virtual schooling would unify everyone under one standardized curriculum thus eliminating discrepancies in the education system (i.e. same tests, same lectures, same syllabus etc.). These political slogans would work very well. This propagation of sameness is already being propagated, and has happened in different areas of society. Why not in schools? It’s whole point is to minimize human interaction. Is all of this this really beyond the realm of possibility? Aren’t online courses, and even online universities become a popular, as we speak?

ME: Technology, while it has affected human interaction on some level, can never fully do-away with it. It’s like saying soon technology will take over in the private sphere, the family life and home, and soon start parenting kids. There are just some things that we will never, and should never, accept. And yes, online courses are becoming popular for convenience purposes, but premier education are still taught in universities lecture halls, and classrooms.

Another thing that we haven’t brought up is how beneficial digital technologies would be to our environment. How the whole concept of green or eco-friendly schooling will be actualized under this digital rubric.

HT: I agree that this is an immediate benefit of digital technology, is that less paper will be used in our schools and hence fewer trees will be cut down. But digital technologies, although being carbon-neutral, will require power plants to generate electricity, which adversely affects the environment. So it’s not pollution-free as sometimes advertised.

On another note, it was earlier mentioned that the digital devices like iPad or Galaxy Tabs would greatly enhance learning but studies have shown that most students use tablets for gaming. Do you think it is wise that students should have both games and other non-school distractions on the same device that holds their educational work?

ME: With all technology-based platforms, restrictions can be implemented through firewalls. Programmers can ensure that these devices will be solely education in nature, so students will not get up in diversionary activities. Although we understand that there will always be jailbreaking and unlocking softwares out there to disrupt these programmed restrictions.

No single movement can remedy all of society’s ailments. A prescriptive solution is rooted in that movement’s ability to fine-tune its stance if lacks sufficient answers when confronted with current realities. Traditional education proponents must accept that there is merit to those who want to modify the current curriculum and integrate technology-based solutions that will rectify current shortcomings.

On the other hand, letting technology reign freely without checks and balances will have devastating, and perhaps, irreversible results. It is important that in the Canadian education sector, that they delineate what is the best for the teachers and the students and not ideology-based solutions that are ironclad and rigid in nature. Education should not be an arena where dogma takes over, it’s too important for petty political talk.

Summary

Pressure, from various quarters, is building to kick into higher gear the educational technology project. Being dubbed the future of education, various pundits have emphasized that if we do not embrace this initiative, we risk the likelihood that our students will be left behind. Traditionalist educators are the main impediment to a full-fledge embrace of educational technology learning. They point to a number of grievances they have, and why a slow transition into the curriculum is better than a quick one.

This article looks at both their arguments and formulates a dialogue that highlights the strong and weak points of their positions. In the end, reconciling rather than embracing one side to the detriment of the other is the only option forward. The Canadian education system needs to be a leader in innovative learning, and intermixing a technology-based learning platform with the timeless traditional education principles is the only way to move out of this stalemate and move towards educational technology.

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