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Can computers really save our schools?

The COVID-19 pandemic has showed the vast chasm in the access to education during the lockdown, mainly because students from poor communities lacked access to online learning programmes. Mark Potterton assesses the value of technology in education but warns that its value needs to carefully planned into the curriculum. He also offers practical suggestions on what schools need to do to protect their ICT infrastructure.

It is estimated that the interruption caused to education around the world by COVID-19 will set most children back by years. In April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reported that nine out of 10 of the world’s children were out of school. The challenge around the world was how to ensure that the effect on children’s learning was minimised.

The disruption of schooling by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 provides some clues as to what the effect of Covid-19 might be. Researchers at Tulane University tracked children when they returned to New Orleans and found that it took two years for them to catch up with their schoolwork. They also argued that it is likely that the negative effect was worse for low income and African American children. Interrupted learning wasn’t the only problem. The economic effect and emotional trauma that the children had suffered played a role in their ability to learn effectively.

Researchers at Tulane University tracked children when they returned to New Orleans and found that it took two years for them to catch up with their schoolwork.

During the pandemic, South African children have had their schooling disrupted for about five months. Schools and families with access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) have been able to mitigate the interruption. But this has not been the case for the majority of the country’s learners. This is the kind of crisis where almost every school in the country wishes that it could distribute tablets to its students or at the least fill a room with state-of-the-art computers boasting the latest technology.

The failures of Operation Phakisa

About six years ago government launched “Operation Phakisa.” ICT was heralded as being able to rocket pupils into the 21st century by providing them with the necessary skills to perform in the modern workplace, and computers were the means of becoming part of the global information world. This rollout has been very slow and bedevilled with stories of corruption.

Unfortunately, “Operation Phakisa”didn’t seem to deliver the goods – well not to the children anyway; and school closures have underlined the digital divide in our country, where the majority have certainly not enjoyed the benefits of online learning during this time. In July, Daily Maverick reported that the Special Investigative Unit is investigating an Eastern Cape tender of R538 million being investigated by the SIU. Incidentally, this agreement would allow the Department of Education to lease tablets to Matric learners, at a cost of R10,000 per learner.

Larry Cuban, a renowned Stanford education professor, in his book Oversold and Underused cautions against the uninformed adoption of ICT in schools. In his systematic study of the use of computers across the curriculum (before COVID-19), he found that computers had almost no impact on the way teachers teach and did little to enhance the curriculum. He argued that they are often underutilised in schools and teach very basic things.

His systematic study of the use of computers across the curriculum … found that computers had almost no impact on the way teachers teach and did little to enhance the curriculum.

Cuban argues that in most situations, teachers can do far more to promote learning than computers can. A 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed no appreciable improvements in pupils’ achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT. The most disappointing finding was that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils.

Setting up for ICT success

Buying tablets or setting up a computer centre and all the peripherals that go with it is a big investment. So, before government continues with these investments it needs to think far more carefully about how ICT will be used in school and what value they will add.

government … needs to think far more carefully about how ICT will be used in school and what value they will add.

The pandemic has forced us to increasingly turn to technology and many teachers have discovered the potential of ICT and how it can be used to future-proof education against other disruption. Here are some elements that schools and education departments should take into account:

Honesty: Make sure that the best deals for tablets and computers are secured with nothing being illegally siphoned off.

Electricity: Ensure that there is a reliable power source to keep the computers going. Be prepared for load shedding and the power surges that can irreparably damage technological equipment.

Security: Make sure the tablets or computers cannot easily be stolen and these mobile devices need to be insured.

Sustainability: See that there is enough money to keep computer programmes up-to-date and the computers working.

Applicability: Make sure that the programmes are relevant to, and truly enhance, the curriculum.

Utility: Ensure that the computers are always fully operational and well used, and that teachers know how to use them.

Creativity: Establish whether the computers are really getting children thinking and fostering creativity.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.