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Technology In Education: Some Issues – OpEd

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Technology touches every aspect of society and it is changing dramatically. Education, a very important and indispensable part of society, has also been tapped by new innovations and discoveries.

Like all other areas, urban areas are influenced to a greater extent than rural in this field too. Much more could have been done to bring the revolution in learning process in rural areas of India. The real question is: Have we ever taken a second to wonder if it’s leaving a positive impact on our work, or is it just that we have been relying too much on it so that we’ve become habitual to it, ignoring the direction of its impact?

For instance, is technology causing education to improve over time or have we just been catching up with the trend of educational technology. Earlier, technology in education was a debatable topic amongst the society. Everyone had their own views on modernizing education and making it technology aided. There were a huge number of positives and negatives to education technology. But, gradually as technology was embraced by the educational institutes, they realized the importance of technology in education. Its positives outnumbered the negatives and now, with technology, education has taken a whole new meaning that it leaves us with no doubt that our educational system has been transformed owing to the ever-advancing technology. Technology and education are a great combination if used together with a right reason and vision.

Technology in Education

The rapid and constant pace of change in technology is creating both opportunities and challenges for schools. The opportunities include greater access to rich, multimedia content, the increasing use of online course taking to offer classes not otherwise available, the widespread availability of mobile computing devices that can access the Internet, the expanding role of social networking tools for learning and professional development, and the growing interest in the power of digital games for more personalized learning.

At the same time, the pace of change creates significant challenges for schools. To begin with, schools are forever playing technological catch up as digital innovations emerge that require upgrading schools’ technological infrastructure and building new professional development programs. Some schools have been adept at keeping up with those changes, while many others are falling far behind, creating a digital divide based largely on the quality of educational technology, rather than just simple access to the Internet.

The rapid evolution of educational technologies also makes it increasingly challenging to determine what works best. Longitudinal research that takes years to do risks being irrelevant by the time it is completed because of shifts in the technological landscape. iPad, for instance, became popular in schools soon after it was released and well before any research could be conducted about its educational effectiveness. Following is a look at some of the hottest issues and trends in educational technology and how they are creating opportunities and challenges for K-12 schools.

Technology Infrastructure

Recognizing the increasing importance of technology in education and employment, the Indian government has a scheme that grants every public school district, regardless of the number of schools it contains, Rs. 5 million every year to invest in educational technology. Districts have to submit a proposal in order to be granted the funds. The government estimates that 22 percent of primary schools have a computer, but the reality is that many schools aren’t using the equipment they have. Moreover, students at a various government school know their school has a computer centre, but none of them can remember using it. In India’s booming private education sector, technology is being adopted much more quickly. As many as 400 educational technology firms have launched in the past 10 years, yet the quality and longevity of their products is far from uniform.

Schools and districts continue to battle to keep pace with ever increasing demands to upgrade their technological infrastructure. But the demands themselves have changed during the past decade, from a focus on simply gaining connectivity to finding enough bandwidth to run more complex applications in classrooms such as, for example, streaming audio and video.

The majority of schools across the country have Internet connectivity. Far fewer, however, were able to successfully meet the need for higher speed access, because of demand as one reason. The Government should subsidize school purchases for Internet connectivity, to allow schools to gain connectivity via dark fiber networks, among other reforms. The stated theory behind the reform was that by allowing more options for connectivity, schools could in theory gain more bandwidth while at the same time drive down cost because increasing the speed of fiber networks generally involves a one-time upgrade rather than consistent, periodic expenditures to secure more bandwidth via other connections. Yet even before all this action had a chance to take effect, it appeared some schools were already making progress meeting infrastructure demands on their own.

Restrictive Internet filtering was the top student complaint about Web use in the recent past, whereas five years earlier, the chief complaint was connectivity speed. And anecdotal evidence suggests more schools are providing, or at least considering providing, high-speed wireless networks on their campuses, and reaping savings in some cases by allowing students who own their own laptops, notebook or mobile phones to use those devices rather than purchase new school hardware.

But because technology infrastructure needs vary widely between districts, and indeed between schools within the same districts, the government’s perceived desire to focus its efforts as a facilitator of infrastructure access has become somewhat controversial among education technology advocates. This was especially evident when it became clear that the Enhancing Education through Technology program was in jeopardy. Huge differences in technology infrastructure remain among schools. No doubt, school infrastructure is improving, but many openly doubt that capability will catch up with demand, since new digital tools used in education are requiring ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth.

Research

While there is much on-going research on new technologies and their effects on teaching and learning, there is little rigorous, large-scale data that makes for solid research, education experts say. The vast majority of the studies available are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology, raising questions of the research’s validity and objectivity. In addition, the kinds of studies that produce meaningful data often take several years to complete—a timeline that lags far behind the fast pace of emerging and evolving technologies.

For example, it is difficult to pinpoint empirical data to support the case for mobile learning in schools—a trend that educators have been exploring for several years now—let alone data to support even newer technologies such as tablet computers like the iPad. The studies that do look at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students that educators and policymakers would like to see.

However, there are a handful of large-scale studies that do point to trends and observations in the education technology field. Majority of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.

A meta-analysis of more than a thousand studies regarding online learning concluded that students in online-only instruction performed modestly better than their face-to-face counterparts, and that students in classes that blended both face-to-face and online elements performed better than those in solely online or face-to-face instruction. However, the researchers cautioned that the vast majority of the studies in the meta-analysis were from students in higher education, and as a result, the conclusions drawn may not be applicable to K-12 education.

The Speak Up survey, which is conducted annually by Project Tomorrow—a nonprofit research organization—and Blackboard, Inc., surveyed nearly 300,000 students, parents, teachers, and other educators about their views on technology in education. Findings from the 2010 survey found an increased interest from educators in mobile learning, as well as an increase in the number of students who own mobile devices such as smart phones, regardless of economic or demographic differences. The survey also found an increased interest in online learning and blended learning opportunities, as well as electronic textbooks.
While these studies represent some of the more large-scale research conducted in this field, education advocates emphasize the need for a wider range of well-researched, longitudinal, and ethically sound data on education technology.
E-Learning

Online learning in many forms is on the rise in schools of all types across the country. Students in many parts of the country now have a long list of choices when it comes to e-learning. The menu of options often includes full-time, for-profit virtual schools; state-sponsored virtual schools; supplemental online learning courses offered by brick-and-mortar schools; and charter schools presenting a hybrid option of digital material coupled with face-to-face instruction.

Options for full-time virtual schools are growing. Students from kindergarten through high school can seek out online schooling opportunities, which usually include virtual teachers and a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online learning. These schools are starting to focus more on the issue of socialization for their students and some are incorporating more face-to-face instruction into their array of services to allow for student interaction both online and in person. They’re forming clubs, holding proms, and creating school newspapers.

But full-time virtual schools also face the reality that for many students with two parents working outside the home such a scenario is not an option. Such students often cannot tap into full-time online schools for that reason, and virtual school providers acknowledge that their version of education works best, particularly in the lower grades, when an adult is present to assist.

In addition to courses that offer an online instructor, some researchers say students have had the most success with hybrid or blended education. That can mean that students use digital content with a face-to-face instructor, or an online instructor and an in-class teacher may work together to assist students. Hybrid charter schools, which use mostly digital curriculum with face-to-face support and instruction—sometimes even combined with an online teacher—are gaining a foothold in K-12.

At the same time, a growing number of students now have access to online courses in their brick-and-mortar schools. Schools are tapping into e-learning for a variety of reasons. Some schools say it saves money and allows them to offer a wider variety of courses, including Advanced Placement classes. Others say it can help with scheduling conflicts when a face-to-face class is provided only at a time when a student already has another obligation. In addition, online courses can provide highly qualified teachers for classes otherwise not offered by a school.

One of the fastest growing areas of e-learning, and a category that mainstream schools are increasingly turning to, is credit recovery. These online courses allow students to retake classes they haven’t passed, but in a new and different format. Many of these credit recovery courses give students a brief evaluation, then permit them to skip concepts they already know to focus on ideas they haven’t yet grasped. However, some educators and education experts have questioned the quality and academic rigor of these programs.

So where are traditional schools getting these online courses? Some are developing their own, others are purchasing them from for-profit vendors and a growing number are able to tap into state virtual schools or state-led online learning initiatives that currently exist in 38 states. Some schools find it easier to use courses developed by a state-run virtual school, since it is already aligned with their state standards.

Mobile Computing

Increasing access, growing acceptance, and decreasing cost are all helping to make the use of mobile devices a popular and increasing trend within the world of educational technology.

While the digital divide between the affluent and disadvantaged still exists, mobile devices appear to have the potential to close it, at least in terms of access. The game-based learning will be widely adopted by mainstream classrooms within three to five years. Instead of educational software, e.g. Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit, students and teachers are much more likely to incorporate Web-based educational games into classrooms, which are often available for free.

Some educators hope that games and simulations will provide a way for students to picture themselves in career paths they may otherwise would not have chosen, especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, and some argue that games and simulations offer students a way to connect what they are learning in class to (simulated) real-world situations in a safe and low-cost environment. Furthermore, games and simulations may help students learn by helping them visualize processes they otherwise could not see, such as the flow of an electron or the construction of a city. Games can also promote higher-order thinking skills, such as collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and teamwork.

However, creating a healthy marriage of an engaging and entertaining game with educational objectives and goals is a challenging process that has yet to be perfected. To create and design games with the kind of high-resolution graphics and complex situations that children are used to seeing in commercial games takes a large amount of funding and time that educators often do not have. And finding the time and resources to train teachers who may not be familiar with game-based learning is a challenge for majority of schools. Despite these challenges, efforts are on for developing educational games and incorporating game-based learning into classrooms.

Social Networking

Many schools are no longer debating whether social networking should play a role in education. Instead, debate has shifted to what social networking tools work best and how to deploy them. Some schools are using mainstream social networking tools, like Face book, for everything from promoting school events to organizing school clubs as well as for more academic purposes related to assignments and class projects.

But educators are wary about security, advertising, information-sharing, and social interaction in such an environment are often seeking out social networks designed specifically for learning instead. These sites, like e-Pals and e-Chalk, are more restrictive, often allowing teachers and school officials to limit not only who can join, but who students can talk to and interact with. Some educators also say students seem to take these sites more seriously and treat them with a more academic focus and tone than they would a site they routinely use for socialization with their peers. These sites also often provide safety features that can detect foul language or bullying phrases and alert a teacher.

Many educators are of the view that the academic benefits of social networking are real. They allow students to work cooperatively on projects in an online environment that feels familiar to students. Teachers often report that a student who does not speak up in class will be more engaged on a social networking site and that these sites allow instructors to extend the school day.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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