An avalanche is coming
I’m standing on a pristine white slope. The snowcapped peaks rise to touch the blue sky above. It’s a postcard scene. It’s tranquil, and it’s only the faint rumble that heralds what is coming. For most sitting languidly enjoying their drinks on the ski slope, the rumble goes unnoticed. Yet in minutes everything, and everyone, will be swept away! I look up and see a blur of movement on the slope, and the rumble becomes more noticeable. Someone nearby leans over to his friend and says, “I think there’s an avalanche coming.” “You’re right,” they reply, “We should move to another table.”
#RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, it’s obvious that we’re hearing the rumbles of discontent on our higher education landscape, but what’s not as obvious is that these are the warning sounds of a fast-approaching avalanche. It’s not the statues or the fees, that are the issues, but rather lies beneath - a common call, a common need for white and black, rich and poor to unhindered, equal access to quality education.
It’s long been known that education is the surest route to liberation from poverty, inequality and injustice. Yet while we have made huge strides in our country in many aspects, our educational advances have been dismal. And so disruption and protest are becoming the voice of our students seeking change. Yet as Jonathan Jansen, the Vice Chancellor of Free State University, points out, these rights to protest may carry long-term consequences, as it did for the University of Zimbabwe, that destroys the very thing our students are seeking - quality education.
Rearranging the chairs
Moving to a different chair in the face of an impending avalanche hardly seems like a sensible thing to do. Yet this is all that President Zuma’s “zero percent fee increase”, or moving statues, or renaming buildings, is doing. Let’s for a moment imagine not only the zero fee increase, but the goal of free higher education. Does this mean academic staff salaries, which are already low and lag industry levels, will further decline, causing more quality staff to leave?
“Just as investors do not invest their money in chronically unstable societies, so too top academics do not spend their time on serially disruptive campuses. Parents who have choices send their children elsewhere for higher education, including out of the country, leaving behind moribund institutions where the only students and academics left are those who cannot move.” (Jonathan Jansen).
And so in a bid to stem the rising discontent, numerous suggestions have been mooted, such as cutting budgets, finding more funding, linking fees to income. Yet all of these are symptomatic treatments. All of these are seeing us rearranging the chairs when the fundamentals remain the same. We’re simply replicating what we’ve always done, and the demand for quality education will continue to exceed what we are able to deliver. #ReplicatorsMustFall
The rumbles we’re experiencing are not unique to our country. First world countries, such as the USA also have a greater demand than there is supply of spaces at top universities. Yet while our students are excluded based on not having enough money, their students are given credit which saddles them with crippling lifelong debt. Education, the surest route to liberation, remains the sanctum of the wealthy, or those with access to vast sums of money.
The juxtaposition of Revolutions
Yet at the same time as we are seeing a revolution on the campuses of universities, we are witnessing another revolution happening online. While students fight over access to limited resources on our campuses, online quality educational content has become ubiquitous as top universities like Harvard, MIT, and Berkley, amongst many others, provide their content for free. While our universities languish in the shadow of ancient statues and symbols, the online world has seen the rise of a digital behemoth - MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses.
“Massive open online courses are arguably the most revolutionary facet of higher education today. Building on the foundations of existing online courses, these classes are open to anyone, anywhere, with enrollments in the thousands, at some of the best colleges and universities in the country—all for free” (Katie Sluiter).
If we have a demand by hundreds of thousands of students wanting quality education, and world-class universities are providing quality education for free, surely we should be rethinking our higher education system. #InnovatorsMustRise
MOOCs may have their problems, such as the impersonal nature of online, lack of feedback, and no accreditation, amongst others, but we need innovative thinking, not bandaid repairs of endlessly replicated old approaches. We need to rethink how we educate our students before the avalanche sweeps us all away.
Empty Rooms, not Empty Minds
I lecture at a University, and more often that not I see half empty lecture theatres. Sure they’re full to start with, but quickly the numbers dwindle. Schedule a lecture early in the morning or on a Friday afternoon, and you could be lecturing yourself! Why? Students are not learning in the way they used to. Learning has moved from content consumption to conversation around content. Learning has moved from physical places to online spaces. Learning has moved from preset times, to anywhere, anytime. Learning has moved from dry lectures, to engaging media. Yet universities persist with approaches invented by Gutenberg and the printing press era.
We are not going to solve our education crisis simply by dropping fees and statues. We need innovative solutions, otherwise what comes after #FeesMustFall…#EntryRequirementsMustFall, #ExclusionsMustFall, #ExamsMustFall? And why not, if the goal is equal opportunity for everyone to higher education.
We can’t fix our education crisis by simply silicon coating our failing, outdated education institutes - we need to innovate, we need #OutTheBox thinking. This is not simply about installing SmartBoards, and handing out iPads. It’s time for a revolution…not in the streets, but in our minds.
It’s ironic that universities, the bastions of research and future directions, are mired in the relics of the past. It’s time for future thinkers to come together, to rethink, reimagine, and redesign our educational landscape. The avalanche is upon us, but so too is the opportunity to avoid the mistakes of other countries. We already have a generation who not only increasingly have access to technology, with the majority of South Africans having at least on mobile phone, but a generation who also knows how to use this technology - as exhibited in the social media avalanche they created in the current crisis. Let’s harness this potential and forge new directions for higher education in South Africa. #InnovatorsMustRise
Our current education system is flawed, as has been ably highlighted by Paulo Frere and more recently Sir Ken Robinson. Our outdated industrial paradigm is no longer able to keep children engaged in a world of ubiquitous digital stimulation. The chemical “solution” of medicating learners into becoming compliant products on the education production line, is increasingly being viewed as not only dangerous and inappropriate, but also not addressing the real problem – the flawed system. Now schools are turning their attention towards a technological solution, one that may be even more disastrous than its forebear - one that bears many of the hallmarks of the emperor’s new clothes.
While businesses have adopted technology for over a quarter of a century, schools remained largely unchanged and irresolute. As the pressure mounts from vendors offering “solutions”, to parents pointing to other schools, to decreasing attention spans of children, schools are suddenly scrambling to implement educational technology solutions and governments and industry are wantonly throwing money at this new “solution”.
Failure in the air?
However, unlike business that instructed technology companies about their needs, schools are being instructed by technology companies about how they should teach.
Now we are seeing the first signs of concern, as these technology solutions fail, and some in a grand scale as was the case in the failed Los Angeles iPad initiative. Already schools are glancing nervously at each other as they begin to wonder, “have we been sold the emperor’s new clothes?” This immediately leads to a cycle of blame – it’s the wrong technology, it’s the wrong strategy, it’s the wrong content. While all of these may be partially true, the issues are far simpler, yet far more critical. The impending failure of educational technology will be due to a lack of appropriate experts and an appropriate digital pedagogy.
Following the wrong leader
The lack of experts, may seem somewhat surprising, especially in a world where there is no shortage of experts. However it is the lack of appropriate experts that is the concern. Ironically schools are eagerly following the dictates of non-educational organizations to inform them about their area of expertise -pedagogy. This is somewhat akin to an aircraft manufacturer telling farmers how to farm because they want to use a plane for crop spraying. And so we are seeing a flood of schools using iPads, or rolling out laptops equipped with eBooks, and “valuable” learning videos, because the technology experts have told them to. The problem we have is that while technology companies understand technology and teachers understand teaching, we have few who understand technology-based education.
The Copy-Paste mistake
The second core issue is the lack of an appropriate digital pedagogy. The heart of this problem may be put down to a single word – skeuomorphism. Most people have a natural aversion to the new, and so technology giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have long employed skeuomorphic design principles to soften our transition from old technologies to new ones. Skeuomorphism is quite simply the retention of the form of the old without its function. This is classically seen in smartphone cameras that click like a DSLR camera, or pages in an ebook reader that curl as they are turned like a paper book, or a diary app with a “leather” cover and bookmark. None of these elements has any functional value, but simply carry a resemblance to the form of the past, thereby imbuing the user with a sense of familiarity and comfort.
However, it is the widespread adoption of skeuomorphic-based digital pedagogies that is causing technology-based teaching to fail. Schools are wearing their digital clothing, where they have the form of the offline world, with little valuable function in the online world. For example, lauding the use of ebooks as a remarkable implementation of educational technology. Besides saving trees, there is no difference in pedagogy. Or, applauding a school’s smartboard implementation, whereas they offer little teaching or learning differences to their old blackboard counterpart. Or, the enthusiastic use of videos on iPads for modern teaching, whereas these videos are no different, pedagogically, to a real teacher presenting a class. Simply copying offline teaching approaches and pasting them into an online world is not only limiting the potential of educational technology, it is further damaging our tottering educational system.
A new digital pedagogy
Ken Robinson called for a revolution in education because the system is failing. Schools are responding by pouring technology into classrooms. But what we're actually seeing is the silicon coating of old industrial paradigms and pedagogies while boasting about new innovative approaches. Dipping our kids in silicon by essentially replacing their chemical tablets with digital tablets will no more solve the problem than our first failed attempt at medicating our kids into learning did.
We need to seek out appropriate guides who are attempting to understand the affordances of new technologies. We need to develop appropriate pedagogies that don’t simply copy offline approaches and paste them in skeuomorphic subservience into the digital world. We need to rethink, reimagine, and redesign how we teach and learn, otherwise the revolution may be over before it even begins.
This post forms the basis of the thinking for the article published in The Conversation entitled "Outdated teaching methods will blunt technology’s power"
Watch a seminar dealing with this issue in more detail
Outdated teaching methods will blunt technology's power
The man who runs state education in South Africa’s richest province has no time for old-fashioned classroom accessories. In January, Panyaza Lesufi, who heads the education portfolio in the Gauteng province, told journalists at Boitumelong Secondary School just outside Johannesburg:
Lesufi was at the school to promote the Big Switch On pilot, a project in which pupils are given tablets loaded with textbooks and their schools receive interactive whiteboards. “You will never accuse me of failure to deliver textbooks,” he said. “You will now accuse me of failure to download.”
But is making technology available to schools without adapting curricula or teaching methods to a digital platform actually worthwhile?
The trouble with copy-pasting
According to John Hedberg from the Australian Centre for Educational Studies, e-learning can only be successful if there is a “revolutionary move away from replicating traditional classroom-based teaching practices”.
At the heart of Hedberg’s critique is the idea of skeuomorphism, which is keeping the form of the old but discarding its function. Think of smart phone cameras that “click” like a DSLR camera or pages in an e-book reader that “curl” as they are turned – just like a paper book. Thanks to Hollywood star Tom Hanks you can even make your laptop’s keyboard sound like a quaint old typewriter.
Technology giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft have all used skeuomorphic designs to soften the transition from old technologies to new.
These features don’t have any functional value but their resemblance to forms of the past gives users a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Tablets and smart whiteboard won’t magically make pupils smarter unless teachers know how to use the devices properly and in a way that encourages learning. When Brandon Martinez and his colleagues from the University of Southern California started training teachers to use educational technology, they looked to the aviation industry for inspiration. Writing about their experiences, Martinez said:
In 2011, Clintondale High School in Michigan became the global poster child for “flipped” classrooms. This is an exciting example of how educational technology can change teaching and learning if it is properly used and doesn’t just become a copy-paste substitute for old methods.
A flipped classroom inverts traditional teaching methods. “Lectures” happen after hours, usually at home – students watch instructional videos at their own pace.
During formal class time, students are given activities that help them engage with concepts. Rather than just standing in front of the class and reading from a textbook or tablet – what some theorists call the “sage on the stage” model – teachers become “guides on the side”, available to answer questions and lead discussions.
Clintondale High’s combination of new technology and radically different teaching methods has pushed up its pass rates, improved discipline and seen more of its students securing college places.
The educational technology boom isn’t limited to the developed world. It is growing rapidly in countries like India and Brazil. If teachers are exposed to new digital teaching approaches, and given the space to experiment with technology, we can begin to produce a whole new generation of pupils: those who think and create and not those who just sit in classrooms waiting to be told what they should do or know.
Avoiding the white elephant syndrome
In August 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a US$1 billion project designed to make its schools high-tech havens. A month later, officials discovered that nearly 300 students at one high school had hacked through security and were using their district-issued iPads to surf the Web rather than study.
Then, in April 2015, it emerged that a digital curriculum developed by publishers Pearson and loaded onto pupils' iPads as part of the district’s ambitious project was simply “unusable”. Critics complained that the project had been rushed from conception to execution far too quickly and without any proper planning.
Why wasn’t the technology pre-tested by the teachers who were expected to use it every day? Technology companies may understand the mechanics of their products, but it’s teachers who understand teaching and who must be involved in making those products more than just electronic white elephants in the classroom.
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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