It is hard to talk about development in any industry in this modern age without making reference to the role technology has to play on the nature or extent of such development. Although, some researchers struggle to define the extent to which technology impacts some sectors, there is a general consensus that it is a force to be reckoned with, hence the need to be critically aware in this area.
From e-commerce to e-health to e-governance, technology is at the heart of ‘Disruption’, a word I am slowly coming to dislike (but that will be another blog post on its own). On a national scale, technology has been fingered as a major driver of economic growth and Nigeria for instance estimated that ‘ICT’ contributed to its GDP by 11% in 2015. The Education sector is not left out with the advent of new technologies such as tablet computers, interactive whiteboards, online learning platforms and other cool trends that hold promising capabilities to enhance learning outcomes. Any wise government knows that technology has to be embedded in its plans if it desires any form of economic growth, while policy makers are slowly coming to terms with the importance of the technology discourse in education, but what exactly has the impact really been? Are we harnessing the true potential of technology the right way or is this another ‘dot-com-bubble era’.
My focus will be on the impact of technology within the African context specifically as it relates to technology deployments in Nigerian schools. This is largely motivated by a research I conducted a while back on a state-wide tablet deployment project. The aim of this piece is to address certain challenges that are inherent within technology deployments in the Nigerian education system and this may also apply to other contexts within the African continent and beyond.
If you look deeply, you can always see the main motivation behind most technology deployments in education. Sometimes, it’s motivated by an over-enthusiastic tech-savvy school administrator who feels his/her school needs to ‘catch-up’ with the times, a politician’s manifesto containing a state-of-the-art tech project promising an educational ‘revolution’ or simply a bored ICT personnel who has to validate his numerous IT certifications within a live project.
Whatever the case may be, such projects struggle to reflect a clear direction as to how they will enhance learning and where enhancement happens to be a part of the plan, it is hardly followed through as individual interests tend to suppress collective project goals. Technology for the sake of technology is a waste of scarce resources and this is usually evident few years down the line when contractors have left the project and politicians have moved on to the next exciting thing; then, educational institutions are left to grapple with the new ‘toys’ which end up in the store-room never to see the light of day again.
Technocentric Approach to ICT Deployments
As said earlier, technology for the sake of technology is pointless. Seymour Papert, a well-known educational researcher refers to this as technocentrism, a term he described as a “fallacy of referring all questions to the technology” in a paper titled ‘A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future’.
In medicine, yes, we know how ground-breaking it feels to see the heart of your new-born thumping rhythmically on the screen of the CT scan. In e-commerce, the joy of sitting in your living room to order that cool wristwatch at the speed of few clicks is heart-warming. However, in education, it is quite different. Technology in itself may not do so much on its own as it largely depends on how it is ‘appropriated’ or utilized to create any desirable learning outcome. This is an area that needs close attention as deployments are announced in the media every other week.
Huge Disconnect between Industry and Research
In the educational ecosystem, there is a conflicting ‘they’ versus ‘us’ mentality when it comes to educational researchers and the industry practitioners. Researchers understand the benefit of theorizing and contributing to the body of research knowledge to advance the field while industry experts see from a pragmatic point of view and birth real world applications of technology in education. Both parties contribute immensely in their own way, however, the apparent disconnection between research and real-world applications of educational technology remains a concern.
On the other hand, there is a dearth of African voices in the diverse African educational systems as most extensive studies are carried out by non-Africans or the concerted efforts of large bodies such as UNESCO and the likes. We need more prominent voices and we need to connect these voices to the realities on ground as research-informed tech projects have a greater chance of success compared to non-research informed one.
Research must not be isolated from reality, but this has been the case coupled with the lack of synergy among policy makers, industry practitioners and educational researchers in the educational supply chain.
What is so revolutionizing about technology?
Buzzwords are cool, trendy and nice. I mean…who doesn’t want to ‘transform’, ‘disrupt’ or ‘revolutionize’ education. Let’s disrupt already, but hey… take a step back and think: what exactly is so revolutionizing about technology in education? After deploying new fancy PCs to the under-privileged community in that village, where is the revolution exactly? Oh and yes, you take a step further to show how grades have improved by 15% over a six-month pilot phase before introduction of your technology backed up with a fancy graph to show progress. Splendid idea and good intentions, but the ‘revolutionary-ness’ needs to be more convincing.
What about the numerous dependencies?
Who pays attention to the grossly demotivated teacher whose problems may have just been compounded with some ‘revolutionary’ devices they now have to figure how to integrate in their lesson plans.
Who deals with the ‘revolutionary’ cost implication of ongoing maintenance long after the project is complete?
Oh, wait, you considered sustainability in your plans…Tell me about it. The PCs are solar powered eh? You get a pat on the back for that one. But did the school really really really need those PCs or is this just another ‘revolutionary’ whim?
Needs assessment is key and cannot be overemphasized. Sometimes, the revolution we call so, may just be a negatively impacting one and just before you approve that next project, ask key questions such as, “Do we really really really need this right now?”
The aim of this piece is not to downplay the role of technology in any way but to nudge us to think more critically about that next Edtech deployment. Now that we have considered some of the challenges, we will explore some solutions in another post but till then, tell us about that technology deployment you have observed or been involved in and some challenges you have also identified that we did not mention.