E-learning policy flaws hinder tech value in classrooms

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Learning technologies are still an afterthought for most countries.
Learning technologies are still an afterthought for most countries.

Education technology (edtech) policies fail to fulfil their promise to effectively implement technology to enhance teaching and learning in classrooms across the globe.

This is according to research by education organisation Varkey Foundation’s international advisory company, Atlantis Group, titled: “System failure: Why edtech policy needs a critical update”.

The report is based on analysis of discussions with over 100 leading edtech company CEOs, teachers and academics from across the globe, including education ministers and heads of government, such as George K Werner, former Liberian education minister; John Jong-Hyun Kim, senior lecturer at Harvard University; and Paul Kim, assistant dean and CTO at Stanford University.

It highlights edtech’s failure to meet standards and expectations, despite today’s schools having more computers than ever before. While edtech policies implemented by many countries hold great promise, they struggle to deliver, often due to political, implementation and technological reasons.

“It’s no secret that education policymaking struggles to keep up with the pace of technology. But it shouldn’t stand still,” says Vikas Pota, chairman of the Varkey Foundation.

“Around the world, major industries and businesses have spent decades preparing for a future they know will be dominated by technology. Ministers of education desperately need to start doing the same. The answer won’t be found just by putting more computers in classrooms but by addressing the political blockages that too often prevent edtech from succeeding.”

In SA, the education system is going through a major tech overhaul, with the education department planning to provide tablets for all pupils in the country's 23 700 primary and secondary schools over the next six years.

In February, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced during his State of the Nation Address that SA’seducation system is one of five urgent tasks government is working to address.

He noted that in order to draw young people into employment and prepare the country for the digital age, the state must prioritise education and the development of vital skills.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) plans to pilot its newly-introduced coding and robotics curriculum across 1 000 South African schools in the new year.

Change management

Moira de Roche, independent learning specialist and director of the Institute of IT Professionals SA, believes that while government says it has an edtech policy in place, its impact has not been clear thus far.

“It is not immediately apparent that the implementation of technology has made any impact, or that it has been transformative in the education sector. The objectives must be clear, unambiguous, realistic and well-communicated.”

In terms of the main hindrances to achieving edtech implementation success, De Roche believes lack of teacher training and change management programmes are major setbacks.

“Change management in technology implementation in the classroom has been lacking. The key personnel – teachers, school management – are often not clear of the reasons for change, and very often are threatened by technology which makes them reluctant to implement it. If e-learning is implemented correctly, teachers need to take on a facilitator role. I don’t think they have the requisite skills for this; it’s about unlearning and re-learning.”

Learner performance stats speak for themselves, she adds, as when measured against international metrics, SA always seems to fall behind.

Experts who spoke to the Atlantis Group identified several systemic issues: there is little independent evidence about which edtech products, applications and systems help improve learning outcomes, resulting in popular but ineffective products staying on the market.

Furthermore, teachers are often let down by inadequate systems or their own lack of tech training, resulting in these technologies not being adequately implemented to enable them to efficiently carry out their duties.

The research also found an overwhelming majority of countries still don’t have education policies, and those that have them, don’t prioritise evidence-gathering about edtech by setting up testbeds and being constantly updated about the impact of similar initiatives across the world.

“The great tragedy right now is that learning technologies are still an afterthought for most countries,” says Pota.

“Today, just a handful of the world’s governments have anything resembling a working edtech policy. Examples of best-practice are few and far between. The political narrative about technology in education is worryingly similar to that of 50 years ago.”

The education department has admitted it’s yet to determine the impact e-learning has had on learner performance.

Enhanced learning, creativity

However, Linford Molaodi, lecturer in ICT-enhanced learning at the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education, and executive director of e-learning non-profit TeaSterl, says e-learning initiatives at local schools have had significant impact.

“Although there is no measured evidence around the relationship between technological tools and learner performance, many teachers, on a practical level, have played an important role in using technology to ignite learners' enthusiasm, resulting in enhanced learning, creativity and critical thinking skills.

“There are a growing number of educators showing interest in using technology to enhance their administrative roles: for instance, by using the South African School Administration and Management Systems, aimed at saving teachers a lot of administrative anxiety, especially during examination times. We are also seeing a growing number of teachers taking advantage of the Department of Education’s ICT initiatives to enhance their pedagogical practices on a daily basis.”

He also cites the increasing number of entries in the National Teaching Awards in the ICT-enhanced teaching and learning category, held by the DBE annually.

“We are also seeing an increase in extra-curricular activities focused on extra classes for coding and game-based learning projects in schools across the country, especially in rural schools. Coupled with current e-learning projects, these are all expected to reap great rewards for scholars.”

De Roche believes the DBE’s coding and robotics curriculum is vital and may play an important role in building digital skills of the future, if successfully implemented.

“It is a good idea to teach coding and robotics as part of the curriculum. It teaches skills beyond the ability to code – thinking skills, innovation, logic, skills that will help learners cope with the demand we will see as the fourth industrial revolution pervades society. If the changes are properly implemented and managed, then yes, its objectives will be accomplished in the long run.”

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