Jaye Richards-Hill, in her address at the Digital Education Show in Sandton, Johannesburg, raised the central issue of equity. I wrote yesterday that I thought the Conference was pitching itself behind where it ought to be, that we need to be focusing strongly on the how part: how to integrate technology into our pedagogies, rather than the why: the advocacy part. In her talk, however, Jaye reminded us of the absolute imperative for this.
Research indicates that when used well, technology does improve results. While other research indicates that the use of technology alone does not lead to any improvements. If we are to do it at all, we absolutely need to make sure we do it well.
Given the huge divide between elite schools and under-resourced schools, digital technologies might offer a means for closing the gap and addressing the issue of equity. Bridging this divide is not just important, it is actually a necessity for our society if we are to stand any chance of picking ourselves up by the boot-straps! After years of Apartheid Education we have botched our post-liberation educational strategies, and desperately need to pull something out of the fire. The Government White Paper on Digital Education, full of excellent intent, has never been implemented on the ground, and we have been saddled with programmes which have sought to put the technology into the schools without a thought for training, either on how to use the technology, or more crucially, on how to use it to teach!
I currently teach in a well-resourced, elite school, but I began my career teaching at Phambili, a People’s Education pilot school in Durban, which catered for students excluded by the State on the grounds of political activism, and those displaced by the violence in the province. I then taught at St Enda’s, an inner-city school in Johannesburg for thirteen years. At both of these schools I saw highly creative teachers able to do a fantastic job despite the lack of resources. I also saw some teachers who were bone-idle and responsible for gross dereliction of duty, either because they lacked the knowledge to be able to teach their subjects, or because they lacked dedication.
The real elephant in the room is the teacher, because those who teach creatively without digital technologies will without doubt become creative teachers with the technology. The clear take-away from this conference for me is that we need to be focusing on empowering teachers in how to teach their subjects using technologies so that we can begin to use the affordances of these tools to address the key imperative of equity.
While many schools do not have wi-fi, or Internet connectivity, even well-resourced schools find their wi-fi inadequate to the purpose. As teachers we need to learn how to be resourceful and creative. When I taught at St Enda’s we had a computer room, but no Internet. I created a portal, and downloaded three or four complete websites every day so that students could find the content they needed via off-line browsing. All copied via a stiffy disk, I have to add! I know that teaching in schools without resources is hard. Stuck in an un-air-conditioned computer room all day, with no free periods, no tech support and aging computers is no fun. I am useless at fixing hardware, but I spent a great deal of my time on my hands and knees looking for unplugged cables or for where the rats had gnawed through the insulation! I spent a great deal of my free time trying to learn how to code add-ons for the school portal to allow students to chat collaboratively, or send each other messages. I had one of the very early versions of Moodle installed, but couldn’t get it to work properly without Internet.
We need to make absolutely sure that we understand the absolute importance of giving teachers the skills and knowledge they need to be able to use appropriate technologies in their classrooms. We cannot wait for the State to own up to their responsibility to provide electricity and bandwidth to all schools, we need to do whatever we can, wherever we can, whenever we can.
An Education Department official told me that he knew of programmes which were lauded as successes on paper, but had not been implemented on the ground. He lamented the fact that one could not go to the Director and point this out because it would mean instant dismissal. This case should not arise, of course, but it points clearly to the absolute imperative for grounding all roll-outs of ICT integration firmly in the classroom, and resting power in the hands of the teacher and their pedagogical needs.
When I was teaching at Phambili, we saw our purpose as being to pilot what democratic school management and People’s Education looked like so that it would be replicable for all schools in a post-Apartheid society. That seems wildly Romantic and idealistic now! But I think we need a similar focus today on what it looks like to use digital technologies in a classroom to foster critical thinking and improve students’ skills and knowledge acquisition. We need solutions that are replicable and do not necessarily depend on a solid infrastructure.