It’s class time and a Math teacher connects her laptop to a multimedia projector and begins streaming the day’s lesson from the Internet for her eager students. When the lesson is finished, she provides instructions for her students to download the video from the Internet along with the related lesson notes.
In the adjacent class, rowdy students are playing a game. The ringleader is not a recalcitrant pupil, but the Biology teacher. And the game is being played from a tablet as students submit responses that appear as video and text on screen.
Down the hall, the Digital Media class joins an online video conference with other students and experts from Jamaica, the United States and Africa to collaborate on digital photography and mobile app development projects.
In the staff room, teachers use a high-speed Internet connection to upload the videos they have just created. They joke about their less than Hollywood-style performances while trading ideas for improving their work to increase student participation. Each video, along with supporting digital textbooks, reading resources and lesson-plans, form part of a growing online library that can be accessed by students and parents.
As the bell rings for the noon break, students whip out laptops, tablets and phones to surf the web over the school’s wireless network, as they eat lunch.
They aren’t part of some imaginary “smart school of the future” or a foreign, developed-country, model school. They are in NorthGate College, a secondary school in St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. NorthGate, through a special ‘Jumpstart’ initiative, is building a practical, digital pathway designed to deliver to students the class of the future, today. And it hopes others will follow.
Jumpstart on Education
The school is part of Congress WBN, a Trinidad-birth, international non-profit that operates secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Zambia, Kenya and New Zealand. Dr. Noel Woodroffe, founder and chairman of the school says the school cannot not fulfil its education mandate without technology.
“Technology is a powerful enabler in the education process,” Dr. Woodroffe said. “We want to create a learning environment where our children are immersed in the same technology that is increasingly surrounding them in everyday life.”
NorthGate’s school in Trinidad is the proving ground for a larger vision of how technology can tangibly benefit education anywhere in the world.
Yolande La Pierre, Director at NorthGate’s St. Augustine, Trinidad campus explains that the school’s Jumpstart initiative depends on a lot more than just technology. In describing NorthGate’s approach to its unique brand of values-based education, she identifies technology as “a critical enabler,” but emphasizes that investment in people is the key.
“Very early in our plans to incorporate technology to improve the learning process, we recognized the importance of ‘jumpstarting’ our education tech initiative by investing first in educating our teachers and our parents.”
“The students have a natural inclination to all things technological. However, effectively integrating technology in the classroom depends empowering teachers and parents as much as it does on networks, bandwidth and gadgets,” she says. And she’s right.
Schools have little choice but to become more innovative in their delivery of education. Balancing shrinking budgets and staffing constraints, with the need to keep students productively engaged and relevantly educated, can be a challenging proposition.
Innovative educators are increasingly turning to technology to provide students with tools and motivation they need to learn in the digital age. One of the key reasons behind this trend is the increasing importance of education in supporting today’s knowledge-based economies.
Across the world, governments and schools are increasing investments in new education technology and infrastructure. An IBIS Capital report estimates the global education market to be worth over 4.4 trillion dollars. The UK-based investment bank says the sector is set to grow a lot more over the next five years.
However, education policymakers and school administrators are quickly realising that throwing technology at the problem alone is not sufficient to resolve the vexing issues within the education systems.
Wanted: Proper Broadband
The proper levels of technical support necessary to effectively integrate technology in schools is often lacking. A major reason for this is most schools simply do not have the technical know-how to run the kind of high-capacity network infrastructure their users will need. And ISPs more interested in PR than in actually improving education don’t help matters.
Internet service providers (ISPs) in the region, for example, boast of providing broadband to schools. However, a recent survey revealed that most schools are not translating the Internet connection they receive from ISPs into in-school networks that deliver Internet service into classrooms or to student devices.
Too many schools attempting all-student Internet access programs, struggle to have their ISPs reliably deliver the bandwidth required to meet schools’ voracious demand. ISPs should be held to account for this. A broadband connection that does not translate into every-student-in-every-class high-speed Internet access is not truly “broadband in schools”.
There are other challenges. Moving to digital classrooms requires locally-relevant digital content. This in turn requires education content developers to learn new skills, like eBook creation and video production. Further, retrofitting school compounds and classrooms can be a costly undertaking. The majority of school facilities were not designed for today’s tech-enabled world.
Given these support requisites, it is no surprise that many student laptop and tablet distribution programs do not fulfil their promise. They make for good headlines, but they amount to nothing more than political gimmickry if the foundational issues of training, bandwidth, supporting infrastructure, and local digital educational content are not simultaneously addressed.
An Integrative Approach
Education impacts all of society; as does technology. For technology to deliver on its promise in education, a much more integrative approach will be needed. This task is not government’s alone. Nor can it be left to the private sector, with its for-profit motivations, to lead the way. A multi-stakeholder approach that combines social, policy, technical, academic and financial interests can provide a more holistic platform for incorporating technology in education.
Education should fill our children with a sense of identity, value and destiny. In the digital age, technology offers the most significant vehicle for imparting to our youth. We will do well to provide them with all the right tools to access the knowledge they need to act wisely and in the best interest of the society they will be called upon to lead.
Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN (www.congresswbn.org), a values-based, international charity and the Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, a technology education non-profit organization. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.