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Technology in the classroom


February 16, 2019

“The kinds of things which are easy to teach are also easy to automate. We need to ensure that we are teaching first rate humans and not second rate robots.” With these words, the Education World Forum kicked off last month in London. The EWF brings together over a thousand education ministers, policymakers, academics and experts from 100 countries to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the world of education today.

The challenges being discussed cannot be overstated. We live in a world of unprecedented change. Technological disruption is now the norm. New technology can create completely new industries (think cloud computing or AI – and all the jobs in these fields that didn’t exist ten years ago). Technology is also leading to the automation of many jobs from old industries (the University of Oxford predicts that 47 percent of existing jobs will be automated in the future). In this context, the challenge for policymakers and educators is how to educate our children for jobs that don’t even exist yet ie how to teach them the skills of learning and resilience and adaptability that will allow them to adjust to constantly changing circumstances.

The challenge for Pakistan is particularly acute. According to the UN Education Index for 2018, Pakistan’s education system ranks 146th out of 187 countries. Around 25 million children are out of school. And for those who are in school, the education system depends heavily on rote learning and forced memorisation to score higher marks, rather than promoting curiosity and inquiry. Pakistan’s literacy rate is just 58 percent; 1.5 million new teachers are needed to meet the demands of existing students. Access to higher education is less than eight percent. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s demographics are at once a potential challenge and a potential opportunity. Pakistan is a very young country – 60 percent of the population is younger than 25 years old. If the education system is unable to provide sufficient opportunities to Pakistan’s young people, then any number of social and political problems may arise as a consequence. But if Pakistan can find a way to educate its young people to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world and if education can successfully unleash the potential of these young people, then there is no telling what Pakistan can do in the future.

So what can Pakistan do to ensure that its education system is preparing its young people for this new world? This is the question that Pakistan’s education ministers and policymakers were exploring at the EWF last month. And one of the answers that kept coming up was technology.

While technology lies at the heart of many of the changes that are disrupting existing education paradigms, technology can also create solutions that help education systems breach existing gaps in quality, capacity and access.

Mobile technology now permeates our daily lives, and provides us with unparalleled access to information. Cell phone access in Pakistan is experiencing exponential year-on-year increases. We are already witnessing more online content designed for mobile delivery. This level of access may be exactly what is required to shape the future of education in Pakistan.

But while access to devices, connectivity and digital learning content is spreading quickly around the world, it is not always clear how to harness this technology in the most effective ways. Technology does not always bring the best quality education to students – and we increasingly see virality being privileged over quality. This is one risk of using technology more in our classrooms. Meanwhile, there are countless examples around the world, of education systems which have purchased large amounts of shiny, expensive new gadgets – only for this equipment to sit unused and gathering dust, with teachers and students unclear how to make best use of it. This is another risk of relying on technology.

But when technology is utilised effectively, when policymakers deploy specific types of technology in a thoughtful and targeted way to meet particular problems, then it has the potential to revolutionise education. It can transform classrooms and education systems in any number of ways.

For children for whom there are barriers to attending school (social, cultural, geographical, etc), technology can provide ways to learn at home or in other settings, through lessons delivered straight to one’s phone. One of the most important elements in ensuring good quality education is the teacher. But what can be done in remote areas where it is difficult to get good, qualified teachers in classrooms? Technology can now be used to beam lessons from highly trained teachers into schools in remote parts of the country.

The British Council is already delivering such classes in Latin America. In Uruguay, for example, British Council teachers deliver English lessons to students in public schools across the country via video conferencing. In the future, we will still learn by engaging directly with great educators, but increasingly we will be able to access more great educators using technology.

Technology can be used to collect almost infinite amounts of data, which can then be used to improve education models. We live in a world where there is an abundance of information, and education is naturally data rich. Amalgamating and analysing this data can tell us a lot about what succeeds and what doesn’t in the classroom – helping teachers figure out which activities work, which lessons plans are most effective, which textbooks lead to the best learning outcomes, and how long these should be studied for the best results, when short quizzes are effective, and so on. Making classrooms ‘digitally transparent’ is putting huge amounts of information into the hands of teachers and policymakers, empowering them to improve the quality of education being delivered.

Technology can also be a game changer for exams and assessment. Computer or phone-based exams, compared to traditional paper-based exams, can give candidates more flexibility, make marking faster and more consistent, make exams delivery more efficient, and make cheating more difficult.

Education needs to be made more interactive and hands-on, to encourage learning by doing. Technology can help with this. Interactive white boards encourage all students to be involved in interactive learning. For more personalised learning, laptops and tablets are increasingly pervasive in the classroom. When implemented correctly, software in the classroom can allow students to learn at their own pace.

Education in Pakistan and around the world needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. We need to give students the skills they need to succeed in a labour market which is constantly being disrupted by new technology. But when thinking about how technology can help, we would be wise to focus on the demand side, not the supply side. As one speaker at the EWF put it, “Technology may be the answer, but we mustn’t forget what the question is.”

Nishat Riaz is the British

Council’s director of education.

Twitter: @nishatriaz

Michael Houlgate is the British Council’s area director for Sindh and Balochistan.

Twitter: @MichaelHoulgate