SINGAPORE: “Technology cannot fix education,” said Steve Jobs in 1996 when asked about his spearheading of initiatives that give computer equipment to schools.
Those four words uttered more than 20 years ago provide a guidepost for how we should think about e-learning and educational apps.
Indeed, mobile technology has become pervasive and entrenched for most aspects of our lives today. From getting up to read the news on your phone, to scrolling through social media to see what your friends have been up to, the real world is merging with the one online.
For our children, this means that the traditional classroom will increasingly be complemented by the use of smartphones, as well as tablets and laptops.
While the emergence of mobile learning apps has generated optimism about the opportunities they present for children to learn at their own pace and through their preferred learning styles, there has also been panic over children’s dependency on handheld digital gadgets at such a tender age.
A recent news report from Channel NewsAsia asked to this effect if e-learning is making our kids dumb, and highlighted experts sounding a warning bell.
Learning apps may not teach children anything but instead, mess with their brains in the long run, hooking children, getting them to stay the course for as long as possible, and eroding human connections with those around them, said the report.
The report also included a video showing four-year-old twins performing basic tasks to test their executive functional skills after drawing or using a learning app on a tablet, with the latter twin experiencing more difficulty after.
While the report highlights the dangers of an overreliance on technology, it misses the mark on e-learning entirely for many reasons.
THE NEW SOCIAL REALITY
As our world becomes increasingly digital, the use of digital platforms to augment real life chores and activities will be a reality.
Most of us are spending more time on our phones in the last few years alone. According to Yahoo’s Flurry Analytics, Americans spent on average 2 hours 42 minutes per day on their mobile devices in the fourth quarter of 2014. By the second quarter of 2015, an average of 3 hours 40 minutes was recorded – an astounding 35 per cent increase in just six short months.
Children are today’s digital natives, whose lives revolve around technology and media, and for whom the real and online worlds have little distinct boundaries. They reach out instinctively to these platforms – and most probably know how to swipe before they can walk.
As workplaces too increasingly migrate towards online meetings and discussions, isn’t it intuitive that the classroom uses similar tools to engage learners? Where too much screen time is obviously bad, did our parents tell us not to read because too much reading was causing short-sightedness?
To wish e-learning away in this context is therefore not only grossly myopic but naive. It is not a matter of if but how, when and where digital platforms are employed to augment our children’s learning journey.
The question then becomes what is a sensible and prudent approach to incorporating these tools into our homes and classrooms. Even as we ourselves are coming to terms with how to do so, one thing is certain - we should stop approaching online and offline learning as two separate spheres, and come up with a coherent, comprehensive approach to learning that considers this new social reality.
In a world where food, shopping and entertainment are at our fingertips, to tell our children to avoid mobile devices is to do as I say, not as I do. We surely cannot let our nostalgia for the pencil and paper override the inevitability of what education and learning in a digital world will entail
ENGAGEMENT STILL HAS TO BE HUMAN
One thing to bear in mind is that digital platforms are precisely just that – tools to be used for a purpose.
Technology cannot be a panacea for a well-rounded education with strong foundations, and certainly will not do anything in of itself to ensure our children develop a love for learning.
Computers and apps cannot shoulder the responsibility that falls squarely on parents and educators alike.
The upside to digital technology has often been about how it promotes a less instructive, more explorative approach to learning via communication and collaboration.
Social media pages where students can share information related to the course and add to discussion threads, class polls for teachers to gain quick insights into students’ engagement and understanding, and live online documents for collaborative note-taking and editing are some examples where mobile technology, with careful thought and planning, can be effectively utilised for education.
A further benefit lies in how technology can help boost participation. Where school lessons are constrained by time, tools like online boards allow discussions and debates to extend beyond the classroom and school hours. Shyer individuals can still have their feedback captured through polls or online forms.
At EduEdge, for example, online technology helps to boost student engagement through sharing viewpoints, raising disputes and analysing various current affairs issues.
Therein lies the crux of the issue. With the right digital tools, a participatory and collaborative learning culture becomes possible. But the use of the “right” digital tools boils down to how educators use these tools to achieve specific ends. The thoughtfulness in which they incorporate these platforms and devices into their lessons, and their ability to mediate these discussions are ultimately key.
Parents too, have a role. It is their responsibility to have cultivated in their children respect for others’ opinions, online or offline as well as respect for quality family time without the use of technology.
Many studies attest to the fact that carefully designed educational apps do improve students’ learning. New evidence also show that early incorporation of such educational technology into the classroom can produce immense learning benefits later on.
A 2010 study on an educational gaming app showed a 30 per cent improvement in the width of vocabulary of three-to-seven-year old kids who used it.
Other studies have shown improvement in skillsets including arithmetic, communications, speech, articulation as well as motivation and engagement levels when using certain apps. These include studies on mobile learning for students with learning difficulties and special needs.
We can cite more studies, but that isn’t the point because it all depends on what skillsets apps are designed to hone and how they’re used.
NOT A SILVER BULLET
The most important thing to remember is that mobile technology complements not substitutes teaching and learning; it is not a silver bullet.
This means that a concerted effort from all stakeholders in education namely, policy makers, schools, parents and students, is required to make e-learning viable so as to reap its full benefits.
Effective teachers cannot be IT savvy without being pedagogically sound and vice versa. Yet when policymakers and educational institutes relook their curricula with a view to incorporating mobile technology, it should not be for the sole reason of moving with the changing times.
Thought must go into adjusting policies such as class participation assessment, to ensure the goal remains the students’ learning, instead of incentivising them to summarise and rephrase a random article off the Internet.
Parents should also take note that not all learning apps are made equal or will deliver what they promise. So-called educational videos that only serve to narrate at children for instance, will not be as impactful as programmes that encourage interaction. The fine line between games and educational tools must also be treaded carefully.
Parents should also check whether an app’s publisher is a credible provider of quality educational learning resources and for positive reviews before downloading the app.
The most important thing to do is to observe and engage your kids from time to time, to see if these learning apps and platforms are doing them good, instead of handing them the tablet before turning back to your Korean drama.
Learning apps are poor babysitters.
"Socialness" is becoming a huge part of the learning experience characterised by peer-to-peer support and interaction, mentoring and knowledge sharing.
We would do our children a disservice if it were otherwise.
Edwin Edangelus Cheng is founder and principal of EduEdge learning hub.