Technology in education: a hindrance or help?

As global spending on classroom technology sets to exceed US$19bn by 2019, there is an expectation for measurable returns on investment. With insight form the 2017 Global Education and Skills Forum, Georgina Lavers explores whether education technology is living up to its promises

“Imagine if you had a broken toilet and TV in your home. Which would you fix first?”

James Centenera kicked off a lively debate during the Global Education Skills Forum in Dubai by asking the audience how they would prioritize their ‘essentials’.

In a climate where many teachers are some of the lowest paid professionals around the world, the founder of learning accelerator TULA Philippines explained it would be more salient if basics were to be addressed before technology.

This debate is prominent in the field of education. Given the recent upsurge in classroom tech, which sees global spending set to exceed US$19bn by 2019, many have called into question the value of education technology value over standard resources.

“I’ve seen so many schools with limited budgets spending a disproportionate amount of their money on technology that doesn’t really bring any measurable, or non-measurable, benefits,” said John Vallance, the headmaster of one of the highest performing grammar schools in Sydney. Vallance recently made the bold move of banning laptops in all his classrooms altogether, describing their purchase as “money wasted.”

The Australian government’s AUD$2.4bn ‘Digital Education Revolution’ did nothing except “enrich Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Apple,” he said, adding that these companies have a proven track record of lobbying the educational sector.

Low investment in schools mean classrooms are far behind homes, offices, even fast food restaurants

James Centenera, Founder of learning accelerator TULA Philippines

Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently found that education systems that have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen "no noticeable improvement" in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test results for reading, mathematics or science.

The debate question at the conference: ‘This House believes education technology in the classroom is a waste of time and money’, saw Centenera and Antony Jenkins, former CEO of Barclays, taking the stand to declare education technology should be put on the backbench in favour of better paid and more qualified teachers.

“Public funds are shockingly low for most schools around the world,” said Centenera, quoting UNESCO statistics that India offers US$243 per child per year, and Ethiopia and Bangladesh just US$91 and $US92 respectively.

This low investment in schools mean classrooms are far behind homes, offices, “even fast food restaurants,” added Centenera.

“Most teachers across the world are the lowest paid professionals. The typical classroom is hot, crammed, and they don’t have electricity. The curriculum is far behind.”

The pair argued that schools globally should advance their curriculums by improving character, skills, attitude, as well as basics like potable water and electricity in developing countries.

“One day educational technology will have its time,” said Centenera.

You cannot halt the progress of innovation

Dr Zaki Khoury, Regional Director, International Organzations, Middle East & Africa, Microsoft

“But should we allocate a portion of that US$200 allocated to pupils on technology?”

Dr Zhari Khoury, Regional Director of Microsoft acknowledged that the OECD report gave some unsuccessful findings. But, he argued, buying into a digital revolution could reap dividends.

“In this type of technological revolution, we really need to leverage the assets we have,” he stated.

“During first and second Industrial Revolutions, we were using horses, and no one would imagine that we would progress onto cars. But we did, and now have even begun to think about driverless cars. You cannot halt the progress of innovation.”

Education technology has proven benefits. The mobility of technology means that classrooms can be remote, virtual, or ‘in the field’ – a plus for countries without traditional infrastructure.

The gamification aspect of technology has also been proven to incentivise students to improve their performance. In a survey, Talent LMS found that 89 per cent thought a point system would increase their engagement with an e-learning application, and the sheer quality of some of the learning apps on offer – DuoLingo, Brainscape, Ribbon Hero – would suggest there is plenty of scope in this sector.

For Khoury, the question of whether we can go on using the same types of learning that was developed hundreds of years ago was a simple one. “We don’t need to choose between education or technology,” he stated.

“It is a reality, and one that we should leverage to get the best out of our students. We cannot understand the jobs or job titles that will be around in 100 year’s time. We are talking about a level of computing that we’ve never seen before. Should we leave them behind? Or let them be a part of this innovation?”