A student conducts an electrical experiment for visitors in a classroom during a tour of the Mandela School of Science & Technology, funded with a $9 million investment from German engineering company Siemens AG in Mvezo, South Africa, on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg Photo Credit: BLOOMBERG NEWS
Now that the school year is weeks away from kicking off, the media is reflecting the current trends in learning, pedagogy and the classroom. The focus of many articles is on smart classrooms, technological trends and artificial intelligence used today in education. The way technology is being adopted within pedagogy and learning has been an expanding business model which has thoroughly affected the culture of education, from the many businesses which employ online tools to check for plagiarism to those businesses which establish tutoring for students of all ages to those businesses which offer courses in preparation for professional exams. There are even businesses which have upgraded their analog format from the past to an online format of study guides and ever more businesses like Readers’ Favorite which offers book reviews and a proofreading service.
Having taught in higher education for many years and witnessing both the positive and negative aspects of new tech in university learning, I moved quickly to make use of new tech to the benefit of my students. In embracing this new technology where I set up a website for my students for syllabi, further reading, links to online texts, and I even created an interface to schedule office hours with me. Students likewise would use technology to access online readings which along with books university libraries have been putting online since the 1990s in addition to students’ use of articles accessible online, video-assisted classrooms, verification tools like Grammar Checker and even the more unethical uses of technology for the end purpose of cheating on exams and assignments.
Despite the fact that the 2018/19 State of Technology in Education Report reveals that 94% of educators studied believe that educational technology improves engagement, there are still gaps today in how students are being underserved by in-classroom interaction. Indeed, I often wonder if new tech in education might be slightly over-used thus minimizing the role and importance of the teacher. For instance, the rise of tutoring in recent years shows a new trend in how students are learning as they move from in-class attendance to a more virtual engagement with the materials.
I recently spoke with the CEO of Torhea Education, Bangping Xiao, who explained how taking research education online has benefitted the Chinese high school and university students his company serves. Xiao states: “Research demonstrates students’ passion for a subject and motivates them to explore their interests. But more importantly, learning is about expanding the boundaries of current information and knowledge, so research projects require students’ imagination, concentration, and determination, all of which are key to their success in the future. Taking research education online helps connect students in China and professors in the United States seamlessly, regardless of geographic boundaries and limitations.” Where Chinese education has come under media scrutiny in recent years for lack of creativity and independence of thinking, it would seem that the upside to online education is that it serves to benefit students by empowering them to have exposure to different kinds of education and learn from the best each system has to offer.
Still, the role of the teacher has come under scrutiny more and more as distance learning is booming in many countries even if the major critique universally about this format is that there is a lack of standards for which online degrees tend to carry less legitimacy. Similarly, the online tutoring markets are growing at a phenomenal rate which shows, at the very least, the growing interest of students. On the other side of this equation is that the interaction of students with the real world is becoming quickly replaced with the internet where now students can go on a volcano field trip without ever leaving the classroom. While teachers are now brushing up on how to incorporate tech within the classroom, we must wonder if online technology might be skipping over the necessary steps crucial to learning such as in-class interactions between students and the more obvious interactions with the outside world. There are also tangential questions about the “mainstreaming of education” which is pushing the competition to the limits. However, one consequence of online learning will necessarily tease out not only the less excellent students but also those who do not possess the economic means to pay for private services to improve their scores.
So for all the benefits that technology in learning and teaching can benefit many students, there are issues that remain to be examined beginning with how much of this new technology fails to offer human interaction to include those disciplines where practice is part of learning. Other practices such as memorization of facts and laziness in non-tech studying methods is also a by-product of the tech revolution in education. For public education the questions become more divisive when we witness how private money in cities like Ottawa is being used to stem the damage done to public education by a wave of cuts throughout Canada and the United States.
In the end, if technology in learning can only reach the wealthiest of students, we might need to reevaluate if the funding of tech could be viewed in itself as a form of cheating by the wealthy who will forever hold an extreme advantage over poorer students.