Beyond just chalk and talk

Updated: Apr 7 2014, 21:10pm hrs
Talk to people from the K-12 technology space and they will wax eloquently about how technology is going to transform the school landscape. One will hear words like flipped classrooms, mentor, not teacher, collaborative learning, learning by doing and so on.

That said, such practices and tools are available and can be enabled by technology. That such models already exist and are being effectively used in India is also true. But the assumption that all schools in the country can successfully adopt and implement such approaches and the associated technologies is not so obvious.

New technologies are exciting. They are cool. They are fun to experiment with. Many of us want to be seen with the latest gizmosbe seen as someone who is ahead of the curve. However, the true value of technology to a school is within a framework where it is effective. Where it can deliver real benefits. An International Baccalaureate (IB) school adopting a collaborative learning technology makes sense. Class sizes are small. Basic approaches and philosophies match. The staff is skilled in using such approaches.

But assuming that a large-scale rote-learning school with 40 kids to a classroom and middle-competence teachers can adopt a collaborative, tablet-based approach is flawed. The technology needs to fit into the schools model. The school will not change its model to fit in new technology.

However, many schools do make such choices. They will go out and acquire such technologies. These technologies will then be showcased to the parents. These schools will be positioned as cutting-edge, and these technologies will be held up as evidence of a school being forward-thinking and progressive.

So far the future of the classroom has been driven by economics, i.e. by the profitability motive of schools. In the future, I sincerely hope it will be focused on benefiting the student. Then the focus can be on which technology helps the school meets its own educational goals the best.

The school needs to be clear and cognisant about its own model before it goes shopping for technology. Different sets of schools have different sets of goals. Some want to see holistic learning. Some want to create IIT toppers. Others want to create championsin sports, theatre, art or academics. Yet others may have their principle need of getting their students (and often teachers) to speak good English.

Technology is nothing more than a means to an end. Technology, by itself, rarely solves a problem. It has to be part of a larger solution which involves people, processes and technology implementation in the right manner. Only in the presence of such an ecosystem does any technology has a hope of being effective.

We can look at the digital classroom industry in this light, and understand its success (assuming wide adoption can be equated to success). This technology solution is typically a set of hardware accompanied by a library of content which is meant to provide a rich in-classroom teaching aid to the teacher. In some cases it also helps buttress the ancient gaps in the Indian education systemof teacher quality. All the providers of such hardware and content are clubbed under the bucket of the education service provider (ESP) industry. An ironic name given the current state of the industry.

But the ESP model has worked because it fits in largely with the current teaching-learning model in most schools. The teacher is still the sage on the stage. There is still full provision for chalk and talk, but now on a white-board. The teachers still decide the pace and content of teaching and it is still largely on-way delivery. The basic model remains unchanged.

So the technology fits with most schools model easily. But even with ESP solutions, usage can still be erratic. This is because many teachers are not fully convinced about the value of digital content or they are just not comfortable with the change. To facilitate and enforce such change and make it systemic in nature is the job of the school administration. And it needs to be more by carrot than by stick. Now if we fast-forward to today, the learnings for implementing a new technology are simple.

It is because of flawed implementations that cloud-based ERP solutions often fail in schools. Some schoolsespecially more traditional ones which are set in their waysare unable to set up the full ecosystem with processes and manpower oriented to effectively use such solutions. It requires too much change on the schools part.

So what is the best way to go about implementing technology solutionsespecially those directly impacting learning

Understanding the fit is the first aspect of evaluating any new technology. If the school acquires technology that fits well with its model, that is a great start. Effective implementation of such technology so that the promised benefit can be delivered is the second critical step. This involves a lot of steps including restructuring the system, training the implementing team, motivating the learners, etc. Once implemented, the ongoing measurement of the effectiveness of the solution in achieving the promised results is the final step. This is critical to ensure ongoing success of any technology solution in a school. The evidence touted today is mostly anecdotal. A school installs a robotics solution, and then wins a robotics contest. The question iswas such an intervention successful in bringing about a change in the understanding of robotics across the student community of that school. If yes, then it has been a success. So the school needs to be able to measure that.

Such an academic success may or may not lead to economic success. But the goal should be considered as achieved if the targeted students have benefited. The economic success is incidental. Unfortunately, today, mostly the economic success is critical, and the student benefit is incidental. I hope that changes going forward.

Chetan Mahajan

The author is the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd