The perils of e-fixation

Picture used for representative purposes only. Photo: M. Periasamy  

A new study carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has generated sufficient evidence to say that computers in schools do not necessarily contribute to higher achievement levels by children. The study compared different OECD countries in terms of the average daily time spent by children in computer-assisted learning in the classroom. It used this data to review the achievement levels of children in these countries in the surveys conducted under OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The findings have received worldwide attention, both in the daily press and scholarly circles.

Krishna Kumar

In India, however, the news of this study aroused no interest. Like all Western countries, India has invested a vast amount of public funds for the supply of computers to schools. Since the 1990s, State governments have spiritedly promoted the use of computers in teaching. In private schools too, the idea that computers enhance children’s academic achievement has been assumed to be true. The OECD study compels us to revisit this assumption and the policies based on it.

The OECD study uses two kinds of data from different countries. One set of data consists of children’s scores in the PISA tests of reading and mathematics. The other set of data is about the availability and use of computers and Internet in schools and homes. These two kinds of data have been analysed to find out whether computer-based teaching in the classroom improves children’s ability to read purposefully, and their performance in science and mathematics. The analysis leads to mixed results.

East Asian countries score

In countries where computers and the Internet are used frequently in the classroom, students have not consistently achieved high scores in digital reading, maths or science. On the other hand, countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore, where classroom use of computers and the Internet is relatively limited or minimal, students have achieved consistently high scores over the recent years. This finding has understandably raised some basic issues and questions about the policies followed in major European countries with the OECD’s inspiration and guidance. The finding also causes a dilemma.

It is an accepted fact that young people need to be competent in the use of computers and Internet in order to do well in the job market. If the new study means that German or British schools are fulfilling this at a high price, what should they do to reduce that price? As a first step, the OECD study implies, the European world needs to learn from countries like South Korea, Singapore, Japan and the Shanghai region of China where the highest PISA scorers live.

It is not just the OECD that has seen cause to be impressed by teachers in some of the East Asian countries. Scholars and travellers have been telling stories of a similar kind for years. These are stories of better-managed school systems and more focused policies. Of course, there are contradictions too, and it is not easy to believe that East Asian children are significantly less vulnerable to the problems that easy access to the Internet create. As noted American child psychologist David Elkind has pointed out, these problems are both cognitive and emotional. He has advised caution in the use of new digital tools for teaching children.

The OECD study suggests that East Asian countries are exercising this kind of caution. In any case, the policy environment across East Asia is a lot more positive as far as teachers are concerned. Imagine teachers being lathi-charged in Singapore or being underpaid, as they are in the State of Madhya Pradesh.

As a nation, India has persisted in meting out shoddy treatment to children and their teachers. State policies have become increasingly inexplicable. How would you explain, for example, the distribution of free laptops to thousands of children in Uttar Pradesh? Ultimately, the State government stopped the distribution and admitted that it was a mistake because it had not yielded the expected electoral dividend. States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra have pursued equally bizarre ideas in their curriculum policies.

In many regions of India, lack of focus and volatility characterise both routine and reform activities in education. The two things that count in childhood — health and education — have become scarce, expensive commodities. Yet, in all States, equipping schools with computers is treated as a reliable short cut to higher quality. This is why it is important that the OECD study is read and discussed in State-level Directorates of Education.

One important message the OECD study conveys is that teachers matter even more in computer-equipped classrooms. The digital environment requires a greater engagement between the teacher and students over any subject matter. This necessity arises out of the nature of tools involved in the new information and communication technologies (ICTs). Both the speed at which the technologies respond and the quantum of information they provide need dexterous negotiation by the user. Students using a computer with Internet need to develop considerable experience and skills of mindful reading to be able to spot important points and trace how they have been arrived at. When a variety of sources are available, students need to know how to distinguish reliable sources from the rest. Skills of this kind require painstaking guidance by a competent teacher. Indeed, the engagement expected between the teacher and the student would be higher in a computer-assisted lesson than in a conventional lesson.

Indian administrators lack vision

This is not the way government officers in India look at ICT in education. Over the years, they have treated the computer as a device that can make the teacher dispensable, even disposable. Millions of rupees have been spent on equipping schools with computers and millions more have been saved by reducing expenditure on teacher recruitment, emoluments, and training. The administrators responsible for educational planning and implementation have no idea or vision of their own, and they seldom stay in their post long enough to witness the consequences of their decisions.

When it comes to preparing children and teachers for the problems and demands that the digital environment poses for education, India’s policies seem to be unabashedly romantic. Purchase and supply of technology to schools appear to be the only challenges the government worries about. At what age children need introduction to ICT and how their progress is to be guided have received considerable attention in national-level resource institutions, but who cares for their advice? In the States, directorates do as they wish or as the Ministers wish. New equipment has been conventionally valued for its toy value. The market, in any case, perceives schools as a legitimate target for bulk sales.

So, we now have schools without water in their toilets but CCTVs fitted all over. Conventional resources like maps and libraries receive no attention anymore. The new-age administrators believe that the Internet can address all pedagogic needs. They do not understand curriculum policies or examination reforms. Nor do they appreciate the progressive initiatives taken under the Right to Education (RTE) law. The Delhi government is busy deleting chapters from textbooks and the Rajasthan government is ready with an amendment to the RTE so that its provision for no-detention can be dropped. In the middle of such determination, it is difficult indeed to imagine that the OECD study will receive any attention in India. Yet, it is just as relevant for us as for any other country. It reminds us that learning at school needs sober planning. It also points out that some of the most popular ideas and assumptions of our time require further reflection and fine-tuning. This advice is, of course, not new. Teachers and educational theorists all over the world have been counselling caution for years. How the new digital order affects childhood is a subject no one can claim to know or understand fully. The OECD study asks us to reflect on both the potential and limitations of the new tools now available for learning and teaching.

Psychologists started to decipher the process of learning in childhood more than a hundred years ago. Jerome Bruner, arguably the most respected living psychologist today, wrote in an article a few years ago that a century of research on learning tells that we know very little about it. That means we need to be modest in our hopes, and substantially worried about the tumult our children are facing in a world that looks radically different from the one their parents know and live in.

( Prof. Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT.)

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