Chalk and Duster — [Republica Repost]

I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon, but the word “technology” automatically refers to the “latest” technologies, and among them one or two things. In our time, it’s computers and the internet. Similarly, the one or two “latest” technologies—whatever their uses and benefits to society—are also associated with progress, efficiency, productivity and a lot of other positive things.

Now, if assumptions like the above didn’t significantly impact major social institutions, we could ignore them. Unfortunately, the tunnel vision created by those beliefs adversely affects people and societies. When people don’t think critically about the latest technology, they not only devalue anything that is no more fashionable, they also overlook any limitations, side effects, and false beliefs about dominant technology. Let us look at the effects of these phenomena in education.

When I started teaching in mid 1990s, the only technologies that my colleagues and I had at our disposal (in a small school in Butwal) were chalk and duster. Only the better off schools had typewriters and litho machines to print (rather than hand write and carbon copy) exam questions. But the lack of advanced technologies didn’t stop us from being effective teachers, for all the other aspects of effective teaching were in place.

Needless to say, if more technologies and more advanced applications would automatically make education more effective, today’s teachers who have access to these conveniences would be far better. In reality, teachers equipped with the latest technologies do not necessarily teach better than those of the past, and their students do not necessarily use new technologies more productively and meaningfully.

The second impact of over-valuing latest technologies (especially in relation to prior technologies) is that entire means for teaching/learning can be left behind. Think about a class where all students have laptops, high speed internet, and money for whatever applications they’re asked to buy. None of these technologies and resources will make much educational sense if the resources don’t fit the teaching/learning objectives, if the teacher doesn’t have the expertise to use them effectively, or if the new tools don’t fit the classroom environment or the larger social context/culture.

A powerful example of the grand failure of adopting technology without thinking about complex educational and socio-cultural factors is that of the American state of California providing iPads for all students and then finding out that it wasn’t possible to limit students’ use of the devices to what the adults wanted. When other factors are in favor of effective teaching/learning, teachers and students can improve the quality of education without advanced technologies. Blindly following the “more advanced” means of teaching and learning can make teachers disregard even the most effective conventional teaching strategies, weaken their relationship with students based on their local social and cultural values, and even undermine education’s relevance to society.

This brings us to the third and even more significant consequence of jumping on the bandwagon of latest technology. Any technology is created and shaped by specific socio-cultural and political realities, so when the so-called less developed societies reverentially adopt latest technologies—many of which come from more advanced nations—the local contexts are overlooked. For example, a math app created in Japan for their school system cannot effectively serve the purpose of math teachers in Nepal. The app may use a very different set of examples; the cultural assumptions about teaching and learning will be different; and even in a subject like math, the variation in teaching methods and conventions will create big barriers. Now, this doesn’t mean math teachers in Nepal should not learn from their Japanese counterparts (indeed, they should learn about new subjects and teaching strategies from other places). But this is to say that technologies are rarely the transparent and neutral things.

The rush to embrace the latest technologies without exploring their affordability, considering the local social and educational culture, and the needs and challenges seems to be a product of a kind of “inferiority complex” in developing societies. Consequently, embracing the latest technology seems to boost teacher confidence. Unfortunately, that confidence doesn’t translate into meaningful teaching. For instance, the idea of engaging students through social network may not work in many contexts/cultures.

It is exciting to see our educators adopt latest technologies. Those who start exploring new applications early also learn to integrate them meaningfully into their teaching, and others learn from them in turn. However, lack of critical thinking about new tools and appreciation for established ones undermines thoughtful use, adaptation, and development of local counterparts to globally popular applications.

The longer I teach, the more I appreciate the power of conventional means of teaching. For example, I still use chalk and duster in classroom (yes, they are still available where I teach, usually placed behind pull-down screens for the computer projector) on a regular basis. In fact, chalk and duster are so useful that I often pause and talk about them as powerful education tools. I still haven’t found a good replacement that can help me write as quickly and easily as I can by a good piece of chalk.

The other day, as a student was leaving class, he took out his cell phone from his pocket and took a picture of what I had written on the board. Yes, the cell phone and its ability to take a picture of the chalkboard are amazing. But what is even more important in teaching and learning is that the students are provided resources, that they are motivated, and that the materials and means used for educating them enhance their learning in meaningful ways.

Published Republica on Sept 24, 2014

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