The potential of technology to enhance the quality of schooling is well known worldwide. Technology is pervasive in all aspects of our lives, and it is therefore important that teachers embrace it and learn to use it effectively to inform their teaching and assessment practices. We need to develop an understanding of how it can be used in the education system to support and improve teaching and learning. However, in many schools, technology as it is currently used is not achieving this objective. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report indicates that in educational systems where technology is used, the impact on teaching and learning is limited and often disappointing. This raises serious questions about our level of understanding of the ways in which technology should be developed and used to support teaching and learning.
Over the past four years, a team of researchers from the HSRC, developed and piloted a technological innovation called TARMIIfp (Teacher Assessment Resources for Monitoring and Improving Instruction for Foundation Phase teachers), which was intended to support South African Foundation Phase teachers in their teaching and assessment practices. The TARMIIfp software provides teachers with access to assessment activities and teaching resources. In addition, the software package includes a facility that provides diagnostic reports on learners’ performance and an option for teachers to provide feedback and/or contribute to a bank of assessment items. During the piloting of this innovation, we encountered a number of challenges which must be given due consideration for the next phase of the project. We reflect on these challenges below as they have bearing on the use of technology in South African classrooms in general. The challenges we experienced can be grouped into three main categories: inadequate ICT infrastructure, limited computer skills and negative attitudes towards using technology; all of which are interrelated and reinforce each other. Let’s unpack these challenges further:
Inadequate infrastructure, in the form of computers and printers, is perhaps the simplest challenge to address. The South African government has indicated its support for this by announcing that Basic Education has been added to the Operation Phakisa initiative which intends to roll-out Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products in classrooms countrywide. This move illustrates that educational technology is recognised as a vital component of the teaching process. Although this is to be lauded, without addressing the challenges that prevent teachers from developing the required skills and motivation to integrate technology in their teaching, this endeavour will not meet the intended goals and will result in a very expensive, white elephant.
Teachers also reported not having the necessary skills and most importantly, the support from schools and districts to develop these skills to use the TARMIIfp software. Skills go beyond basic computer skills, extending to the ability to know when technology will enhance or impede the learning process. Teachers need to understand how content can be taught through the use of technology; as well as how teaching and learning can change when using different technologies. We have put a great deal of effort into making TARMIIfp as simple and user friendly as possible, so that even those teachers with very basic computer literacy will be able to use it.
The attitudes of teachers towards adopting new technologies may hinder progress, and is perhaps the most difficult challenge to address. Teachers rightly reject technology that diverts their attention and time from instruction. Even those teachers who were proficient in computer skills were wary of the role of technology as a teaching tool. Instead of seeing the technology as an additional task to add to their current workloads, teachers must be encouraged to view it as a time saver and to include it as part of their lesson planning.
As is the case with TARMIIfp, any technological programme needs to take cognisance of the various challenges which are encountered, in order to effect change. We need to keep in mind that technology is just a tool, and that the effectiveness of this tool depends largely on the competence and willingness of teachers to continuously engage and experiment with it. In doing so, we contend that this experiment may inculcate in teachers a culture of embracing technology to improve education in the country.
* Dr George Frempong with Dr Andrea Juan