Technology and Education

There are many ways to use technology to enhance learning. I find often that technology aided learning is equated with using videos and presentations in classrooms. There are several other ways in which technology can be used in enhancing learning and often much more effectively. I am going to briefly touch upon what I consider as important ways. The emphasis of the article will be in technologies that can used for learning at a primary and middle school level. I will first identify some of the ways in which it can be used at higher levels of learning and then dive into some more details for SmartClasses and Digital Classrooms which are the technologies that hold the greatest potential in education for younger children.

Children playing some game on their computer

Learning Management Systems

LMSes have been used in higher education for a while. There are many commercial players. Moodle is a very popular open-source LMS with a lot of the capabilities of the commercial ones. LMSes provide a way to structure the academic program of a school or college. Teachers can create and share contents with their classes, track the progress of students in their class, give them assignments, receive submitted assignments, provide the grades and feedback on assignments and tests, interact with the students over text/audio/video etc. Students get these benefits and also have a platform for peer group interactions and access to a library of resources above and beyond their teacher assigned materials through their LMS. LMSes can also provide parents access to some information about the progess of their children.

LMSes are typically a web/server based solutions and would require access to technology on the part of the students and teachers. Most of the features will work with a typical Smartphone. This is likely to be more useful for colleges than schools. Schools in developed countries have started using these in various ways as well.

MOOCS

Massive Open Online Courses. These are largely used in colleges where access to teachers with the knowledge required to teach a course is at a premium. MOOCS provides a way for a single teacher to reach even a Lakh or more students. Online courses in general can also provide way for students to access teachers who are not available in the local area. This is not really a solution at the school level.

Flipped Classrooms

In a typical teaching-learning process, concepts are taught in a class and the teacher assigns homework for the students where the children get to practice the concepts by working on problems, answer questions etc. Flipped classrooms flip this model. Children learn concepts at home through videos and assigned readings and thus gain basic familiarity with the concepts. They then work on problems and questions in the classroom where their peers and the teachers can assist them if they encounter any questions.

Flipped classrooms will typically be combined with LMSes. But it can also be used without any use of technology. Like PAL systems below, for these to be useful for younger children, I believe the parents need to be educated and motivated for it to succeed.

Personalised Assisted Learning (PAL) systems

Children learn on their own using PAL system. The system shows them videos to teach concepts, gives them activities, assesses them on worksheets to track their progress. These days home-schoolers often use some PALs. There are several commercial ones and also famously Khan academy offers a very good free one. Access and ability to deal with technology is a strong requirement. I believe without educated parents who know the concepts being taught to the children and being there to help if there are problems, this will not work. IRT or Item Response Theory is an area of research that helps PAL systems figure out the learning levels of children across a wide range of competencies.

Teacher Training

Teachers can learn concepts as well as how to teach concepts through technology. Training can be augmented with instruction at the point of use. Simple instructions given at the time when a lesson is taught can work better than detailed instructions given months before when the lesson is taught. These can be aligned as part of an LMS.

There are extreme approaches to pedagogy where teachers are just expected to precisely speak what they are instructed to by an app. Or teacher is merely a facilitator with the children learning most things through a PAL system. I do not think these approaches will work especially for younger children. But I do believe technology can help a teacher improve how she teaches concepts by bringing training close to the point of teaching a lesson.

Smart Classes or Digital Classroom

Finally we have come to approach that I believe has the greatest potential. This is the approach where a teacher uses computers or broadly technology to aid learning for their class. There are two further approaches within this.

  • Computer Lab Model – There is a separate classroom in the school where children learn using technology. In this room there are many computers and other devices to aid learning. Advantage of this is that there would be many computers that children can use and resources will be shared by different classes in the school.
  • Computer in the class Model – Here the classroom or the teacher has a computer. The class may also have a projector / SmartClass setup. Advantage of this approach is the immediacy of the technology. Teacher can show something to the children on the computer as an integrated part of the lesson.
A teacher teaching a couple of students

A combination of these is also possible. There may be a computer lab where the children go by a weekly schedule and the teachers may also bring a laptop to the class for additional inputs. In small rural schools a computer teacher may bring a laptop with her/him and may teach the children Maths, English and other subjects using contents on the laptop. Given the small sizes of the classes, the children may also get to directly play educational games on the laptop.

What are various ways in which a teacher can use these contents to enhance education?

Passive Contents or Presentations

These are videos or presentations that a teacher may show to a class. These can be used to teach a concept or provide additional inputs about the concept being taught in a class. This is suitable for a bigger classroom as it can be shown to all the children at the same time using a bigger screen. However the main problem here is that the teachers tend to disengage themselves and make themselves busy doing other things. Research has found that children do not learn by just watching videos. It is extremely important that,

  1. The content being shown directly relates to the concept being taught and uses the same pedagogy. For instance subtraction can be taught by removing the second number from the first or by counting up from the second number to reach the first number. The topic should match and the method being taught should also match what the teacher is doing.
  2. The teacher should make the presentation interactive by frequently interrupting it and asking children some questions that relate what they are seeing in the video to what they earlier learnt in the class.

If a teacher uses passive contents in the proper way, it can be effective in enhancing the learning. There are many contents available on the net as well as for download to be used locally. Khan academy offers very good videos for teaching almost all topics in Maths. There are many free resources for teaching English, even ones created by government institutes in India like Hello English by Regional Institute of English, Fun with English by SSA Tamilnadu etc., or the website Starfall with several videos on teaching Phonetics.

Active Contents or Games/Simulations

These are contents that children directly engage with to learn some concepts. Typically these are games or simulations. Teacher selects a game for the students to play and through playing those games children get to learn or practice concepts learnt in the class. Games typically come in handy to practice concepts learnt in the class. Teachers’ work is easier in that the children largely learn on their own by playing the appropriate games. The main drawback of this is that this will require much larger number of computers or computing devices for a given number of children.

There are many multitude of games available especially for Maths and some for English. TuxMath provides a simple game to give practice to children of basic operations at different levels as would suit the student. Many websites like basic-mathematics, ictgames etc. offer a good set of games for Maths and English.

Second category of active contents, Simulations, in my mind really demonstrate the most effective use of computers in education. These bring to the classroom things that the children otherwise cannot experience first hand. The following tools demonstrate the power of simulations.

National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (NLVM) are virtual recreations of popular Maths manipulatives like Diennes Blocks, Colour Chips, Clock, Geoboards and also some not so common ones. Children can have access to these even in schools where these are not available. Beyond that the tools also provide experiences that cannot be replicated in their real physical counterparts like the Diennes blocks where a 10 piece automatically splits into 10 unit pieces when you move it to the one’s place or vice-versa.

PhET provides simulations of several experiments in Science. The simulations show the behaviour of objects and systems in a way very similar to real objects. The students can essentially do an experiment on their computer and see results that are very similar to doing the experiment with physical objects. These provide access to things that are way beyond what will be physically available in a classroom.

Geogebra is a Maths visualisation tool. It can help visualise many of the concepts students encounter in their schools or even colleges. From simple things like fractions and LCM/HCF to complex polynomials, it can help visualise many concepts.

There are some other tools like Matlab that can also be used to great effect in classrooms. If readers know other good tools, please let me know.

Classroom or Offline Activites

Technology can provide easy access to tools to help conduct classroom or offline activites. It can provide video instructions and materials required to conduct an activity. Lesson plans and worksheets can be given to teachers. Online lesson plans that help you track progress against them are often part of most LMSes.

There are many good examples of offline activities for which all the necessary tools are provided online. MathPickle is an especially good website that provides many Maths games that can be organised in classrooms from classes as young as 2nd or 3rd standard. The games address skills that are not part of a typical curriculum. Schoolhouse Bingo provides ways to generate Bingo games that can teach basic Maths and English concepts.

Programming

Another interesting way in which learning of Maths, language and science can be improved is through programming. Code.org, a popular resource for teaching programming for kids as young as those in Kindergarten through the school years is premised on this. Programming improves several reasoning skills in the children which also improves their learning of other subjects. Further programming can be used to demonstrate Science and Maths concepts which can further their understanding of the underlying concepts. For instance a student taking part in developing a program which will show a dot moving in an elliptical orbit around another dot while sweeping equal angular areas every unit time will develop a very good understanding of Kepler’s laws. But the main drawback is that even though resources can be made available, this kind of employment of programming in teaching will require teachers who are qualified in programming.

Data Collection and Analysis

Large scale data is required in policy making in almost every sphere. Education requires significant data collection, analysis and presentation. There are couple of very good efforts underway in India. Unified District Information on School Education (UDISE)  captures basic data about all schools in India. It also provides good tools to access data of specific schools. Further it provides an excellent dashboard to get broad information about the overall state of schools in India or specific states. National Achievement Survey or NAS is conducted by NCERT for a sample of schools every three years to track the progress in education in India. This is once again conducted well and the data is presented well in their website.

These kinds of large scale data collection, analysis and presentation is not possible without technology.

Summing it up

There are many way in which technology can be used in secondary and tertiary learning (i.e. higher secondary schools, colleges and beyond). Personalised Assisted Learning offers potential but it utility for teaching younger children is likely to be limited to cases where the parents have good education and can help the children in their learning process.

The primary ways in which learning can be enhanced at primary and middle schools through technology is through teacher training and with SmartClasses or Digital Classrooms. These have great potential to help further education in India. Currently Technology aided learning is equated with a projector in a classroom and showing videos and presentations to children. While this is one way to improve learning that too when used in a correct way, there are many other ways in which technology can improve education in a classroom.

Outside of the classroom, technology can also be used to improve education delivery through large scale data collection, analysis and presentation.

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