Technology is an enabler for education in the 21st Century Technology is an enabler for education in the 21st Century
How tech can be used to enhance the educational experience and make it more accessible, cheaper, and easier to learn. Technology is an enabler for education in the 21st Century

Today, computing power is available everywhere. Smartphones, personal computers, and now massive datacentres have changed work, learning, research, and leisure.

Looking ahead, technologies like realistic artificial intelligence and machine learning are on the horizon, poised to change even more.

Education is a natural fit for technology, as tech offers many ways to enhance and improve how we learn. And in a country like South Africa, these advances are particularly relevant, as getting education right is a major priority of government and the private sector alike.

This feature will look at the ways technology is affecting the education landscape today and in the future.

Changing fundamental educational concepts

Arguably, the biggest impact tech has on education is how it challenges the foundation of the learning concept.

The availability of search engines and apps means students don’t need to memorise material anymore, making traditional lessons moot.

Educators have identified this and are looking for methods of teaching students to learn and develop their critical thinking skills. An alternative to teaching blanket subjects.

This shift away from rote memorisation and into teaching critical thinking using all the tools at our disposal is just the start of the education revolution that will carry us into the future.

Personalised learning

Previously, individual learners were largely ignored in favour of a group approach. It’s been proven time and again that one size does not fit all when it comes to education.

In this outdated teaching model, factors like each student’s innate skills, individual learning capacity, and personal affinities were largely ignored. In some ways, it was like grading a fish on its ability to climb a tree.

Technology is changing that, thanks to AI and machine learning-driven educational software tools. Teachers can assess and – more importantly – quantify each student’s strengths and weaknesses to personalise their lessons accordingly.

Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools in the US, told BusinessInsider.com that “We’re currently challenging the paradigm that all seven-year-olds are exactly the same and should be exposed to the same content. We’re starting to question what’s right for this seven-year-old versus what’s right for that seven-year-old.”

Smart software that learns about its user and adapts accordingly plays a key role in this new development. DreamBox is one such example, online software that’s focused on teaching maths. Using AI and machine learning, the software adapts to the skill level of the student using it. This allows students to develop and learn at their own pace.

This “adaptive learning software” has the potential to replace old-school concepts like textbooks entirely, thereby empowering teachers to customise each student’s learning experience.

Tech Teaching Tools

Where technology really shines in an educational context is how it puts advanced tools in teachers’ hands. These tools help explain and illustrate concepts for students in new and interesting ways, and besides that, making lessons more interactive and memorable.

Digital models and simulations, that explain concepts visually or interactively are indispensable tools in the classroom.

Imagine having the human body’s functions explained verbally and with static images. Then imagine the same material as simulated biological systems displayed in explorable 3D. The difference is night and day.

One method requires careful attention and imagination, while the other is visually engaging, making the teacher’s explanations more memorable.

A brilliant example of this is Google’s Zygote Body project – a web-based and explorable 3D representation of the human body and all of its systems. Check it out at www.zygotebody.com.

Internet-connected tablets

Naturally, this requires that the traditional classroom is upgraded with high-speed internet access. This includes devices capable of retrieving and showing digital information. Tablets are better than smartphones as their screens are bigger, making interacting with them easier.

Software to coordinate the information shown to students, administer exams, and track their progress is also needed.

Therefore, the ideal classroom is one with access to WiFi-enabled tablets, connected to the school’s network, and the wider internet. Hence the drive from our Department of Education to roll out tablets and internet connectivity to schools, countrywide.

Things enabled by technology

Here is a list of a few things technology makes possible today that, 30 years ago were impossible:

  • Offers access to visual aids, models, and simulations that help explain concepts more clearly
  • Degrees can be completed entirely online, from start to finish
  • Online learning through courses on a wide variety of topics (Udemy, Hubspot, etc.)
  • Effective student-teacher communications via email/IM/project-tracking portals
  • Affordable cloud-based computation resources used for things like projects and file storage
  • Fast and easy access to research (and researchers) from around the world
  • Digital ebooks are cheaper than physical textbooks, saving students money
  • Telecommunications that unite geographically-dispersed students for lessons

The human touch still needed

Today, technology is not so advanced that human teachers won’t be needed in the future.

If anything, human teachers are needed now more than ever to help students make sense of the world around them. The role of technology is an enabler of that goal, rather than a teacher or school replacement.

And that’s what educators are focusing on: finding ways of using technology to structure and run their classrooms.

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