Friday, November 19, 2010

Technology in Education: Why, what for, and how

Summary of presentation on Competitiveness in America Forum (Atlanta, Nov 2010)

Sugata Mitra says that “if a professor can be replaced by a computer, then that professor should be replaced by a computer”.

This provocatively draws attention to a key in the integration of technologies in education: teachers are fundamental to the process, but different teachers, with a new role, as articulators of learning experiences for their students. A good professor is indispensible and irreplaceable.

When considering that technologies will have a fundamental role in education in the 21st century, some believe that we speak of technology devices, gadgets, iron, cables, and plastic.

Some believe that this is a passing fad which will leave, bringing school back to the essential: teachers teaching to students. Some believe that it is an invention of transnational companies, blinded by ambition and profit. Some only see political marketing, plotted by clever and unscrupulous politicians. Some don’t want to see or know.

In the following lines, I intend to contribute some general ideas around why this topic is important, so that we see that technology can be good, and it can be. I do not hope to close the debate, but open a dialogue.

Why technology in education?

How do we leave technology outside of education? There have been technological developments, particularly in information and communication technologies from the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, which have led to what is the “Knowledge Society”.

The ways in which we produce knowledge and science, communicate, learn, participate, are entertained, and share, are full of technologies that make these activities possible.

One of the characteristics of the “integration” of technologies is that they slowly become invisible. A technology is successful when we stop thinking of it as a technology. We hardly even think of the technology in a car, television, oven, or telephone. We simply use it to take advantage of what it offers us.

Well, the news is that for children, computers and the Internet are also becoming invisible. They are rapidly incorporating technology into their life strategies, in their ways of living in the world. Digital kids (the 21st century natives) are different, think quickly, can do many things at the same time, do not tolerate long discussions, find simply and quick solutions, refuse to be passive spectators, and demand to be actors and protagonists.

This is good news for society. Science, art, and business demand people with these characteristics. Routine and manual jobs are quickly disappearing, and new occupations are being created where creativity, innovation, flexibility, analytical abilities, and communication are key.

And all surveys and studies show the same thing: the graduates of today’s schools are not prepared for the working world or higher education of the 21st century.

If children are different, if the demands of society are different, can education continue to remain the same? If technology is one of the key elements in the composition of the knowledge society, technology in education is not a good option but an obligation.

What is technology in education for?

The direct answer: technology in education should be used to improve the quality of learning. It does not propose that children “learn computing”. It aims to offer students completely new learning experiences, strategies of constructing knowledge collaboratively, centered in achieving quality results that are apparent and measurable.

Curricular content still remains key, but different. What sense does it make to learn dates, biographies, formulas, and rote memorization, hardly understanding them, if everything is a click away on Google? Shouldn’t we dedicate time in school to understand, contextualize, relate, use content in a creative way to communicate ideas, to create new knowledge?

The abilities for the knowledge society should be formed in the school system. They have also been called “21st century competencies” and include: critical thinking, creativity and innovation, communication, and collaboration, among others. An education that does not propose formal and explicit development of these abilities is hindering its students, making their tasks as workers, professionals, and citizens more difficult.

The quality of education in the 21st century consists precisely of preparing students to live in the knowledge society and takes advantage of all of that technologies have to offer to make this possible.

How do we do this?

Until now, the production of education has been a “black box”, in which children enter from one side and graduate on the other, with results that nobody is happy with. The reforms until now have intended to put new inputs into the box or improve what was there: school texts, school meals, current curricula, teacher training, teacher salaries, and infrastructure. With these they have opted to “better conditions” that give us educational services.

Despite investments, the results have been unsatisfactory, and the primary reason is that the conditions have changed, but educational offerings have remained unaltered. Save the honored exception of a few schools and innovative teachers, education is exactly the same as it was one hundred years ago. The front-facing and hierarchical classrooms, saturated and encyclopedic curricula and traditional teacher training have not had relevant changes. Einstein said that one cannot obtain different results doing the same thing as always.

Technologies in education offer an unbeatable opportunity of disruption, of shaking the educational practices of teachers, students, and families, of changing strategies, pedagogies, and methodologies, by adjusting them to the needs of the knowledge society. Technology also permits monitoring and evaluation for these processes like never before.

For example, education of the 20th century proposed, with great success, democratization, that all children have access to basic education that would prepare them for the work world. Coverage in many countries of the region is practically universal and in all them, participation of children in schools has grown enormously.

The education of the 21st century is more demanding. We hope that it develops the maximum potential of each student. For this, it is no longer sufficient to offer an education that is the average of the student average. What sense does it make that the children we know are so different, are given the same materials, at the same pace, with the same strategies, without considering their diverse abilities, likes, and interests? Educational technologies permit, for the first time in history, the imagining of democratic and mass education, but at the same time, personalized.

In sum, the integration of technologies in education is not a technical challenge but an educational one. And we are not in the position to decide if we do or do not want technologies to modify the panorama of our education, but when, and how will we make it so that it presents an opportunity, especially for the poorest children, those for whom traditional education has offered fewer opportunities.


  1. Interesting perspective. One thought though. The top 10 growing occupations in California are, as follows, (1) retail salespersons, (2) registered nurses, (3) customer sales representatives, (4) laborers and freight, stock and material movers, hand, (5) janitors and cleaners, (6) general and operations managers, (7) elementary school teachers, (8) office clerks, (9) food preparatin and serving works, and (10) waiters and waitresses.

    Which 8 of these 10 do you think will disappear within 10 years?

  2. Thank you very much for your comment and your question. In fact, the phrase that you point contains two errors:

    1. The first is that, because of a mistranslation of the original version (in Spanish), said that "Of the 10 most in demand occupations in the United States, 8 will not exist in as soon as 10 years" when the original version stated that "Of the 10 most in demand occupations in the United States, 8 DID NOT EXIST 10 years ago".

    2. The second mistake is that we not disclose the source of that assertion. While we confirm the fact, I preferred to remove the sentence of the text.

    Best regards

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