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Education in the 21st Century Digital World

By John Stuart
14 Sep 2018
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Education in the 21st Century Digital World

In his 1995 best-selling book ‘The Road Ahead’, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said “the computer won’t dominate the learning experience, but it will effectively augment learning, especially outside the classroom”. Gates is certainly a tech visionary but even he has been known to be wrong. In fact, 23 years later we now live in a world where the computer is the classroom. Technology has progressed to such an extent that in the developed world today, education is practically inconceivable without information and communication technologies (ICTs).

It has been more than two decades since relatively mundane educational activities such as examining & testing and digital audio-visual teaching methods were introduced. Even before that, educational institutions adopted management and student information systems to augment their management function. The student information system (SIS) started as a mere database of students but course information was soon added and this was integrated with course material and dissemination functionality. From this blueprint the learning management system (LMS) evolved – a portal from which teachers and lecturers could remotely communicate with their classes, provide virtual teaching, receive feedback and respond, receive submitted class work and monitor progress. One of the fruits of a sophisticated information system is the rich data that is generated, allowing performance analysis, early intervention and remedial action to be taken.

Such is the power of modern learning management systems that the tools are relatively easily adapted to a fully remote learning environment. Most established (non-basic) educational institutions as well as new players in the market now offer remote courses, either fully self-contained or as an off-campus component of a residential course. However, ICTs have reached further still into the educational sphere, with a multitude of software tools suited to specific subjects or fields. Some examples are:

  • Maths teaching applications such as ST Math, Dreambox and Zearn are optimised to deliver maths tuition that is suited and paced to the individual learner. Traditionally the most important yet most fraught subject in the syllabus, maths is now more accessible than it has ever been.

  • Languages are the key to education because they are the foundation on which all other subjects are built. Newsela, Achive 3000 and No Red Ink are examples of software geared toward reading and writing aptitude.

Tech giants like Google have accepted the social responsibility attached to their massive market power and innovated multiple educational tools, which will remain free for schools (but not higher-level institutions). Google’s G-Suite is an SIS and LMS in one, with advanced analytics and integrated into its affordable ChromeBook laptops. A platform owned by Google and used extensively for education – YouTube – allows users to access free video tuition content in high definition and covering a vast range of topics.

One fascinating recent application of YouTube is the Study with Me concept, originating in New Zealand. In these videos, students have recorded themselves studying, often not even showing their faces. Other students find the videos motivating and helpful in overcoming distractions, to such an extent that these channels have attracted viewership in the millions.

Study with Me is not interactive yet helpful to the student trying to overcome distractions and focus on course material outside of the classroom. This pattern, together with a more interactive focus in the classroom, is known as the flipped classroom. What used to constitute homework is now completed as group work in class, using computers in an interactive way. Students read material and respond with answers or other feedback, thereby progressing through course material in a logical way. Outside of the classroom and in self-study and research, student use computers and devices to access and read or watch material.

Interactive learning methods allow student performance data to be gathered so that the learning experience can be made more adaptive, or personalised. Since not every learner learns in the same way, ideally the learning experience should be customised to the learner for optimum results. Software such as the maths tuition program DreamBox is an example of such adaptive learning software but there are others. These systems also deliver feedback to the educator so that the specific learner’s problem areas can be better understood and addressed.

Adaptive learning technologies find further evolution in the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning. This refers to the ability of computers to analyse data to detect patterns and respond uniquely based on the particular pattern. With machine learning, educational tools acquire artificial intelligence such that the application adapts the tuition approach without needing intervention from the educator. One example of this technology in practice is the US Navy’s Education Dominance system, which has proven superiority over the non-AI alternative approach.

At the current limit of educational technology is virtual education through submersion in virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) environments. A corollary of this the use of holographic teachers – a three dimensional projection of a person as seen in the movie Star Wars. The ‘real’ teacher is in a remote location and the holograph enables them to be broadcast in multiple locations at once.

These are all three dimensional evolutions of two dimensional learning tools such as videos and animations. For example, medical students can practice surgery using VR tools, architectural students can ‘walk through’ VR buildings and chemistry students can witness chemical reactions in VR. These technologies are undoubtedly valuable and indeed spectacular, but still very expensive and so unlikely to be widely available in the near future. However, as hardware and software become more affordable they too will be increasingly found in the world’s classrooms and not just at the elite universities.

Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT), or more commonly known as ‘blockchain’, is a relatively new technology by which an electronic record of transactions can be maintained in a decentralised and transparent way. DLT technology has been most famously used to track Bitcoin transactions, but the technology is not restricted to crypto-currencies. There are numerous applications of DLT to education, one of which is the maintenance of academic transcripts to facilitate academic accreditation and combat fraud. A system called Blockcerts, which does exactly this, is already in existence.

However, the bulk of modern education and skills acquisition is not necessarily degree and diploma oriented, but based around short courses. DLT could be used to maintain a record of ‘badges’ that are associated with specific acquired skills. A system that is already implementing DLT for the purpose of verifying e-portfolios is Indorse, which uses human-based techniques such as ‘decentralised consensus’ or machine based using chat bots for validation in real time.

Another use of DLT is for identity verification for users of educational applications. By decentralising the record of app ownership, users can access their apps from any machine or network they happen to be using.

Moving our focus to the situation in our home continent, Africa is the least digitally connected continent on the globe but its pace of progress has accelerated in the 2010s. This has been the result of significant investment into broadband infrastructure, to the extent that expanding broadband connectivity in Africa has meant that it has leapfrogged the usual fixed-line connectivity stage. It is now becoming positioned to benefit from digital education tools, which are low cost and usually have a high return on investment. This holds hope that the approximately 50 million unschooled primary and secondary school age children in Africa will soon be accommodated in the education system.

Current educational technologies used in Africa are Kindle-style reader tablets, teacher-learner engagement by phone messaging and massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, Africa’s tech leaders are going above and beyond – countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda excel in the digitization of their education systems. In South Africa, private schools such as Future Nation Schools have a strong focus on entrepreneurship and technology. At the tertiary level, the University of the Western Cape has just introduced a diploma in immersive technologies (VR and AR). The Western Cape’s tertiary institutions also feed graduates to the leading tech hub on the continent – Silicon Cape.

Elsewhere in Africa, Rwanda has introduced a Master’s degree in machine intelligence, in collaboration with FaceBook and Google. In Nigeria, a collaboration with Chinese tech firm Netdragon will result in the formation of the African Digital Education Initiative and the construction of smart classrooms in over 100 districts. Netdragon plans to launch a similar initiative in Kenya too. Ghana has been hosting an initiative called African Code Week for the last four years, which sees over 500 teachers from the continent engage in a train-the-trainers course in Accra and Kumasi. Finally, the Global Book Alliance (a conglomerate of donor agencies from the US, Norway, the UK and others) is launching a Global Digital Library in Ethiopia. This initiative seeks to provide children with needed books and learning materials, using a digital rather than a physical platform. The library will contain a large collection of openly licensed material and will be made available in seven Ethiopian languages.

Technologies such as MOOCs, distance learning, learning portals, instructional video on demand also have implications for trade in services, even in the absence of preferential trade in services agreements between the countries. Every time a student pays for a distance learning course (or indeed receives it for free, as in a MOOC), a service is traded cross-border. This e-trade, which is only part of the much larger context of electronic trade, has greatly expanded the range and quality of services and goods available to a given citizen – raising overall welfare. In fact, any time a student in a developing country even acquires the skills to access online educational tools, technology transfer has already taken place.

Digital educational tools are at an advanced evolutionary level, to the extent that the tech visionary Bill Gates was not able to foresee two decades ago. Who knows how we may advance further in the next two decades. We do know, however, that Africa’s educational divide has no better chance of being bridged in the near future than with these myriad and advanced tools.

About the Author(s)

John Stuart

John Stuart

John Stuart is an economist and policy analyst with special interests in trade, economic integration, data visualisation and economic modelling. He began his career in academia at Rhodes University and later the University of Cape Town, after which he entered private consulting first with AFReC (Pty) Ltd and subsequently with PBS (Pty) Ltd. Besides economics research and teaching, he has experience in project management, general management, public sector performance management, systems analysis and entrepreneurship. He holds an M. Com degree in Economics from the University of Natal (Durban).

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