Losing our way on e-education

The education sector was one of the first to embrace the use of ICT but despite the obvious benefits of students bringing their own laptops to the school and assistance packages in place to ensure that it’s a reality for all, e-education seems to be stuck in a rut. After an impressive start, development has slowed to a trickle and realising the dream of a true e-education system has proved to be difficult.

Initially it was rather hard to find out why that was happening. A range of education reforms have been tried over the last decade, but with limited success. They included competition-based school systems, vouchers, and pay incentives for teachers.

The focus has now seemingly returned to devising a fundamental change through which ICT can play a key role in the transformation of the education system. This will require higher levels of transparency, broader community engagement, shared responsibilities and, above all, collaboration at all levels.

As has become clear through wider business and society developments in relation to the digital economy, really rewarding and good outcomes can only be achieved if industries and sectors understand that they need to transform. I have mentioned in previous analyses that a professor from one of the early universities or schools, established in the Middle Ages, would certainly recognise today’s education system, with its schools, classrooms, teaching methods and so on.

However, if you look at today’s university students you see that fewer are following the classroom lectures and tutorials (only if they are forced to be there in order to get the points). They work from home or congregate with their computers in libraries, lawns, corridors and meeting places, where they collaborate in their studies.

This offers a glimpse of where the education system will have to move to. It will have to totally review its centuries-old structures and start looking at a far more integrated system that involves the students, their fellow students, family, the communities around them, businesses, government and so on.

What’s needed is a total, holistic review of the role of ICT in the education sector. We need to take a broader view in relation to digital developments; it becomes clear that simply bringing in ICT is not going to make the changes that are envisaged. Furthermore, consumer electronics are not necessarily the devices needed for e-learning.

Only when the educational transformation takes place will it be possible to see what specific e-learning processes and tools are needed. At this stage that is far from clear.

There are significant differences in learning and teaching processes that need to be applied to specific groups of students – eg, multicultural environments, disadvantaged children, in some cases girls, rural situations, high achievers and so on.

There are already education processes in place, or underway, to address these differences, but much more needs to be done and in each situation the role that can be played by ICT needs to be assessed.

This will also require a change in the approach of the ICT industry. They will have to become an integral part of e-learning, rather than a supplier to education. We already see that some companies such as Cisco and Google are actually placing some of their e-learning engineers in the schools, in order to better understand the transformational processes that are taking place and come up with better ICT solutions.

Self-learning in developing economies

One of the new developments for the developing world is that often, because of a lack of a more general well-functioning educational structure, many children miss out on good education. However, like any other child, those deprived of proper schooling have interests and a need for knowledge, information and learning. What can now be observed is that children in these countries with access to mobile phones or computers start a process of self-learning around topics that are of interest to them. Games often form a part of that learning process, and trade-related information is another keenly sought-after app requirement.

Currently 40 per cent of all mobile phones sold worldwide are smartphones, and within the next three to five years half of the world’s population will use these phones. Specific applications can be developed to facilitate this process of self-learning. The development of e-books, especially in relation to education, will also boost the dissemination of knowledge. Often schools in developing countries are using learning materials that are decades old.

Schools as platforms for individual learning

The situation in the developed world, where excellent education systems are in place, will be different. Lessons can be learned from this. First of all, e-learning allows for a far more individual approach. Schools should become the places where self-learning processes are fostered and where students are encouraged to explore this. Specific individual interests can be linked to such a platform as well – eg, closer links to trades, industries and business – and others outside the traditional school environment can be linked into such environments as well.

Often certain groups have more affinity with similar groups in other countries than with education groups in their own country. Rural and multicultural groups are good examples of this.

ICT would enable ease of sharing of international resources. The same would apply to specific experts. You often hear ‘only the best for our kids’ but it is impossible to have ‘the best’ at every school in the world; sharing is essential if children are indeed to be able to get the best.

While a great deal of progress has been made in relation to ICT in learning, what we need to do now is step back and explore the role of  ICT in these transformation scenarios, and then investigate what needs to be done to advance e-learning further into the future.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.