Educational technology and the future of the classroom

Technology has revolutionised the classroom. AAP

As a parent of a child in education in Australia today, it would be hard not to notice the ever increasing role that technology is playing in their everyday learning. The former Labor Government’s Digital Education Revolution may have officially run its course, but its legacy is the realisation by schools and educational establishments of all kinds, that technology is now a major part of teaching and learning.

The importance of technology in education was highlighted this week by the presence of 5,200 delegates at the EduTech National Congress, a conference and exhibition of educational technology that in 2011 started with just 520 attendees.

As for any conference around education, the attendees would have been there for a range of reasons from wanting to know about the latest technologies available to hearing about the key issues that are central to education both in Australia and also globally.

The exhibition part of the conference featured suppliers of technologies that are already in, or will be coming, to a classroom in the near future. Examples included projectors that are combined with cameras allowing desktop surfaces or walls to be turned into touch-capable computers. 3D printers that could print out parts of the body or historical objects for students to interact with physically will be a more common teaching tool. Mobile and web-based learning environments, apps and resources made up the bulk of the exhibits reflecting the transition from using regular text books to increasingly interactive online teaching tools.

Turning to the conference itself, the key issue for some of the speakers talking about higher education in particular was the potential deregulation of the sector in Australia as a result of the budget. It would be an understatement to say that a variety of players are lining up to take advantage of the ability to offer sub-degrees to funded students. At the front of the queue would be the TAFE colleges and private education providers. Industry groups however might also want to put on their own degrees. Some industries have long complained that universities don’t produce the types of graduates that are prepared for the workforce.

The question nobody seemed to have an answer for was whether students would opt for cheaper sub-degrees in favour of the perceived advantage of the full university degree from an actual university.

As a whole, a topic that didn’t feature as frequently as it might have done even 6 months ago was Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. This indicated that for the day-to-day educational challenges facing most universities in Australia, MOOCs were not at the forefront of people’s minds.

Diana Oblinger, CEO of Educause, a US non-profit educational technology advocacy organisation, did mention MOOCs but in the context of what she called “Clouds and Crowds”.

The Clouds term covered learning resources, including MOOCs, and general information databases available online. She saw that students were increasingly using these resources as part of their self organised learning.

When Diana Oblinger talked about Crowds, she was using the term to refer to the growing use of crowdsourcing as a way of involving the public and students in solving problems that have been posed online.

The theme of self organsied learning was further developed by Dr Sugata Mitra who is famous for putting a computer into the wall of a building in a slum in New Delhi and observing how children interacted with it. Not only did the children learn things by themselves from the computer, it took them just 9 months to achieve the computer literacy of the average office worker.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference though would have been the keynote by Sir Ken Robinson an educationalist whose TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” has been viewed nearly 27 million times. Sir Ken made the point repeatedly that governments generally viewed education from a short-term perspective. Educational ministers in particular, both in the UK and Australia, were driven by test scores rather than the true nature of the education children were receiving.

In terms of technology in education, Sir Ken detailed the enormous potential of technologies but warned against applying technology blindly just because it was available. Perhaps the most poignant statement he made and the one that most of the delegates would be sure to try and take back to their educational establishments was “the future [of education] is not just a digital replica of the classroom”.

It is probably a big ask to not only introduce effective use of technology in education but also to use it in a way that promotes learning that is personal and emphasises creativity.

In the absence of government programmes funding and driving the use of technology in educational institutions, it will be the pioneers such as those attending the conference who take the message back to their schools and universities and try and seed change. Given the developing interest amongst educators for change, the time might just be right.