Tag Archives: Education and economics

SA education is failing but is going online the answer?

One of the pervading themes of our social discourse these days is our failing (as in not working and not passing) education system and poor teachers (as in bad and as in badly-paid). It seems everyone, from the Education Department itself, to the business community, parents and the public in general, all under-value teachers, not only in terms of monetary value but also in terms of the respect and the status given to the profession. It’s a really serious social problem that needs to be addressed.

I am an educator and have been one for close on thirty years. So for me it’s sad and demoralising when I read, hear, see and experience how lowly people perceive teachers. On a daily basis I’ve heard students say things like, “My father would kill me if I wanted to be a teacher!” Asked why, they reply, “There’s no money!” or “It’s an awful job!” Yet when parents are asked what they think is their most important wish or goal for their children, they say “education.” Isn’t that strange? What’s going on here? How can we begin to repair this damaged outlook? We can’t expect our children to be educated without teachers. And, yes, teachers have to earn respect through showing dedication to their vocation and understand it’s not just a job. Being a teacher is also being a mentor, a role model, one who socializes the youth regarding ethical, responsible citizenship.
I could go on and on, offering my own solution to the problem, but hey, I’m only an educator, what do I know? So can’t we throw it open up the conversation to allow really concerned and capable educational, social, economic parties – not the government or politicians – to come up with constructive workable plans of action?

Many who view education, like everything else in society, in terms of economics are offering solutions. One of particular interest is that of giving students computers and/or offering online education. Although very valid and logical in terms of access to information, there are very important educational and cognitive factors that seem to be overlooked. (Read Jeff Selingo’s article on free online courses – LinkedIn.com).
For example, based on the belief that teacher/student contact is no longer imperative to learning and teaching, some educational institutions are in the process of phasing out contact sessions such as lectures and tutorials, and using online teaching materials and methods. However, I believe that, if these ‘places of learning’ take away the personal contact between teacher and student, it will be the very students who desperately need the extra personal attention who will fall behind and by the wayside.
So, what’s the story here? Is this new ‘educational’ plan based on teaching and learning theory or on economics? Perhaps it’s because educational institutions get more funding for the research they produce than for the students they put through, so lecturers are made to spend more of their time on research and not on teaching in classrooms. Who wins? NOT the students. What educational values are being embraced? Is money and funding the over-riding value even in an educational institution?

On the topic of online learning, Walter Baets’ article, “Online education heralds changes” (Source: Financial Mail via I-Net Bridge on 17 Feb 2013, in BizCommunity) questions, “Will online studies be a panacea for Africa’s learning deficit? For example, in business education, will online programs stimulate entrepreneurial growth and improve practical business acumen? In order to achieve more than mere material presentation, “online learning must be delivered in an appropriate way, based on an understanding of what learning is, how people learn, and why they feel the need to learn. Simply making intellectual content available online will not necessarily result in learning. Learning is a complex process that takes place in the head of the learner, who engages with the material that is presented in a certain way and in a certain context”, says Baets.

He is not the only writer who emphasises the importance of experiential learning. Baets maintains that “A key part of this process is that people need to experience learning…… to feel it happening, similar to an athlete who can feel the burn in his muscles as he trains. For learners this should happen through interaction with peers in the classroom, or back in the workplace, where learning is doing, where theory is put into practice……it is crucial that learners be given the incentive to embark on this kind of experiential learning journey. Content must be delivered in a way that demands that learners try out what they are taught. Learning really only comes alive when it is given personal meaning. What is learned is only a small part of the equation. How the knowledge is used afterwards counts for everything.”

Baets concludes, “… online education is a blessing for the many who have little chance of gaining access to high-quality, credible educational material. But….. higher learning institutions in Africa should become more rigorous about their roles and responsibilities in developing the intellectual capacity of nations.”

For me, online courses serve to give learners access to material or content that will assist in their obtaining some form of certification but that needs to be augmented with skills gained from experiential learning.

Another view on online education comes from Douglas Rushkoff (@CNNOpinion on Twitter) who maintains that “For pure knowledge acquisition, it’s hard to argue against such developments, especially in an era that doesn’t prioritize enrichment for its own sake. But it would be a mistake to conclude that online courses fulfil the same role in a person’s life as a college education, just as it would be an error to equate four years of high school with some online study and a GED exam”.

Although Rushkoff sees the merits of online education, he has certain reservations:
“First off, subjects tend to be conveyed best in what might be considered their native environments. Computers might not be the best place to simulate a live philosophy seminar, but they are terrific places to teach people how to use and program computers. Second, computers should not require the humans using them to become more robotic. Some online video lectures are delivered according to a rigid script, where every action was choreographed. That’s not teaching; it’s animatronics… …….online learning needs to cater to human users. A real instructor should not simply dump data on a person, as in a scripted video, but engage with students, consider their responses and offer individualized challenges…..the good, living teacher probes the way students think and offers counterexamples that open pathways”.
“Finally, education does not happen in isolation. The course material is almost secondary to the engagement. We go to college for the people……..heterogeneous groupings of students based on their profiles and past performance… [classrooms] create ample opportunities for them to engage with one another in the spirit of learning. Perhaps this spirit of mutual aid is what built the Internet in the first place. Now that this massive collaborative learning project has succeeded, it would be a shame if we used it to take the humanity out of learning altogether”.

I second that. So let’s put our heads together to develop relevant and appropriate teaching and learning in South Africa in a way that makes optimal use of people, technology, knowledge and skills to deliver to our society thinking, caring, hardworking citizens. Education is a core aspect of our society and what it says about who we are and what values we uphold as a nation.