ICT is to Education as a Treadmill is to Fitness

It’s heartwarming to see the passionate debate over at Educational Technology Debate, ensuing from Toyama’s post, “There are no technology shortcuts to good education.” The Jester also would like to acknowledge Stephen Downes, who wrote an articulate point by point rebuttal to Toyama’s article. (The Jester notes, though, that Downes seems to be coming from the perspective of rich-world tertiary education, which is exactly what Toyama wasn’t writing about. Incidentally, if anyone would like to be a Guest Jester and rebut Downes, the Jester would be delighted to cede the stage).

Although the Jester is slowly coming to the conclusion that there is little point in trying to convince people who are pro-technology otherwise, he will give it another shot here, and respond to the main classes of responses that were received.

Throughout, the Jester will use an analogy for ICT in education (which he hit upon while out for a jog in the chilly north end of the Bay Area): ICT is to education as exercise technology is to fitness. The parallels are as follows…

  • Fitness only happens when the person does the work (at least with current technology – electrical ab stimulators notwithstanding!).
  • Education only happens when the learner does the work (at least with current technology – we don’t yet have the kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix).
  • Thus, the key challenge of exercise is the motivation of the person.
  • Thus, the key challenge of education is the motivation of the learner.
  • Children are naturally dynamic and want to exercise, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good athletes.
  • Children are naturally curious and want to learn, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good thinkers.
  • Treadmills may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • Computers may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a treadmill is the inspiration for someone to stick to a tight exercise regimen for the long term. But, these people will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a computer is the inspiration for a child to seek out further learning for the long term. But, these children will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • Treadmills may be convenient; they can do some things that help with exercise; and they could certainly be part of a good exercise program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for exercise that hold up well against treadmills (and other exercise machines).
  • Computers may be convenient; they can do some things that help with education; and they could certainly be part of a good teaching program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for education that hold up well against computer (and other ICT).
  • If someone is terribly out of shape and as their doctor, you could pay for either a treadmill or a personal trainer, you would pay for the personal trainer. A good personal trainer can coach someone into shape with little technology, while there is no guarantee that the person would actually use the treadmill.
  • If someone is behind in their education and as their administrator, you could pay for either a computer or a good tutor, you would pay for the tutor. A good tutor can coach someone into learning with little technology, while there is no guarantee that a student would make productive use of the computer.
  • Where large numbers of people are out of shape, what you need is to enroll them in an exercise program with good personal trainers.
  • Where large numbers of children are not learning, what you need is to put them in a school with good teachers.  

Using this analogy, the Jester now clarifies some points on Toyama’s behalf:

First, as Toyama tried to emphasize, the admonition against overenthusiastic use of ICT in schools is directed mainly at primary and secondary schools, where students’ motivation and direction are (for the most part) not dependable for good education. On the other hand, by tertiary levels, many students have the motivation and direction to study on their own, and the power of certain ICTs can certainly help, just as college students with an exercise habit can benefit from a well-stocked gym.

Second, much of the challenge in education, particularly in publicly funded developing-world education, is remedial in nature… and not just for the students, but for the entire school system. Effectively, what you have are couch potatoes languishing under the poor guidance of uncaring coaches. It might require a Herculean effort to turn all stakeholders – athlete-to-bes, coaches, managers, fans – around, but without doing so, no amount of fancy exercise equipment will make a contribution. Having said that, school systems where good education is happening could certainly benefit from ICT, just as a healthy athletic program would benefit from treadmills and weight machines.

Many respondents repeated variations of the need for “21st century skills” by which they meant capacity to use high technology. Yes, the world is full of technology, but there is a huge difference between being able to use a technology and being able to do meaningful things with the technology. The former requires technology to learn, but the latter requires mature thinking skills. The former is easy to learn; the latter is difficult, and therefore requires attention in school. Athletes today use state-of-the-art technology when they compete – “technology is everywhere!” - but while the technology gives them a boost, their real advantage is years of training, often in low-tech circumstances. Many Kenyan marathon runners, for example, grow up training barefoot. Does every child have to run with Nike Air technology to become a world-class runner? It might even be argued that learning how to run without the technology makes one a superior competitor when the technology is available.

Some people noted that ICT can extend education beyond the classroom. This is true for motivated, self-directed children, but those are few and far between at the primary and secondary levels, especially when they have never experienced a good educational environment. It’s like saying that couch potatoes without a habit of exercise will suddenly exercise more if you put a treadmill in their living room. The Jester guesses that most such treadmills are dramatically underused.

Finally, a class of respondents talked about the opportunity cost of NOT providing ICT in education for the future of the country. As Mike Trucano noted at the World Bank blog, this is a line of argument that inspires fear in the hearts of education ministers. Unfortunately, it’s misplaced without showing that ICT can really make a big impact. In economics, “opportunity cost” means the best alternative to the purchase in question. So, the opportunity cost of ICT in education is what you could do with the ICT budget if you spent it on something else in education. The Jester asserts (as did Toyama), that there is a lot, and a lot that is proven in rigorous studies to be impactful.

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