Wednesday, May 02, 2012

New Technology, Old Education Mindset

by Salman Hameed

I think there is little debate over the usefulness of education. This is one thing that most world leaders would agree on. And many are also willing to spend a lot of money on it. But what does it take to turn around education standards in a developing country?

Some of the Gulf states in the Middle East are, of course, in the midst of an education experiment. Last year I had a chance to visit Doha for a conference and saw branch campuses of a number of American universities, from Cornell Medical School to Carnegie Mellon University (see this earlier post: Education City in Qatar). As far as I understand it, most of the costs for these campuses is paid for by the government of Qatar. Will these campuses transform the higher education landscape in Qatar? Perhaps more importantly, will it create a body of students with critical thinking skills necessary for the sciences, and creative independence necessary for the humanities? I think we have to keep an eye on this and we should be able to assess some successes and failures in the next few years.

A few days ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy raised a similar question about the school education. One of the political parties in Pakistan have recently called for giving away free laptops to kids. Pervez, rightly, asks the question, is it the laptop that is fundamentally going to make the difference? He points out that at one point television was considered the singular solution to the education problem, at another time, Apple 2C computers. And so now, we have the laptops:

Instead, the central question is: how exactly are these laptops to combat poverty and ignorance, or improve education? The answer is not clear in any developing country but is even muddier in Pakistan. The purchased computers did not come loaded with school books, supplementary educational materials, or programmes like “Comic Life” which make math learning fun. There are no locally-developed programmes, and none in Urdu or any local language. Nor have schoolteachers been trained to deal with computers as a teaching tool. Of course, there will be some Google searching and perhaps some educational material will be downloaded. But overwhelmingly they will be used for chatting, surfing, or video games. 
The false notion of technology as a magic wand has made our rulers euphoric from time to time. Few Pakistanis will remember the bulk purchase of Apple-II C computers for schools at the end of the 1980s. General Ziaul Haq’s minister of education, Dr Muhammad Afzal, (now deceased), was a progressive man in a religiously-charged government. Somehow he was seized with the notion that computers would revolutionise everything. In one of my occasional meetings with him, I unsuccessfully sought to persuade him that his idea was fundamentally flawed. Sadly, the warning turned out to be correct: it is likely that many machines were not even turned on before they were junked en masse 10-15 years later.
Earlier on, a still bigger revolution had been promised. Pakistan Television was founded on the premise that its core purpose would be education. At the invitation of the Pakistan government, a Unesco team visited Pakistan and met with the ministers of law, broadcasting, and education. In a subsequent report the team leaders, HR Cassirer and TS Duckmanton, wrote: 
“We arrived in Lahore on October 10, 1960, where we were the guests of the Regional Director of Radio Pakistan, as well as the Provincial Department of Education. We pursued our consultations with officials concerned with the following: university and college education, primary and secondary education, vocational education, village aid, broadcasting, the Arts Council”. The report document does not even mention entertainment or news broadcasts, but has paragraphs on how telecourses should be conducted. 
But PTV never made a sizeable contribution to education. For 50 years its broadcast content has been almost exclusively entertainment and news. In this period PTV has produced only two documentary serials that sought to popularise science for the general public, one in 1994 and the other in 2002.
Though to be fair, PTV did start showing education programs from the Allama Iqbal Open University aimed to increase adult literacy. These were first shown in the afternoon, and I think later as part of PTV2. I don't what happened to  PTV2 and Open University programs. Are they still on? But I think if done properly, that can still be very effective. I know that Indonesia used its satellite channels to provide educational programs across the archipelago. And televisions are indeed available across the board. But that success in Pakistan via this route has remained relatively limited. However, there may exist a study that has looked at it more systematically. If anyone knows the reference, drop me a line.

Pervez doesn't dismiss the use of new technology for education. But his emphasis is on good education values - a system that encourages learning over memorization - and that requires a change of mindset:
The bottom line: good education requires planning, organisation, integrity, resources and, above all, a mindset that is oriented towards the future and not the past. Techy hi-fi stuff has glitz, but it’s really the sub-stratum of thought that matters.
And that may apply to the experiments in higher education in the Gulf states as well.

Read the full article here.


Anonymous said...

This is sad. Even more disappointing is the current role of Pakistani media. The only TV channel back then, the PTV, did surely make a difference with its regular educational programs in 80s and early 90s (And Dr Hoodbhoy indeed played an immense role back then), the current situation is pretty much hopeless, if I am not wrong.

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