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Opinions of Friday, 21 May 2021

Columnist: Kennedy Damoah

Can computers improve Ghana’s basic education system?

Photo of a student typing on a laptop Photo of a student typing on a laptop

To compete in the job market of this century, students need some basic computer training. The question, therefore, is not whether we need computers in our classrooms because they’re already here and have come to stay; the question is whether computers do improve teaching and learning.

More than 12 years since the first national “computers in the classroom” program in Ghana, little is known about how these programs improved teaching and learning. Yet, the impulse to stuff our schools with computers has been resurrected – and rightly so, due to the pandemic.

The Minister for Education, for example, recently stated that bridging the digital divide to improve virtual learning is one of his priorities. The Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT) is also advocating for one laptop, one modem for teachers.

Similarly, during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on March 9, President Akufo Addo reiterated the need for computers in the classroom. He promised that his “government is facilitating the acquisition of two hundred and eighty thousand laptops for members of the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT), the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT), and the Coalition of Concern Teachers (CCT) this year”.

The good news, it seems to me, is that the minister for education is still working out the details (per the President’s SONA speech) so there’s still time for suggestions to avoid past mistakes. Because, whereas laptops can be powerful tools for learning, laptops alone cannot improve teaching and learning.

The government will be better off if it embraces the current trends in online learning infrastructures that have been shown to improve teaching and learning.

Previous Attempts

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor proposed the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The aim was to transform the lives of school children across the globe (especially those in underserved regions). Unfortunately, the initiative failed – and with it, the grand strategy to reform education.

The government of Ghana and other countries were enticed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The government thought that handing out laptops to students might somehow transform the education system. So, in the 2007 Budget Statement and Economic Policy, the then Kufuor administration indicated that his government would enhance the usage of computers in schools.

After an initial pilot with about 100 laptops, the government signed an agreement with the OLPC program to purchase 10,000 laptops. And between January 2008 and May 2009, about 11,000 laptops arrived in Ghana for school children.

Again, in 2010, the government announced the Better Ghana Agenda which, among other things, provided laptops to school children. In partnership with RLG Communications, the Better Ghana Agenda was to distribute about 90,000 laptops to senior high and vocational schools in the country.

It was reported that at least 800 senior high schools, technical, and vocational schools benefited. This project, although well-intentioned, also fell apart like the Negroponte initiative.

Why Previous Attempts failed

Indeed, five years after Negroponte's initiative, signs of its failure were on the horizon. Walter Bender, the former president of software and content for the OLPC program (who left the organization after 3 years), admitting their flawed vision in 2010, stated that: Building a learning environment is hard work....[T]o take root, it's got to be a prolonged community effort.

If you simply present it as, "We're going to give computers to kids," the story is not adequate. The key to success is to really take a holistic approach to the servers, the infrastructure, the logistics, the software, the preparation and training, the pedagogy, and the community that is using all this stuff”.

To ensure that computers improve teaching and learning, teachers, students, and skilled technical support must collaborate. Handing out computers to teachers and students will not improve teaching and learning; instead, these computers should be equipped with online learning infrastructures such as personalized learning tools, augmented realities, assistive technologies, artificial intelligence, and many others that have been shown to improve teaching and learning.

Improving Teaching and Learning with Computers

Despite the mixed results, there’s evidence to show that some online learning infrastructures such as personalized technologies, assistive technologies, and augmented realities do help.

But compared to face-to-face teaching, the difference – if any, is miniscule. These infrastructures, however, have become part of our lives and are present in most of our devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Personalized technologies, for example, can tailor the learning process for each student, depending on his/her strength and abilities. Students are not the same: some are fast learners, others are slow learners, but when given the opportunity, they will all succeed in the end.

However, we all know that most normal classrooms do not afford students these opportunities. The teacher has 60 students – if not more, to teach and must sometimes go with the majority feeling of the class. Sometimes painfully.

With personalized technologies, students can progress at their own pace with the assistance of the teacher. Teachers can monitor students’ progress to personally provide extra support for those who are struggling. Personalized technologies are built on the principle that the tortoise will ultimately reach its destination, albeit slowly.

It should, however, be stressed that computers and their accompanying infrastructures are tools (and can be powerful tools) but they must be treated as such. Nothing more, nothing less.

The tendency to overstate what computers can do has garnered strong opposition against computers in the classroom. In a recent article,: “imagine a world where teachers are replaced with computers”, the author (John-Paul Eyinam), a primary 6 pupil, opined that should computers replace teachers, students would lose a lot.

Because teachers are more than what they do: they are “mentors. They are supporters. They are our inspirations. Inside and outside of the classroom for informative excursions, they are there for us. Better yet, they entertain us”.

The good news is that computers cannot replace teachers. Computers in the classroom need teachers to function as needed. Like most technologies, computers are mere aids to human beings. They help us work efficiently and productively.

And sometimes do the mundane activities for us so that we can concentrate on the important ones. Cars, for example, did not replace our legs. Instead, it made traveling from Dormaa Ahenkro to Tamale a less treacherous journey. It saved time, energy, and saved us from being eaten by hungry prey.

Imagine then if teachers can assign regular tests (not as a metric to compare students but to improve learning) because they have online learning systems that automatically grade assigned homework/exercises? Teachers will assign more tests/homework, and students will learn more (an idea known as “test-enhanced learning”).

Also, students would no longer perceive tests/exams as a punishment in disguise (sometimes leading to school dropouts and low self-esteem), but as an essential part of the learning process.

The Role of Teachers

Whether computers can improve teaching and learning largely depends on teachers. Their perception, attitudes, and knowledge can either be a solution or a problem. Like the car, a good driver behind the steering wheel can drive you safely home, but the reckless driver is a recipe for an accident.

Similarly, teachers who are well equipped can use computers (with their accompanying infrastructures) to facilitate teaching and learning whereas those who are ill-equipped might harm students, especially those who need special attention.

To effectively deploy computers in our classrooms to enhance teaching and learning, current teachers can receive ongoing training on how computers (and online learning infrastructures) can facilitate teaching and learning.

ICT classes for teacher trainees must go beyond mere hardware (keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc.) to current trends in online learning platforms and how their potentials can be harnessed to improve our education system.

Challenges and Solutions

Deploying computers in schools, like most large-scale policy changes in complex institutions, are rarely without challenges. However, those challenges can be well-managed when well-thought-through implementation strategies are carried out incrementally – not only by government officials but by all stakeholders including teachers and other civil societies.

Computers are tools that require resources (such as internet connectivity/access, reliable electricity, technical support, etc.) to function efficiently. These resources, however, are disproportionately distributed in the country.

Some students do not have electricity in their homes. Some can’t afford the needed devices and even if they could, they might not be powerful enough to support some apps or afford high-bandwidth internet access.

But there is no price too high for educating the youth of a nation. The government can facilitate and expand rural electrification by investing in and providing solar panels to deprived areas. Also, through a public-private partnership, the government can work with local telecommunication agencies (such as MTN, Vodafone, etc.) to provide special plans for students (say, free internet or subsidized internet for students each day from 6 pm to 9 pm).

Through similar initiatives, hotspots and Wi-Fi can be provided to schools. The government can also invest in online infrastructure that works effectively offline so that students can still use their systems with unstable internet access. And 24-hour technical support should be assembled across the regions and districts.

Some countries have succeeded in complementing the basic educational needs (such as decent classrooms, well-paid teaching, and nonteaching staff, etc.) with computers, but others have failed. We should, therefore, not copy blindly from other countries.

Of course, we must learn from those who have done it right as well as those who have failed (both have something invaluable to teach us). The initiative must be Ghana-centered: a system that serves the interest of Ghanaian school children and the nation.

Decades of research have shown that the education system can be improved when students have enough nutritious food to eat; a decent classroom that is well-furnished; adequate teaching and learning materials; a stable home; parental support; and well-paid teaching and non-teaching staff.

Whereas computers can complement these basic educational needs, where it is implemented, how it is implemented, and why it is implemented is what will make the difference.