Stagefright in the classroom

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
3 October, 2017
Editorial: 137
Fecha de publicación original: 13 octubre, 1998

A bad workman blames his tools

State commitment to an education which takes maximum advantage of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tends to come accompanied by one big promise: computers and connection to the Internet for all students by a given date. However, even if these objectives are fulfilled, there are still a whole lot of questions left unanswered and, in the end, the success or failure of this attempt will depend on how we respond to them. For example, what use will teachers make of these resources? How will the subjects they have been teaching since they did their training change and what will they turn into? How will they approach the change from books to the promised multimedia education? Where will this education take place? On CD-Rom, online in the Internet or via servers which they connect to only to obtain the necessary material? Will there be ferocious competition between the multimedia industry and students for the development of educational content as ICT becomes simpler and cheaper to use? Well, let’s not wear ourselves out with more questions, let’s just ask ourselves what the technological environment for learning will be: closed networks which reproduce recognisable school structures or open networks that require the design of new educational surroundings? All these questions definitely point to one of the most complex problems posed by the Information Society and one which is seldom mentioned in grand official promises, namely, the new student-teacher relationship and the global orientation of the education process. This was the subject under discussion at the Jornada Internacional de Nuevas Tecnologías Multimedia en la Educación, organised in Barcelona by the company Zetamultimedia last week, bringing together representatives from the multimedia content industry and the education ministries/administrations of Mexico, Venezuela and the autonomic Spanish regions of Valencia and Catalonia.

The most interesting conclusions could be summed up as follows:

1.- An education firmly based on ICT needs to negotiate its implantation with established circumstances, as the British government has discovered. Some months ago, Tony Blair launched his grand education project: all schools, colleges and libraries are to be connected to the Internet by the year 2002. Government and industry have set aside vast sums of money for this project. But after the sloganeering comes reality. In Great Britain, 58% of the computers already installed in primary schools and 38% of those in secondary schools are Acorn, a brand which is not compatible with present PCs or Macs. For this reason, the project is being supported by Bill Gates, as they try now to update existing computers so they are able to work with Windows. In addition, the vast majority of these machines are not in the class rooms, but in libraries, computer rooms or at home.
The second step in the process involves the training of teachers and students. The government has created two bodies, the National Grid for Learning, made up of a complex of webs where new material is stored with an index of best practice, and a Virtual Teaching Center. Moreover, a national lottery has been set up, the money from which will be destined to teacher training, to get educators used to working with the most common machines and programmes, particularly of the multimedia kind.
Commercial operations will also have their own nets to show teachers what the market has to offer. This is the first encounter of its kind “at classroom level” between industry and teachers, although it will be via the Internet. Alan Buckingham, the managing director of Dorling Kindersley’s, one of the biggest companies in the field of multimedia educational material, pointed out that this content implied a training process for teachers as well as students through an interactive relationship (in fact, Dorling Kindersley are going to change their name to Dorling Interactive Learning). Consequently, industry will have to keep itself up to date with the evolution of the education process to orientate its production. According to Buckingham, ICT is developing children’s investigative potential as they work more and more with models and simulators, essential tools for perceiving the world.

2. — Internet arrives in different ways…Guillermo Kelley , general coordinator of the Instituto Latinoamericano de la Comunicación Educativa (ILCE), which includes 13 Latin American countries, painted a sad picture which is common to the great majority of countries in the world: deficiencies in telecommunications infrastructure, the poverty and slowness of connections and the need to “bridge” bottlenecks to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet. The solution has fallen literally from heaven above. The ILCE promotes the Red Satelital de Televisión Educativa (Edusat) in Mexico. Via six TV channels (12 by January) and 24 audio ones, the network covers the whole of Mexico and a large part of the Central American region. In the former country alone there are 20,000 receptors, but the aim is to reach 150,000 schools by the year 1999. Kelley advocates a TV/PC combination to get the Internet to people via TV through the wide band offered by satellite, which allows them to use multimedia resources despite the difficulty of the return signal. The aim is to get all schools for basic education connected to the Internet via multimedia computers (20 students per computer) by the beginning of the next century.

If this objective is fulfilled, he claims, the Edusatnetwork could become the most powerful tool for redressing territorial unbalances by supplying assistance to teachers and developing subjects regardless of where they are. In this context, CD-Rom’s have become an essential part of the project. They are interactive, offer information which is easy to find and prepare people well for doing battle with the Internet. “Without multimedia materials there is no way of evaluating an education which could be available to everyone through information technology in a cheap and efficient way”, says Kelley, having just explained that in Mexico 56 indigenous languages are spoken and that there are 50,000 bilingual teachers.

…..and the teacher decides how to use it. Alba Rocío García, managing director of Quantica (whose address is, unfortunately, inoperative), dealt with another aspect of education: instead of emphasising quantity, as successive literacy programmes since the 60’s have done, she stressed quality. Alba explained that in the Venezuelan education programme, teachers are the key figures. “If they do not use materials given to them, then even the best information technology means nothing”, she claimed. The main concern of Carabobo’s government, which is using her company’s material, is that these technologies are incorporated into the curriculum as didactic material. The aim is to train teachers “to avoid being steamrollered by children” and so that they can exercise their pedagogical function. In both cases, the Mexican and the Venezuelan, and to a large extent the rest as well–, the question is how to get schools without means connected and how this connection will allow the transmission of multimedia materials. Agreements with telecom operators are fundamental to achieve this.

3.– Not everyone wants the Internet. The Generalitat (autonomous government) of Valencia, in accordance with its project Infoville, which José Emilio Cervera, sub-secretary for the modernisation of public administration, defined as a concept, a trade mark, has decided that preparing children for the Information Society must take place in a closed society. In captive telematic networks, which are the result of agreements between the public administration, Telefónica and hardware companies, initiatives such as Infomarket, Infosilio (for older people), Infocole and other infos of different kinds, have been started. The web designed by the Oficina Valenciana para la Sociedad de al Información (OVSI) to explain these projects is difficult to navigate and makes one doubt that users will be able to survive in this “electronic site” where everything is pre-packaged and there are precious few possibilities for getting out, into the Internet. According to Manuel Escuin, managing director of the company Tissat (Telefónica), the aim of the Valencian programme is that each child has its own terminal, one of which in each classroom would be connected to the internet. Each school would receive RDSI and interactive programmes via satellite. According to those in charge of the OVSI, this model will become the one used all over the world. Although the project, undoubtedly, resolves some of the most conspicuous problems in relation to teacher training, the whole world is getting connected to the Internet, and closed experiments in which traditional school structures are reproduced and where students use the computer like a blackboard, are not very successful.
Ferrán Ruiz, director of the computer education programme of the Generalitat de Catalunya (PIE) warned that these “top-down” approaches, in which solutions are given without taking the real situation into account, are doomed to failure. In his opinion, it is fundamental that students learn to use the Internet as soon as possible and interact with their teachers via their mastery of ICT. Ruiz explained that using the Net and mastering it did not necessarily mean understanding how it works, but instead what to do with it.

4.– Online offline, CD-Rom, content licensed. An education based on ICT immediately brings up the question of content and this in turn to multimedia systems. While there were very few computers in classrooms, the cost of a CD-Rom was just as exotic as its use as education material. But when we are talking about computerised classrooms connected to the Internet, the situation changes. Costs soar and even the use of this format becomes almost irrelevant. What is important is its content and how to access it. This poses new problems for the multimedia industry which, for the moment anyway, has not decided how it is going to participate in the revolution that is almost upon us. The million dollar question is: why aren’t CD-Roms put into a server where they are paid for by password and volume of use? Why not licence content and place it on the Net? To sum up, what is more important in the field of education – the format or the content?

Alan Buckingham admitted that the British Government’s programme and those of many other governments that they supply with multimedia material, is changing the market. “The mass use of the multimedia PC tends to change uses and how prices are fixed. We are studying the possibility of licensing content with a password or by means of some kind of subscription which allows access to a server where content can be downloaded”.

This formula will give rise to new kinds of intermediary businesses whose job would be to manage content developed by others at a distance, or commissioned, for education systems. Education in the Net will evolve together with commercialisation of content on the Net to save on the cost of fabrication, packaging, transport, taxes, etc. Moreover, as Pedro Acebillo, managing director of the company Gestión del Conocimiento (Knowledge Management) pointed out, being able to use content on the Net will enable one to automatically trace the use of a product and thereby the progress of students and how teachers improve their use of these tools.

Kelley suggested global agreements with companies in order to use their multimedia content via satellite because use of broadband will constantly increase. “In two or three years time, the use of CD-ROM’s will disappear in favour of wide band and powerful servers”. According to all those present, this tendency will become unstoppable as teacher training costs increase with the use of multimedia materials. In addition, education authorities, teachers and students will participate more and more in the designing of these materials, which will increase the need for systems which facilitate communication between them and industry. Industry has designed material up to now with a view to the world market, but everything points to the fact that their policy will have to be more committed to each culture’s own needs.

5.– The cultural impact. The teacher-student relationship, how administration reacts to this changing education model, the most revolutionary aspects of this model under ICT which changes the emphasis from teaching to apprenticeship and the role of private enterprise in this process, are some of the questions on which nations are staking their future. If all this could be turned into a feeling, it would be that political powers still don’t really believe that schools are changing and that they have to act. The ambivalence between technophobia and technophilia produces a kind of paralysis which stops them capitalising correctly on ICT in schools and placing the emphasis (and action) on content.
For Ferrán Ruiz, the basic question resides in student acquisition of suitable skills for each historical circumstance. Over the last 20 years, ICT has resolved many of the classical objectives of education: writing, calculating, measuring, discriminating, selecting, searching and categorising. If students do not know how to use these technological skills and fail to understand the particular properties of the technology best suited to each situation, it means that they will not be able to function in the world they have to live in. “The problem is that we want to carry on using traditional educational structures. In the Scandinavian countries they are trying to de-school secondary education, perhaps because a part of the education should happen within companies, amongst other things because of the type of technology they are using. This affects the physical configuration of educational centres and the assignation of resources. For this reason, it just isn’t enough to spend money on teacher training and infrastructure”. Content, as a part of technological training, is still the key, no matter how many classrooms we insist on filling with computers.

Translation: Bridget King.