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Colleges must not be left out of eLearning thrust
02/04/2012 00:00:00
by Rodwell Chitiyo
 
 
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INFORMATION Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa has to be highly commended for his determined effort at bridging the so called “digital divide” by facilitating access to computers and related technological hardware to Zimbabwean institutions, in particular schools.

Such access to computers by students at whatever school or geographical location is a boon, and a motivating factor to both teachers and learners. However, for the nation to reap full benefits from the computers being distributed, it may be necessary to examine our technology integration policies and frameworks.

Assuming such a policy and framework exists as it relates to, for example, the sister Ministries of Education, one would also have to assume such policies and the resultant implementation and integration frameworks are informed by principles and empirical knowledge from the relevant fields.

Research done in Zimbabwe and the region has shown that there are major constraints to effective, competency-based use (integration) of computers in education. Assuming we have the technology (access to which will be discussed in detail below); the first problem is that of teacher competencies in terms of the effective use of computers in teaching and learning.

Computers are man-made machines which require knowledgeable and skilled personnel to use them, especially so when the computers are used to teach specific subject content to students from primary school right up to university. Put in other words, computers are only tools, and will need skilled teachers to use them effectively. A good tool in the hands of an unskilled workman is unproductive, and in the worst case scenario – harmful!

Minister Chamisa’s comments on the need for caution in using computers and especially the Internet, speaks to that need to have capable teachers guiding students to safely use the technology. The ability to electronically manipulate whatever subject matter content and in different disciplines, and effectively teach it demands considerable levels of technological knowledge and skill on the part of the teacher.

If teachers are not conversant with the basics of using computers and the Internet at different grade levels, which research has shown, how then are the teachers going to effectively integrate the hundreds, if not thousands of computers which have been donated to schools across the country? The answer is simple: they are not able to accomplish that task. That unfortunately, drastically minimizes the benefits obtained from these donations.



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Without getting into the nuts and bolts of the effective use of computers in teaching and learning, it is imperative to point out that schools should move away from using the computers just “like type writers” as the President has cautioned. It should also be noted that even if schools are able to use productivity software like MS Office suite and the thousands of stand-alone educational software now available (and there is no evidence to support that), the ultimate and seamless integration of the computer in teaching and learning may only be achieved through connection, access, and knowing how to effectively use information and digital tools and resources on the Internet.

These range from learning and content management systems, tools and applications, digital repositories of data and knowledge covering all disciplines, open source content and resources, to the vast expanse of social networking multi-media.

This brings us to the issues of access. The main barrier or constraint to the use of computers in teaching and learning in Zimbabwe is lack of ready access to the technology. First, there are infrastructural constraints like lack of power to run the technology, and that power needs to be supported by accessible roads and transport systems.

Next, there is need for adequate bandwidth to enable efficient connection to the Internet, and the need for the respective technological hardware and software. All these infrastructural aspects will need computer and ICT technicians and engineers to design, procure, install and maintain them.

Of course, without cyber and physical security experts and personnel, we all know what will become of the computers. It would be interesting to find out what has become of the computers donated to many schools across the country over the last ten years. Indeed, it would be even more interesting to evaluate and find out what the computers have been used for over the years, especially in the absence of consistent power supply; internet access or connectivity; and computer-trained teachers, to mention some of the constraints.

Now, my point in raising the issues is not to discourage in the face of these challenges. In time, and given the right leadership, policies and operational frameworks, these barriers should be overcome. A discussion of possible ways of dealing with these challenges is beyond the scope of this article. However, in the meantime there is a need to make a strategic retreat and channel national resources to where they are needed the most, and to where the country will get its return on investment.

Supported by research, it is common knowledge that “teachers tend to teach the way they were taught”. So if teachers were taught without or with minimal exposure to computers, let alone expertise, they are unlikely to expose their own students to computers, even when these are available in the school.

In other words, if a teacher has gone through a teacher education programme without a good computer integration component in his or her training, he or she will not likely be able to use the computer for effective teaching and learning. If the majority of our teachers are not able to effectively use computers for teaching and learning, then our thrust towards eLearning will remain just that, a thrust and a dream.

Besides the need to inform ministerial policies with empirical knowledge and best practices from the field, I would like to propose that as many computers as possible are donated to teacher education colleges and universities first, even to saturation point, i.e. to a point when each student teacher will have sufficient access to computers and high-speed internet throughout their training.

Just imagine the multiplier effect of the graduating teachers going to teach in all regions across the country with state-of-the-art computer integration skills. Wherever they will go to teach, it will be known that if computers are available, they will champion the effective use of those technologies. Where computers are not available, you can imagine how eager and motivated these teachers would be to pursue avenues to have some at their schools.

By concentrating computers in colleges and universities first, the nation also takes advantage of the infrastructural capacities and capabilities of these institutions. Typically, all these institutions have secure building structures and security personnel; consistent power supply; are easily accessible by road; have skilled ICT personnel, and have some form of reliable internet connectivity.

Given recent developments in securing cabled internet connectivity, all institutions in the country ought to have adequate broadband for speedy access to the internet for all students and staff in the very near future. It is also at these institutions that one should be able to find lecturers with technology integration expertise. Not only will this concentration of resources and expertise create the momentum to effectively use computers in teaching and learning, it will create what may become “centers of excellence”, where teachers in the field may come back for in-service training or staff development workshops.

These institutions, because of their propensity to do research, will likely initiate and/or lead inquiry and publication in technology integration in Zimbabwe. With Zimbabwe generating its own problem-based scholarly research, publications and best practices, the nation’s road to eLearning will no longer be just a dream, but be a reality.

Minister Chamisa’s vision to transform Zimbabwe into a “digital country, a knowledge economy” also requires a transformative approach, and that approach starts with informed leadership at both national and institutional level. Such a leadership should be in a position to move away from posturing and political rhetoric, to a practical and realistic approach based on conditions on the ground.

That practical and transformative approach demands that national resources are first channeled to institutions with the capacity and capability to champion the transformation of society.

In terms of computers in education, the bulk of computers and related technological support should go to teacher education and universities first. That way, computers and resources are not donated in vain to schools without the infrastructure, personnel and resources to utilise them optimally and effectively for teaching and learning.

Rodwell Chitiyo is a Zimbabwean academic based in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States


 
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