Beyond the computer lab: Rethinking ICT for education

Today I gave a presentation at the 3rd Annual Education Conference in Southern Africa called …

For the fortunate learners in South Africa who have access to a computer lab at school, they often only spend 30 minutes per week at these PCs. At the same time, up to 90% of youth have access to a cellphone. The argument of my presentation is that we — educators, researchers, policy makers and parents — need to engage with the full gamut of ICTs and digital media in the lives of young people when we think of their teaching and learning. It is the only plausible response.

Cellphones and (digital) gaming present opportunities — and risks — for learning. It is time to seriously consider the digital lives of young people — to exploit the concomitant opportunities and minimise the risks — so that the growing gap between their in-school and out-of-school experiences is narrowed.

Even in the computer lab, much more needs to be done to fully utilise the affordances of ICTs. Researchers from the University of Cape Town, Mastin Prinsloo and Marion Walton, present a bleak case study of how early literacy is taught at one primary school in Cape Town. They describe their observation of learners and teachers in the school’s computer lab in Situated responses to the digital literacies of electronic communication in marginal school settings (2008):

The teachers enthusiastically supported the use of this [pre-reading] software because it was consistent with their own ideas about how reading as a basic skill should be introduced: as a drill and practice activity.

Children encounter literacy in the context of the authority relations and pedagogical practices that characterize schooling in this setting.

The way they were expected to behave in school contrasts sharply with the potential of ICTs for children’s experimentation, self-instruction and individual choices and creativity

We really need to change this. If that is all we’re going to use powerful PCs for, then we might as well not bother.

Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))
Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

Access to participation: what does it mean for learning?

Last week I gave a presentation at the Web4Dev conference in New York about Access to Participation. The point I wanted to make is that while access to information is essential for development (this was the theme of the session I was presenting in), what we should really be aiming for is enabling access to participation. In other words, we need to exploit the emerging participatory culture in society that wants to create and share information, and not only consume it.

At the Web4Dev conference in New York
At the Web4Dev conference in New York

There is a wealth of information at the “bottom of the [media] pyramid” — the audience that traditionally receives information, but doesn’t get to also share local information laterally or upwards, using media. While community newspapers and radio have enabled a degree of lateral and vertical movement of local information for some years, the increasing prevalence of social media that enables a culture of participation is changing the dynamics of information flow and the power of local voice.

My presentation is online at Slideshare and the video of me giving it is on YouTube (the video is in 3 parts — I start speaking at 1 min 40 sec of part 1). View it to learn more about participatory culture and how it looks in the developing world, under the themes of contribution, involvement, connectedness and conversation, all largely enabled by cellphones.

My work at the Shuttleworth Foundation is about understanding and leveraging the effects of technology and cultural changes for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Outcomes-based education (OBE) is predicated on a constructivist learning approach, where learners make meaning through exploration and creation (project-based learning is common). There is thus an obvious opportunity to link the activities of a participatory culture with a participatory learning curriculum.

Educators and parents are no longer the gatekeepers of information. It
is important for youth to develop the skills — such as the twelve
competencies set out by Project New Media Literacies at MIT — that are
necessary to play, work and live in an information-rich and connected
world. These are the skills necessary to fully participate in society in the 21st century.

Much of what is written about participatory culture in America is very much based on rich multimedia creations: blogs, videos, wikis and photo-audio-video sharing activities. In my presentation I showed that participation in the developing world looks different (but that the desire and benefits to participation are the same).

The dialogue that I would like to begin concerns participatory teaching and learning in South Africa. These are some of the questions that we need to consider:

  • What does participatory culture amongst youth, e.g. the MXit phenomenon, mean for teaching?
  • How can educators effectively leverage the activities happening in popular culture contexts to improve teaching? (Notice that I don’t ask Can educators … but rather How can educators …. This is because I firmly believe that it can happen; it simply requires time and effort to explore this space to find the answers. In fact, I believe that exploring this space is crucial to narrowing the disconnect between learners’ lives in and out of school; a disconnect that is making education increasingly seem irrelevant to youth.)
  • What changes are needed in teaching practices, and in the mindset of teachers, to make teaching more participatory? From changing the layout of the classroom to relinquishing the expert-novice perspective, changes are necessary.
  • How can social media, such as MXit, be used to give learners a voice? How can that voice, and the literacies developed in the exercising of that voice (visual, information, transmedia, etc.) be evaluated?
  • How can digital media learner creations and activities be tied to the curriculum? In what way does the curriculum need to be changed to recognise the new media literacies?
  • What information is in the hands of learners that, if allowed to surface in a participatory way, is useful to educators and other learners? How can this information be gathered, shared, aggregated or filtered? For example, performing a discourse analysis on aggregated MXit chats in the week leading up to exams may provide clues to the issues that learners are grappling with. We may realise that fractions are something that learners just don’t get, and as a result revise those before the maths exam.
  • Peer-to-peer learning holds much potential to compliment and support an already strained education system. How can participatory culture support peer-learning, using social media?

These are big questions, and by no means the only ones in this dialogue. The sooner we begin to engage with them the better. Through popular culture, participatory culture is happening whether School likes it or not. We urgently need to begin the dialogue around how to best deal with it in a way that supports the goals of Education.

Some blog coverage of my presentation, and the other two presentations in the afternoon’s session track, is at:


EU study endorses games for learning

The article Video games encourage creativity is interesting, not because of any new findings in the study that it describes, but rather because the study was commissioned by the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection and that it endorses games as good for learning.

It’s always encouraging when governments take a mature view on video games, when they recognise “the benefits and no definitive link to violent behaviour.”

The study calls for more parental involvement — this is obvious and necessary.

Keynote at the Schools ICT Conference

This morning I delivered a keynote presentation at the Schools ICT Conference in Cape Town. The conference is attended by 500 people, mostly teachers, and is about the use of ICT in education.

My presentation The cellphone: ultimate distraction or powerful learning tool? is about the growing disconnect between childrens’ learning experiences in classrooms and outside “in the world.” I propose the cellphone as a tool that supports formal education and also informal learning, and thus as a way to span these disconnected sites of learning. (Children have multiple sites of learning, e.g. school, home, playground, etc.)

Two projects that I highlighted: Dr Math and M4Girls. Two suggested projects: an alternate reality game using cellphones and m-novels, short stories serialised into daily chapters, delivered on cellphones. The phone is used as a reading and authoring platform.

Informal (m)learning: youth and camera phones

The Red Victorian, San FranciscoMy world through my camera phone describes a project about a group of teenagers from San Francisco and Pretoria who used camera phones to document aspects of their lives, post the material online and to engage each other around that. Every week I would meet with the group in San Francisco to discuss that week’s tasks, which were related to capturing and conveying aspects of their individual culture: their family roots, the food they eat, the music they like, their community, etc. While much more research is needed, the project demonstrated that mobile phones and blogging, supported by in-person group discussions, are useful tools to foster cross-cultural awareness.

The project began to answer questions such as:

  • How do youth socially and communicatively interact with their mobile phones?
  • How can mobile phones be used to document their lives?
  • And in a world of global communications, can this mobile device be a conduit for increased cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity?

Image taken with a camera phone by Ben Dunning, 14 (CC)