Gaga over gadgets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 October, 2010, 12:00am

Earlier this month, The Education Project had its second annual global summit in Bahrain. The summit brings together top education policymakers and professors, teachers and administrators, innovators and 'edu-preneurs', to discuss key issues and developments in education. The Kelly Yang Project was invited to attend (the only organisation from Asia nominated for a prize) and my colleague and I flew to Bahrain prepared to be blown away and inspired.

The central theme of the conference was the increasing role of technology in the classroom. Various panels and workshops were devoted to this. They all stemmed from the assumption that kids learn better when they are having fun. Gadgets are fun. Therefore, kids learn better when they have more gadgets.

As an educator and as a parent, I disagree. The idea that we need to make everything into a game for our children to learn is wrong. Yes, children love games. Children love gadgets. But they also love a pencil and paper - if they know what to do with it. That's what a good teacher can do. A good teacher can inspire them to read and write using little more than their imagination. A bad teacher can rely on gadgets to impress but, at the end of the day, all the children will have learned is how to use a gadget.

Call me old-fashioned, but learning maths shouldn't be a video game. Writing a good essay should not be like playing FarmVille on Facebook. And I'm sorry, but I don't really want to see my young son social networking and tweeting. I'd rather see him interacting live with his classmates.

But what if I'm wrong? What if the classroom of the future is one in which everything is a game? At the conference, expert educators proudly displayed the new whiteboard - an interactive smart board which looks very much like a giant iPad. The children could interact because they would all have remotes. Instead of raising their hand to answer the teacher's question, they could just press a button on their remote. Inclusive and democratic, right?

As everyone else in the room admired this new board, I couldn't help but feel alarmed. Could this be the end of putting your hand up in a class to speak? I remember being a 10-year-old in a classroom. I hated having to put my hand up to talk. Yet, on the rare occasions when I thought I truly had something interesting to say or an important question to ask, I did it. And in the process, I got over my fear of public speaking. By installing these smart boards, are we inadvertently hindering an important process of learning?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we should abandon technology in the classroom. Of course our children need to learn how to write an essay on Word and Photoshop a picture. But, I'm wary of bringing in too much technology unnecessarily.

First, these gadgets are hard to learn to use. They change so quickly. For every new gadget we add to the classroom, we are adding hours more of instruction for our teachers and our students just on how to use the gadget. That's time we could be spending learning something else.

Second, we have to be careful who is pushing these items and who actually benefits. The technology industry is a huge, for-profit industry. The tech guys who make these things are just trying to sell a product. But they're very good at getting schools and teachers on board, through incentive offers and other discounts. These schools and teachers can then recommend the products to students. Personally, I think that this can be (but isn't always) a conflict of interests. So be careful.

Finally, each parent has a responsibility to assess for themselves what works and what doesn't work for his or her child. Does your child really need a game with a jumping penguin to learn grammar? If not, maybe we should leave it. In the world of educating children, more isn't always better.

Sometimes, you just have to buckle down and read. Remember that, in real life, there are no singing penguins.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School




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