Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Ethics, technology and learning

This last couple of days have drained my spirit, mainly because my ethics were challenged on different levels. I did not find the energy to write about it until today and it is with a sad heart that I reflect on why I have felt a bit in despair.

Why do governments politicize education? (Becta in the UK, long-term vision in Belgium)

Belgium and long/short term educational vision

In Belgium education was in the hands of a visionary politician for some years. During his reign long-term vision constructed results in getting young learners from other national backgrounds integrated in our school system (and society), and in restructuring education so it would no longer be discriminatory for youngsters who were not good in languages/maths but good in technical intelligence. He was a visionary politician because he cared about results and he crossed political boundaries while gathering his cabinet (people with lots of experience and who belief in durability, loose from political views). After yet another fall of the government a different politician became minister of education, a different one though from the same political party. He had a short term vision and wanted to profile himself, he immediately started cutting initiatives. Which one’s? the ones that got good results with young learners from vulnerable socio-economic groups and the restructuring theme that would rectify some of the big Belgian education problems (e.g. less respect for hands-on jobs).

But a society is only as strong as its weakest link: get everyone educated in something they feel comfortable with to build a strong society.

Becta in the United Kingdom

Becta is the government agency leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning. It got great results and – in my opinion – Becta single handedly got Britain into the 21st century teaching by taking all (well, many) of the teachers along the learning path into the knowledge era. They produced an amazing amount of publication, accessible to all and tackling technology/learning issues that matter to many of us.

But the government changed, and because of this Becta will be shutting down in November 2010, in spite of many good learning outcomes and products.

So why do governments politicize learning?

Why can the military achieve what civil society cannot

In the last weeks I had the pleasure of meeting people actively involved in training soldiers. I am against violence, and I do belief no one on earth, no country, should have a military, but e.g. civilian aid army. But I cannot deny that the military offers opportunities for some young adults that they would otherwise never have (but they also risk their lives). No matter what group of human society, it is always a group of humans with all their nice and less friendly characteristics.

While talking to the teachers and exchanging ideas I wondered how they managed to reach learners that society could not reach. For example: many young recruits do not master basic calculations and/or reading/writing skills. This means that society and its education missed the boat. It is true that this is a joint responsibility, schools, parents, government should work together to improve the overall state of human comprehension in our young people.

The strange thing is military does reach them, and some of these young adults actually learn content that they did not absorb before (although I assume they had the chance). So why is that? Is it because the military actually use learning techniques that attract these young adults? (e.g. some of them got a Nintendo DS to learn simple math skills. Why? All of the peers were using Nintendo DS to play games, so if anyone was using a Nintendo DS, the peers would think “ah, he or she is playing a game” – so not loosing face while actually learning to count.

Another thing was language: recruits got language training, okay basic, but still it worked and they were actually eager to learn more (at first only words were offered, but on demand of the recruits complete sentences were offered for learning).

With new technology they were also provided just-in-time first aid help lessons, with simulations they were trained for in-the-field situations….

Say results would show learning outcomes improve drastically with the use of simulations, games… (Which is proven for some digital learning activities), than why can’t the government invest more money in them to reach those hard to reach learners that the military actually reaches?

Why is it still about technology and not about learning?

All of us that depend on funding know that if you stick the latest technological hype into a funding proposal, linking it to learning in some way or another, you have a far bigger chance to get your proposal accepted. Currently European politicians linked to EU funding say: we should get more learning results from the learning projects that run/ran, what are the long-term results (if any)? And indeed learning results are what count, not the technology. But is learning today actually about learning, or is it just another economic reason to sell stuff to regions or people that sometimes simply do not have the budget to sustain these technical solutions once the funding stops?

What are we to do?

How can we all insure that no matter what, learning and human consideration will improve with any technology for learning we introduce? How can we put education on the foreground and not technology? How can we opt for long-term actions leaping across political boundaries instead of ‘look-at-what-I-did’ projects from short term leaders?