Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics

For some people in other parts of the world, it was the picture of two top futbol teams playing in an empty Estadio Azteca (one of the world’s largest capacity stadiums) that made clear the severity of …

  • For some people in other parts of the world, it was the picture of two top futbol teams playing in an empty Estadio Azteca (one of the world’s largest capacity stadiums) that made clear the severity of the swine flu outbreak that struck Mexico in 2009.  While the sporting passions of the 100,000 missing spectators could presumably satisfied by watching the game on TV, it was less clear how to immediately satisfy the learning needs of over seven million students who were sent home after their schools were ordered closed.Many educational reformers have long held out hope that computers and other information and computer technologies (ICTs) can play crucial and integral roles in bringing about long-needed changes to education systems.  Indeed, many see the introduction of ICTs in schools as a sort of ‘Trojan horse’, out of which educational reform and innovation can spring once inside the walls of the traditional (conservative) education establishment. While not denying the potentially transformational impact of ICT use to help meet a wide variety of educational objectives, history has shown that bringing about positive disruptive change isn’t achieved by simply flooding schools with computers and related ICTs.

    As a result of swine flu, many Mexican schools experienced quick, disruptive change of a different sort in 2009. In response, some policymakers started to ask: How might technology be relevant in cases like this?  Given the status quo, they acknowledge that the use of technology in schools probably isn’t enough to bring about systemic change. But: How might ICTs be useful, even transformational, when this status quo is severely disrupted by some other exogenous factor … like a pandemic disease outbreak?

    While it was certainly too soon to say anything about what type of answers the crisis in Mexico might provide to such a question (things were, as they say, rather ‘fluid’ at that point, with the future direction of the outbreak, and its impact, potentially evolving in different ways at a quick pace), there was another place to which some people looked for clues to possible answers. Like Mexico (through its Telesecundariaprogram), China has had a long history of using educational television for a variety (pdf) of purposes.  And like Mexico, China had been faced only a few years before with another swift and large-scale disease outbreak that closed schools: SARS.

    When the magnitude of the SARS epidemic became widely acknowledged, China Educational TV, through its ‘Classroom on the Air’ program, moved quickly to help fill some of the void.  While perhaps not transformational, initiatives like Classroom on the Air did provide a large-scale, short-term substitute for students (and their parents) looking to continue their education while confined to their home during the outbreak.

    As Robert Fox relates in his short paper on the SARS epidemic: Teachers’ experiences using ICTs, pockets of more transformational uses of ICT occurred in Hong Kong, where computer use at home, and access to the Internet, was much more widespread than in the rest of China.  But even where transformational uses of ICTs were employed successfully by some individual teachers, many more found that a reliance on ICT-centric teaching and learning styles left them frustrated, and less convinced of the value of ICTs in the education process than they had been before. Similarly, David Chan examines stories [pdf] of how education continued in Hong Kong during that period, including some cases where technology was used successfully (and not so successfully) that echo those explored by Fox.

  • As rising incomes and affordable air travel continue to hasten the movement of hundreds of millions of people (and viruses) around the world more quickly than ever before, we will most likely see many more future outbreaks of disease that threaten and disruptive normal life. Students and education systems will unfortunately be on the front line of many such outbreaks, and it is in such circumstances that the usefulness, and potential transformative power, of ICTs in the teaching and learning process will perhaps be put to their real test. If such a public health event causes the large scale closure of schools in (e.g.) the U.S. or Canada — places with so many middle class households having broadband and so much structured coursework (not just content) now available online — we could reach a tipping point of sorts where the large scale use of educational technologies not only complements traditional teaching and learning activities (which is currently the case), but rather enables or substitutes for face-to-face teaching and learning activities that can’t take place because schools are closed. Other countries (e.g. in Europe) may not be that far behind, and in fact some hyper-connected countries (like Singapore, Korea or Estonia) may be ahead of many education systems in North America. But what about countries which are almost universally acknowledged to be ‘behind’ when it comes to technology use in education — in many ways, in fact, far, far behind? To what extent, and how, might ICTs be relevant in such places — to the extent that they might be relevant at all?

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