February 13, 2012 00:00 By Willard Van De Bogart
And it's time to realise what's about to be unleashed
If that title sounds familiar, it’s because it harks back to the famous ride by Paul Revere, who rode through the streets of Boston with his now famous cry, “The British are coming, the British are coming.” It was that point in history that would change the landscape of the British colonies in the Americas forever. Likewise, the sound of the call by the Thai Minister of Education that 900,000 tablet computers are going to be delivered to all Prathom 1 (first grade) students should also be a warning.
The hopes and aspirations for Thailand’s students to leap into the 21st century with one of the most ambitious educational reforms ever devised is about to take place. In one fell swoop education is making a transition from a chalkbased to a digital classroom. The longterm implications for the development of Thailand are astounding. What a surprise it’s going to be when all these 56 yearolds begin to experience the magic of instant feedback from moving their fingers over a piece of glass and watching the world light up with sounds and images. How could it not be innovative?
How could anyone not think Thailand was not going to have the besttrained generation of students ready to join the free flow of ideas between all nations and become the quintessential entrepreneurs necessary to bring growth and wealth to the land of smiles?
Before we plummet off an unseen cliff in uncontrollable glee, it is time for all parents, teachers, administrators and political pundits to realise what is about to be unleashed. It is exposure to a way of experiencing the way the world is being represented. The generation gap between Thai teachers and students is so enormous that to think a teaching methodology could be designed to guide young minds into the future with their digital assistants stretches the imagination. This longterm digital growth is something the best minds around the world are grappling with.
What I am talking about is the change in how young minds enter the digital world and learn how to become digitally literate and critically literate. As a researcher in digital literacy, I see what has already taken place with my students who have adopted an iPad or iPhone for use in completing assignments. The fact that well over 50 per cent of students have in one way or another been exposed to these technologies has yet to create a mandate or concerted effort by administrators to design a wellthoughtout plan on how to incorporate digital tools into the courses required by all students in order to graduate. Yet here we see that firstgraders being given access to tablet computers, and most assuredly they will never want to return to any other way of learning. It brings into focus the impact the digital world is having on all of us, and how it can help us in solving problems around us.
Making available tablet computers to young minds carries with it the responsibility for becoming aware of changes in behaviour and how students perceive the digital world they are exposed to. This alone puts the responsibility directly on teachers, and how they go about evaluating the students using this technology.
Questions arise. Are there other untapped skills being forfeited as a result of adopting the tablet computer at such a young age? Will it be possible to recognise how students are adapting to the tablet computer? Will teachers make sure everyone follows exactly what is prescribed by the software, or will there be room for creativity outside the classroom? Will the tablets go unchecked and the students left alone to freely explore whatever it is they can access?
What makes me very concerned is a comment by the new Minister of Education, Suchart ThadaThamrongvech. He said, “Why would smart students want to be teachers when they have a better chance to make more money in other careers?” The more money a student can make ought to be paid directly to these newly trained teachers so they won’t have to look for other work. This is exactly what Barak Obama said in his State of the Union address.
The tablet programme is unique in its concept and implementation. Academics abound with criticism about this initiative. But teachers cannot be left out of this new digital reform. What is digital education anyway? It is not exactly the same as a bookbased learning environment. The differences need to be taught, so a teacher can be a good digital coach. How many teachers have played Angry Birds, or for that matter downloaded a PDF file on a tablet computer, then annotated it in colour and finally emailed it to a friend or filed it in a DropBox which sits in the Cloud? Will teachers know what the next digital level is for Prathom 2, and will they be taught to use that next level? Who is planning the curricula for the longrange adaptability for this way of learning, so that when students reach university they will be fully adapted to understanding how to conduct sophisticated analysis of literature and do research with documents existing in databases throughout the world?
I for one, being brought up in Boston, will sound the alarm as Paul Revere did long ago. Unless there is a longrange plan for digital technology for Prathom 1 students, Thailand will lose an opportunity that may have been inadvertently accepted and promoted, but without the concern that a digital teaching environment requires. Teachers are the most important link between the student and the digital world. It’s the teacher who presents options for the students’ learning environment, and it’s the teacher who needs to evaluate the student. Critical literacy is the awareness that not all published documents on the Internet, especially in Wikipedia, are factual or real representations of the world. Teachers are needed to make theses distinctions.
The young mind is impressionable and receptive in early development. A wellthoughtout progression of activities leading to an everincreasingly complex way of understanding information is going to require a dedicated educational directorate devoted to digital learning, lasting for the entire twelve years of a student’s mandatory education. At the rate technology is changing, if this initiative is not accompanied by a comprehensive digital literacy foundation, students will lose their ability to determine how best to learn from tablet computers today, and perhaps how to use the holographic tablet computers coming in the very near future.