The Role of Technology in Improving Educational Quality

opinion November 14, 2011 00:00


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The issue of technology and education is not new. The radical humanist Ivan Illich and the Peace Studies scholar Denis Goulet were writing about this issue decades ago.


Illich, in an important book, Tools for Conviviality, provided criteria for critically assessing technologies. He, for example, was extremely negative about television and cars, but liked telephones, radios, and bicycles.
Goulet used the powerful metaphor of technology as a “two-edged sword” to emphasise that all technologies have both positive and negative dimensions.
In the past few decades the most dramatic changes in education clearly relate to new technologies and the dramatic growth of virtual universities (Phoenix University), such as Midnight University in Thailand, and a proliferation of online courses and online learning opportunities. The entire curriculum of the prestigious MIT is now available free to the whole world. And now the Thai government is proposing to provide all school children computer tablets.
In Eugene, Oregon, we had an experimental innovative project at Jefferson Middle School. For a year students focused on doing interdisciplinary study of the Mekong River and the countries through which it runs primarily using the Internet as their learning tool. The students became deeply engaged with the topic and learned a great deal about the Mekong Basin countries and cultures while developing impressive ICT skills.
The basic thesis of this article, however, is that despite such dramatic changes, the potential of new technologies to improve educational quality is still largely unrealised. Low cost Internet shops, for example, in Thailand are widespread. I often use such shops when visiting Thailand.
While I am pleased that such internet access is so common in Thailand at a relatively low cost, when I enter such shops, young folks in those shops aged 3 to 20 are normally enjoying playing computer games. Occasionally I see someone using Facebook. The young seem addicted to these games and I see little use of the Internet for accessing knowledge. While there may be certain benefits related to these games, these young people lack an appreciation of the Internet as a learning resource.
Another thesis of this article is that young people, though often extremely savvy in the use of these technologies, are not adequately critical of Internet material. For example, a student told a teacher that actually men had never walked on the moon. The teacher asked the student how he knew this and he said it came from the Internet.
In reality, if used creatively and critically, the Internet can be a fantastic learning resource. Let me provide a few examples. is a free online English dictionary that includes a wonderful pronunciation feature. Words like “shrimp” and “vanilla” may be difficult for certain Thai speakers. They can listen to the perfect pronunciation of these words by a native speaker again and again on
For outsiders wanting to learn Thai, Paiboon Publishing has a new online Thai dictionary with over 100,000 entries that also includes perfect pronunciation of each word by a native Thai speaker.
The OECD and UNESCO have initiated a major movement called Open Education Resources (OER) which emphasises free online learning resources. In that regard WikiEducator is a vastly under-utilised resource.
Wikipedia is also a valuable resource, but needs to be used carefully and critically. Like the old hard copy Encyclopedia Britannica, it can be a great way to start exploring a new topic about which we have no prior knowledge or background. But I never cite Wikipedia; I only use it to identify valuable original sources on a topic. Wikipedia may also include false or misleading information.
I once looked up Isaan in Wikipedia and found an excellent detailed article on Isaan by two German scholars of which I had been unaware.
With new technologies and the increasing power of the Internet, there are remarkable opportunities for us to learn on our own and for life-long learning.
In my next column, I will discuss how Facebook can help us to become better students, teachers, and scholars.
International professor 
Department of Organisational Development, Leadership, and Policy College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota