Thursday, 25 June 2015

Pros & Cons of Virtual Classroom

The virtual classroom has much appeal in the South African context. Distance learning offers distinct advantages, and promises a way to overcome some of the problems currently associated with particularly school education. Many South African schools lack the right facilities to give learners a meaningful and well-rounded education, so there is much to be gained from using virtual classrooms that are better appointed. Virtual classrooms can also help to overcome the problems of the lack of teachers and the lack of education that teachers themselves often have.

So let’s have a look at the pros and cons of the virtual classroom in the context of South African education.

The advantages of a virtual classroom

Better access to education

The most obvious advantage of a virtual classroom is that it overcomes the problems of geographic dispersion and allows people in remote areas to have access to education. With a virtual classroom there is obviously no need for physical attendance, which is a massive advantage for learners who live far away from physical schools or for rural schools that face challenges when it comes to access to learning materials and infrastructure.

Better access to equipment

One of the biggest challenges facing particularly rural South African schools is a lack of classroom equipment. One only has to think of a science classroom to realise the problem that this can pose – without proper equipment proper education becomes exceptionally difficult. So a virtual classroom that is well-equipped can overcome this problem. The virtual teacher is able to conduct the lesson using all the necessary equipment.

Independence and time management

For those who access a virtual classroom from home, where there is no teacher present, the experience can help to improve independence and time management skills. The learners are required to follow the lesson and complete any tasks that are required in their own time. While many might have parental supervision, all learners nonetheless have to learn to manage their time and to work independently of the classroom and teacher scenario in doing assignments set in the virtual classroom.

Decreased costs

By connecting to a virtual classroom a school or home can decrease the costs of education. For the school this would mean that they do not have to spend money on classroom equipment or learning materials as these are typically supplied inside the virtual classroom. For the family of someone connecting to a virtual classroom from home this would mean saving on school fees, school uniforms and sundry other school-related expenses.

Advanced and special classes

Many schools – especially those in South African rural areas or those that have budgetary and staff challenges – are unable to provide anything other than rudimentary education. They are not able to offer advanced classes in any subject and, on the other side of the spectrum, they do not have the facilities to cater for special needs learners.

Virtual classrooms can help to solve both of these problems. In the first instance, more advanced learners to can connect to a virtual classroom outside or instead of the actual physical classroom in order to get more advanced instruction. And special needs learners will be able to benefit from the technologies employed in a purpose-designed virtual classroom.

The disadvantages of a virtual classroom

Technology requirements

At the very least, accessing a virtual classroom requires some type of computer device and an Internet connection. These can be challenges, especially for learners in disadvantaged schools and areas. There may not be the infrastructure necessary for Internet connectivity. Similarly they may not have, or have access to, the necessary devices with which to connect and interact with the virtual classroom. This is a serious challenge to the virtual classroom model in South Africa.

Lack of face-to-face interaction

The benefits of face-to-face teaching are well-documented. Learners benefit from having a physical person with whom they can interact. This is one of the main drawbacks of the virtual classroom: its virtual aspect. While there remains the possibility for one-on-one teaching, the teacher is still at a remove from the learner and appears on a screen. This may result in a feeling of remoteness from the teacher, which can easily lead to the learner becoming distracted.

Additionally, if it is a one-way virtual classroom with the teacher unable to see the learners, the teacher has no way of seeing what is going on and responding to it.

The need for self-motivation

A certain amount of self-starter motivation is necessary for the virtual classroom experience to be a complete success. Learners have to motivate themselves to complete assignments and study, in the absence of a physical teacher with whom to interact. A teacher or parent may well be on hand to provide supervision and encouragement, but this is often not possible, leaving learners to attend the virtual classroom and complete assignments by themselves.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Role of Technology in Improving Education Part 2

In our previous article we looked at two of the positive ways in which technology is having an impact on education: helping with reading comprehension and language acquisition. Let’s continue this now by looking at two other ways in which technology improves education.

Technology in education and learner motivation

Many educators believe that a significant number of learners have become unmotivated by the traditional education methods, like reading of textbooks and listening to lessons and lectures. Technology gives the ability to create a much wider array of teaching and learning methods, which introduce variety and increased interest that in turn lead to heightened levels of motivation.

These methods include the use of the Internet, images and video, games, music, simulations and wikis. These can be delivered across numerous devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones.

This is a generation for whom technology use is a staple of daily life; they are completely surrounded by and immersed in it. They like technology. They spend hours a day playing video games, chatting to friends on instant chat and surfing the Internet. It follows that education that ignores technology is going to lose its audience, so to speak. And education that incorporates the technologies that learners have chosen to use in their private lives will see higher rates of motivation. It therefore stands to reason that technology will increase motivation in the classroom or lecture hall, given that learners and students constantly use technology in their private lives.

Indeed, teachers routinely report increased levels of engagement and motivation when digital media is introduced. An interesting additional element is that this levels further increase when students are given the opportunity to share their work with a variety of people across the Internet.

Research studies have reached the same conclusion. One in particular found that students using laptops displayed increased motivation and persistence in completing tasks, often voluntarily going beyond the assignment requirements. Many of them even took the laptops home to continue on the projects after school hours[1].

Technology in education and self-esteem

The same study found that the use of laptops contributed to an increased sense of empowerment and sense of pride. In general, the research strongly suggests that technology can have a positive impact on the self-esteem of students, especially those with already low self-esteem and self-confidence.

Many teachers and researchers have noted a dramatic effect of technology on levels of self-esteem. This has been particularly noticeable among learners from disadvantaged home backgrounds. This seems to indicate that technology not only helps in the classroom, but also has a wider effect on the learner’s self-esteem outside of the classroom.

Part of the reason for the self-esteem increase appears to be that technology makes the learning process easier. As we spoke about above, the current generation is very au fait with technology and becomes more motivated to complete tasks successfully when technology is incorporated. It makes good sense that the sense of achievement derived from successfully completing assignments will have a positive effect on self-esteem.

It is also the act of learning a new technology that increases self-esteem, as well as the accomplishment of technology-based tasks. This has been linked to the value that is placed on technology in our current culture, so that mastery of technology automatically leads to an increase in self-esteem[2].

However there is also broad consensus that technology in and of itself is not a cure-all. The teacher or lecturer is still a vital link in the education process. It is the combination of good teaching and technology that has the most positive effect.

Notes and references:

1. Mouza, C. (2008). Learning with laptops: Implementation and outcomes in an urban, under-privileged school. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(4)

2. Effects of Technology on Classroom and Students

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Role of Technology in Improving Education

The role of technology in improving education – Part 1

Technology plays a positive role that touches on almost every aspect of education. It can make the development of literacy easier, improve the ability to acquire language, provide greater access to information, support learning, motivate students and enhance their self esteem.[1]

Technology has changed the way we learn. Perhaps one of the biggest ways in which it has done so is that it has shifted the emphasis from text-based learning to visual learning. Everyone now has access to a whole new range of learning resources and aids, largely due to advances in technology.

Technology is changing the ways we access and consume information

Now it’s no longer just about learning from books. Digital devices like computers, smartphones and tablets have fundamentally changed the presentation of information. Mobile apps and website like YouTube have created an ecosystem of learning resources that presents many more varied ways of accessing and digesting information. Students can use interactive apps to learn tasks or watch videos to understand topics and ideas.

It’s not only in formal education that this is happening. Social learning has also benefited from these technologies, and they have made it much easier to self-educate. Think about how we approach learning challenges in our everyday lives.

Let’s say there is a DIY project around the house that we want to tackle. Previously we would have been limited to either sourcing some sort of manual or book from a real-world bookshop, or asking someone to show us how to do it. Now, however, we have so many more options. We can watch a video on YouTube in which someone takes us step by step through the project. We can download an app like “Instructibles” which will similarly step us through it. Or we can use an online forum to get the information we need.

One of the most powerful and popular learning resources available today – made possible by video and Internet technology – is the range of TED Talks. These cover almost every topic under the sun, and allow people to access useful and interesting lecture and demonstrations at any time. It’s a virtual library of information at our fingertips.

Technology and reading comprehension

Even when it comes to something like reading comprehension, technology can help immensely.

Studies in the US[2] suggest that technology tools can significantly help students to understand reading material, especially those who struggle with this.

Technologies are available that allow students to change the way the text is presented visually. There are technologies that help students to navigate the text and move around in the document more easily.

Technology has even changed the way we read. Devices like Kindle offer incredibly useful tools, like searching. We all know what it’s like to laboriously page through a book to find a specific paragraph. Now the ability to instantly search the entire book has made the finding of information much quicker and easier.

A similar scenario exists with language acquisition, particularly the learning of a second language.

The main implementation of technology in language acquisition is computer-assisted language learning. Research shows that this type of learning allows students to work at their own pace, which lowers anxiety and increases their interest in participation, whether it be in a classroom or at home.[3]

The role of Internet technology

Digital materials allow distance barriers to be overcome. The Internet offers a vast wealth of language learning resources, be they curricula or simply exposure to the target language usage. Computer-mediated instruction can then supplement this: chat rooms, forums, instant messaging tools and VoIP tools like Skype all allow the person learning to interact with instructors in real time.

These technological advantages positively impact students’ learning experience, when used in interactive ways. The key appears to be engagement: with the tools, with the materials and with the teacher.

In our next article we will look at technology and motivation, and the impact of technology use on self esteem.

Notes and references:

1. ACT, 2004; CEO Forum, 2001; Boster et al., 2004; Mann et al., 1999; Tracy & Young, 2006; WestEd, 2002.

2. Can Technology Improve Student Comprehension?, Education Development Center 2007

3. The Use of Technology In-and-outside Second Language Classrooms: How, What, and Why?, Hiromi Noguchi, Teachers College, Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 2