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The Quest for the Digitisation of Education in Developing Countries: Are we Forgetting Teachers?

The development of every country partly depends on how strong and reliable its educational system is to produce the best minds to innovate and bring new solutions to that country’s challenges. Often, this task automatically falls on teachers who generally get the blame for all failures of the education system but rarely get the praise for its successes. In this modern the era of technology where students’ ICT literacy has come to the fore because of its potential for economic development, teachers are in the firing line of anyone who thinks the education system is not doing enough to prepare learners for the technology skills they need for surviving in today’s digital world.

With the SDGs showing that education will be the key to many of today’s world ills, it is probably high time we stopped and considered exactly what that education will look like in deprived contexts, should we continue to do business as usual. Yes, we want education for all and all that. We certainly want quality education and of course in the 21st century, quality education must respond to the needs of the next generation. In a world permeated with technology though, quality education is increasingly necessitating the use of technology for teaching and learning enhancement. As much as everyone wants children in developing countries to receive education that will enable them to harness the power of technology as the developing world tries to catch up with the rest, learning with technology remains a dream in many developing countries.

All we need is access to ICTs, right?

In developing countries, access to ICTs in schools is limited and costly in the rare instances where it is provided. The expectation is therefore that as soon as technologies—mainly computers—are available in schools, teachers would unreservedly make great use of them and just like a magic wand, improve students learning and overall ICT literacy, all of which are to contribute to the development of the concerned countries. Such has been the thinking behind many developing countries’ investments in the One Laptop Per Child project and similar projects. This technocentrism that has been decried for a while now [1] is yet to bear fruit despite many developing countries still constantly biting the same bait in hope of … well, a different outcome? After all, the $100 One Laptop per Child is no longer seen as the laptop that will save the world as the New York Times once claimed.

A key flaw of the technocentric view of ICT in education is that when the expected outcomes are not obtained, nothing else could be responsible but the teachers. Given the cost of these technologies to the otherwise deprived developing countries, the thought of teachers not making use of them is often intolerable. Why in the world would they not elect to use such equipment that cost so much to get? Are they not aware that some financial sacrifices were made to bring those devices to the schools? Have they forgotten that the country is betting its development on students’ skills to use those technologies creatively? So, teachers are always seen as potentially problematic in efforts to digitise the education sector. This negative image of teachers has not been helped by claims that teachers are a class of less technologically savvy digital immigrants who can hardly use ICTs to the liking of their supposedly technology-savvy, digital native students [2].

But do we really know the teachers?

If as it is now generally assumed, technology literacy skills of the next generation of learners are the responsibility of teachers [3], then understanding who we are entrusting that task with should be a priority. We are expecting great works from teachers in the building of our digital economies and that should mean we know better who they are and how they become the people we give such big responsibilities. Masterpieces don’t paint themselves, neither are they a product of a brush nonchalantly placed in the clumsy hands of an amateur. So, ICT in education ought not to be summed up with handing computers or laptops to teachers and schools before sitting back and awaiting miracles to happen. They surely won’t. The need for a generation of skilled men and women fully equipped with the ‘21st century skills’ of which ICT skills are central should be considered second to the understanding of the men and women who are going to make that ICT literate generation a reality: the technology-using teachers. There is a need to know what teachers are really willing and capable of doing with ICTs before counting unhatched chickens of economic transformations that we will get from ICTs, especially in the developing world.

Let’s take an example of Rwanda where I am currently doing a study on the development of identities as technology users of pre-service teachers. (You can read more about the study in this blog post). Rwanda is a country that has gained international acclaim for its efforts to digitise itself and its ICT-friendly policies. Without any other substantial resources, ICTs have been put at the centre of its economic ambition, and this privileged position has had them dubbed ‘the heart of the education sector’ [4]. As a result, investments in the acquisition of laptops for schools have been ongoing since 2007. Nevertheless, once in schools, these technologies have not been used as initially hoped. In fact, recently the Ministry of Education found itself left with no choice but to instruct school leaders to ensure their teachers are using the resources available or risk losing their jobs, after it was revealed that many of these devices had remained in their original boxes while others just disappeared. The easy question here is why are the teachers not using these resources in the first place? Why would they wait for their head-teachers to lose their jobs before they start using ICT resources given to their schools, for free? But an even better question would be ‘Who are those teachers, who are failing to use technologies given to them for free?’ How did they come to be who they are? What has made them to be the technophobes they are portrayed to be? These are some of the considerations that are the genesis of my ongoing PhD study.

My research wants to understand who the teachers expected to use the increasing number of technologies in schools are, by approaching the problem from a socio-cultural point of view. Teachers’ ICT training and usage don’t happen in a vacuum. So, it is important to understand how the different contexts they grow up in (socially and professionally) shape who they are in relation to ICTs and therefore influence the likelihood of them using and negotiating the use of any technologies in any way with their students.

In this study I am following pre-service teachers during a year-long internship to understand how ICT policies and training programmes translate into actual technology using teacher identities. This means understanding the key influences that teachers-in-training have and the extent of these influences on the end product that ends up in schools. This understanding can already help predict what route will lead to teachers who are most likely to use the technologies that are available to them in the context.

Given the many factors that come into play regarding ICT use in education, I attempt to follow the training line to understand first, what ICT roles teachers are trained for and expected to play in policies and teacher education programmes respectively. Then I look at the support and the influence that come from those directly in charge of student-teachers development process (teacher educators and school-based mentors). How do they guide them in the use of ICTs? Does their practice encourage or discourage the development of ICT skills for these candidates who want to become teachers in a country that counts on technology to achieve its development goals? How does the existing ICT environment allow the teacher-trainees to cultivate and exercise their agency as professionals trying to achieve learning objectives with(out) the support of ICTs?

Answers to these questions will certainly not solve all the challenges related to ICTs for development especially as seen from an education perspective. However, they will give a picture of who the teachers are and what needs to be done to get them using already available technologies in Rwandan schools and also schools in similar contexts.

References
[1] S. Papert, ‘A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future’, in Children in the Information Age, Elsevier BV, 1988, pp. 3–18.
[2] M. Prensky, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, On the Horizon, vol. 9, no. 5. pp. 1–6, 2001.
[3] D. Epstein, E. C. Nisbet, and T. Gillespie, ‘Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide? Public Perceptions and Policy Implications’, The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 92–104, Feb. 2011.
[4] Ministry of Education, ‘Education Sector Policy’, Kigali, 2003.

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