On Technology in Education and Other Places

By Prof Dr Ahmad Hashem, Chief Operating Officer, Meteor Sdn Bhd

Ever since we started formalising the process of educating people we have used some form of technology to assist in the process. In the very early days, well before electronics puts the “e” in education, knowledge was recorded and transmitted by cuneiforms. And to produce these required the cutting edge technology of the time (pun intended), a sharp implement on clay tablet. Somewhat closer to the present we use our hands to write stuff on paper and make carbon copies for distribution. The invention and rapid evolution of electronic devices have changed the way knowledge is recorded, stored, distributed and accessed. We are now so comfortable with being online that we want everything to be online too, including education.

“A technology-enabled education provider must understand that the learning experience provided using technology ought to be appropriate and enriching for the learner.”

Even though technology has always been used to assist and enable the acquisition of knowledge, it is important to realise that technology is only the enabler of learning, not the learning itself. Technology shouldn’t overwhelm the learning. A technology-enabled education provider must understand that the learning experience provided using technology ought to be appropriate and enriching for the learner. One size does not fit all. While school-going learners may find learning through discovery beneficial, adult learners may find this mode inappropriate for them. Most adult learners have experiences that are relevant to their areas of study and work; they do not have time for exploration and discovery. They need to be supplied with compact learning materials with links to further references. The course material must be designed appropriately and should never be frivolous.

If technology is to enable education, then it must be easily available to the majority of the intended group. In this regard, it must be realised that there is still great disparity in the technology available to learners because of cost and infrastructure limitations. The digital divide is real. Thus, the technology adopted to facilitate education must be the one that is easily available to the majority of learners. Adequate technology is always better than cutting edge. For example, video conferencing can be a useful technology to remotely connect students to a teacher in real-time to mimic a real classroom. However, in most cases of video conferencing, the experience is usually frustrating. The bandwidth at the learners’ end may not be consistently adequate, which can result in loss of connection or frozen video. Most virtual classroom sessions conducted via video conferencing will usually involve several breaks for technical support, the need to speak very loudly because of poor audio quality, and the frequent requests for participants to orally repeat themselves. This would not be conducive for effective learning at all! Communication over mobile phones using text or audio may be a better alternative.

“It would not be wise to start with a technology and to then look at how the technology can “help” provide for a better way of facilitating education.”

If a technology is to be used in education, then it must provide the most optimum solution to the problem at hand. It would not be wise to start with a technology and to then look at how the technology can “help” provide for a better way of facilitating education. There was a time, when Facebook was still new, that educators took note of the fact that young people were congregating and spending most of their time lounging in this new place. The educators saw that these youths took to the new media with ease that they (the educators) wondered if Facebook can be a good platform for learning. They did not realise that their students were there because their teachers were not there! It’s their own space where they can be themselves. It’s not a place where they go for education. So, it is important to use the correct technology to solve a particular problem and to know that technology is only the means to better educate and should never be the goal of education.

Globalisation and Borderless Education
One of the benefits of using Internet technology in education is that it allows for flexibility in learning. A learner can learn whatever he wants, whenever he can, from whichever material that is most useful for him. A learner can personalise his learning plan to exactly meet his needs. He can access small nuggets of knowledge to help in his day-to-day work or he can study in a formal environment towards an academic degree all at his convenience. There is no end to the possibilities of learning. While good for the learner, this open landscape where anyone can study from whatever sources that he wants may not be good for the provider – the local universities.

Because Internet technology makes it possible for anyone to set up shop and provide education from anywhere, the doors to education are now wide open. Anyone can now put up his educational wares on the Internet for access by everyone. Big name universities such as MIT and Harvard as well as the not-so-big names such as OUM and WOU can all vie for online learners in the same space. In a scenario where learners can choose from the best and most industry-acceptable provider at affordable costs, will they choose the small, local providers? What will become of these small, local, providers? Can they compete with the big boys?

This scenario has played out in many other technology-enabled areas and in all cases only the strongest global brands survive and prosper. The traditional service providers were mostly driven out of business or bought over by the victor. Amazon disrupted the traditional bookshop business, forcing most to close down. It is now disrupting grocery stores and television programming. Apple has changed the way music is consumed and in the process drove many established music producers out of business. The producers of music, the singers and the bands, are now at the mercy of one or two global entities for their royalty. The biggest businesses on the Internet are now provided by just one or two entities. Search engine – Google. Internet browser – Chrome. Social media – Facebook. Internet shopping – Amazon and Alibaba. Ride hailing – Uber and Grab. And so on.

Education is a very big business and with the present state of technology, combined with the new economy based on crowd-sourcing, it is ripe for disruption. There is nothing preventing one or two existing big names in education or probably a totally new entity from dominating the arena. What will become of traditional educational providers such as UM and OUM? Many will probably shrink and become assessment centres for the big, global brands.

We are now seeing a new phenomenon unfolding because of technology. Anyone is now free to work from anywhere and provide services to anyone. To facilitate this freelancing culture, several sites have been set up on the Internet to promote and manage this new job market. Competition for work will now be on a global scale. Many jobs can now be farmed out to online freelancers with established track records at very competitive rates. It is more cost-effective to outsource jobs to freelancers than to maintain internal resources. Can graduates from our local universities compete in this open job market? Our educational providers must change to better prepare our graduates for this new scenario. The usual prescribed academic programme leading to the award of a Bachelor or a Master in something may no longer be relevant. Learners may just want to pursue one area of study in order to gain current knowledge that will be useful for his job. Credentials such as Diploma or Bachelor or Master may no longer be valued highly. A portfolio of work in the relevant area may be more useful.

The OUM Context

“OUM is about providing education to everyone. To achieve this, it offers very flexible learning to learners.”

OUM is about providing education to everyone. To achieve this, it offers very flexible learning to learners. Learners can learn completely on their own without attending any face-to-face session or they can study on their own as well as attend the scheduled sessions. OUM is also gradually creating an online learning environment that will support and enrich learning by guiding and alerting learners as they progress through the learning material. In all these, the technology used will be those readily available to the majority of learners. OUM is going for substance rather than flash. It is better to be less modern but useful to many rather than to be at the cutting edge of technology that can only benefit the few. After all, OUM’s raison d'être is to democratise education.

Closing words
The current generation must be prepared for the new and exciting world where technology rules. And technology is indeed going to rule over everything. We are seeing this scenario unfolding, albeit slowly, in the guise of automation to free up humans from performing mundane, repetitive and oftentimes laborious tasks in many service areas such as manufacturing, sanitation, restaurants, warehouses and retail businesses. The argument for automation is noble; once humans are freed from mundane and laborious tasks, they can enjoy a life of leisure. Automation can truly achieve its objective but at what cost? And living, let alone leading a life of leisure, is not free. How will the masses earn a living to be able to live? The Orwellian future is here, although late by several decades.

I leave the readers with some astute observations about the future by some renowned visionaries.

“The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.” — Stephen Hawking

“What to do about mass unemployment? This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better [than a human]. These are not things that I wish will happen. These are simply things that I think probably will happen.” — Elon Musk

“You cross the threshold of job-replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room cleanup, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years [will go away].” — Bill Gates