Can We Use E-Learning to Change Education Around the World?

Since the late ‘80s, technology has entered an unprecedented and rapid era of expansion. Just think of the original cell phone you may have owned anywhere from 15 years ago to even just last year, and you’ll surely remember how much has changed from your old model to your most recent one.

The very concept of accessing the Internet on the phone — or even the Internet itself, in its current form — was inconceivable a few short years ago, and surely would have blown minds when circuit boards and portable computers were first taking off.

And nobody knows where new tech will go next: Science fiction imaginations run wild with virtual reality, robotic assistants and neural implants, all as phones and laptops grow sleeker, faster and more integrated into our everyday lives. Already, we are beginning to see the possibilities and problems of a society in love with its technology: Protests initiated on social media, a president tweeting virtually every thought he has and schools everywhere struggling to deal with an increasing technological presence in the classroom.

That last part, though, doesn’t necessarily have to make for a struggle. In fact, it could be a huge gain if harnessed correctly.

Technology in the Classroom

Public and private schools across the nation have used a couple of different methods when adapting to the rapid ascension of technology. Some have tried a near-total resistance to the new wave of tech, banning cell phones from school grounds and encouraging a more ascetic approach to teaching. In one specific case, Waldorf School of the Peninsula — a private school in the heart of Silicon Valley — actively removed all technology from its classrooms and went back to writing on chalkboards.

Oddly enough, this is the approach many classrooms around the world still take, often by necessity more than choice. Within developing nations, schools are short on textbooks and class materials, and shorter still on the money needed for technology.

A smart board may be capable of far greater feats than a chalkboard, but also incurs a much steeper price tag. Even if the long-term costs of technology are lower — giving access to free lessons online, for instance — the up-front costs can make that option a tough sell.

Most classrooms in America don’t go this far, but many have also been leery of fully embracing technology in the classroom. Living in this murky middle ground is often stressful for teachers and students, with varied expectations, depending on the instructors and often fickle school policy.

Benefits of Technology

Using cell phones as a research tool for projects has the potential to bridge the gap between differently funded schools: Most children throughout America own cell phones, but many schools lack the technological resources of their wealthier counterparts. Introducing online lessons people can access from multiple devices could give students from all backgrounds and income brackets the same opportunities.

Further, with the rising cost of textbooks throughout the country, online resources tend to look more and more attractive each year. Many schools lack the budget for up-to-date materials, missing out on simple and necessary tools like practice tests and in-class texts. It’s tough on the students and the teachers alike, and puts further stress on the school to receive funding as fewer and fewer children pass their core classes, creating a truly vicious cycle.

The same problems perpetuate in schools throughout the developing world, but to a much broader degree. In many of these schools, the burden of providing materials and classroom tools is on the shoulders of the students’ families, with little or no school budgetary support for the children. Dropout rates are abysmal for this reason: Families can’t afford to buy school supplies for their children, and there is more immediate money available from them entering the workforce.

However, technology in the classroom could potentially improve these conditions. While computers may seem far-fetched for some schools around the world, the payoff is huge. Not only does technology access open up a wealth of solid, affordable — and often free — online resources, it also has the potential to connect communities from around the world, living out the original vision of the Internet to its full capacity.

With a few computers and Internet access, students suddenly have an entire world’s worth of information at their fingertips. Those attempting to learn English — or French, Mandarin, Hindi — can access videos in that language, language-learning resources and glimpses of what life is like in countries that speak those languages. The fact that most of these resources are free online is a fantastic opportunity for classrooms around the world.

The Global Citizen

At its best, technology should be a means for connecting people of different cultural, economic and social backgrounds. After all, it’s a huge world out there, and we’re all part of it. Getting to know one another helps teach tolerance and understanding across the world. Even more important, technology gives the opportunities for fair and accessible education to many children who might otherwise fall through the cracks.