Smart or dumb board?

smart

In a small school in the central river region of The Gambia, forty children sit in a humid classroom, squeezed together like ill fitting Lego bricks on rickety benches. Their teacher stands at the front of the class beside a pot marked black board. He is intricately illustrating the water cycle on the board using three different colors of chalk. Three different colors of chalk is the pinnacle of technology’s use in the classroom that I have witnessed since arriving here over a year ago. But a project I have recently got involved with has the aim of fast-forwarding light-years technology’s role in schools in The Gambia.

The Progressive Math and Science Initiative (PMI/PSI) is aiming to completely revamp how Math and Science are taught across The Gambia. One of the key components of this proposed revolution is the introduction of electronic white boards in various classrooms across the country. A SMART board is an expensive piece of kit (if you wanted to privately purchase the set up the schools here are receiving you would have to spend more than five thousand dollars) and the project has been well supported by The World Bank and has recently received further funding from The Islamic Bank.

It is easy to see why this project has garnered so much support and funding. The idea that technology can revolutionize education and fix an education system’s failings is not new. In the twentieth century almost every new invention was supposed to have big implication for schools and herald a new dawn of teaching practice. Companies promoting typewriters, film projectors, VCR’s, computers and CD ROM’s have all promised to improve student performance. These big claims have resulted, on the most part, in little difference in achievement or typical practice in the classroom. My only memory of the use of technology from my own school days is repeated viewings of the film Gattaca in Biology class, which didn’t quite transform me into the next Watson or Crick.

Are SMARTboards different? Are they more than an educational gimmick? The people who pull the strings in the education ministry here seem to think so. They advocate that SMARTboards improve efficiency in classrooms and keep children engaged. They claim that it makes it easier for teachers to plan their lessons and monitor the progress of their students. These claims are very convincing and not entirely false, hence the huge grants that have been secured form outside sources.

However the most pressing question that should be asked should not be whether SMARTboards are an effective educational technology, but whether they are the right educational technology for The Gambia at this moment in time. Saying that The Gambia is not ready for this technology is contentious. Introduction of technology should not follow a prescribed incremental pattern (see much of Africa’s bypassing of copper landlines by the quick adoption of mobile technology), and by claiming The Gambia is ‘not ready’ for a technology there is a danger that you constantly place the country at a technological disadvantage, playing an impossible game of catch up with countries that are deemed ‘ready’. Yet I believe there are three factors that make it clear that SMARTboards are not the right technology to introduce here at this moment in time –

  1. Electricity – SMARTboards need power. Most of the schools that will be receiving the boards have mains power, but it is intermittent and unreliable (during the hot season even more so, especially in the heat of the day when school is in session). Some schools have solar power, where again reliability is an issue. A cloudy day results in an inability to use the SMARTboard. If use of the SMARTboard is unreliable you end up squandering its benefits. Rather than making lessons easier to plan, it is harder as teachers have to have a non electricity reliant back up ready, whilst using it for assessment and data collection becomes much less useful if you are not guaranteed to be able to use it every lesson.
  2. Teachers – For children to learn more through the use of SMARTboards there is a huge reliance on teachers, because even the best technologies will get nowhere without their support. The evidence on the efficacy of educational technology largely comes from America and most of it suggests that when teachers have been properly trained, it works. Teachers here are largely computer illiterate, having little to no access to computers. The teachers involved in PMI/PSI are expected to begin using the SMARTboards after two weeks of training and when you couple the teachers lack of confidence in using the technology with the unreliability of being able to switch it on, it is clear that teacher’s motivation to use this technology will be severely diminished.
  3. Internet – Or rather the lack of Internet. The Internet is the SMARTboard’s life source. One of the SMARTboard’s huge selling points is that it provides a portal to the web for a whole class. If you can download lessons, activities, videos, and access interesting and relevant websites with your class, SMARTboards are an invaluable and engaging piece of technology. When I have used SMARTboards in the US and UK I would have quickly run out of things to use the SMARTboard for if I had no access to the internet. Without the Internet the SMARTboard descends into gimmickry, becoming barely more useful to a teacher and engaging for a student than a good textbook and a chalkboard.

Even as I acknowledge these criticisms I am still convinced th PMI/PSI and the introduction of SMARTboards will definitely improve The Gambia’s education system. For many students it will give them a beneficial experience of using computers, many for the first time, and it certainly engages students bored of rote learning and chalkboards (although how quickly excitement over the new classroom toy diminishes is yet to be seen). Even with my pessimistic nature, I am excited to be involved in my nearby secondary schools implementation of PMI/PSI and am feeling that I finally have some skills that are relevant to a project here. One forgets how computer literate one is having grown up around computers and possessing one for most of ones life. The skills this brings are greatly appreciated by the teachers I have worked with who have a strong desire to improve their own IT skills. So whilst I have mainly been dismissive of the project I am optimistic that with hard work and dedication we can improve student’s educational experiences with it.

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