NAT Sunny Varkey1-1625546216923
Technology in education must be seen as a way to enhance interactions and understanding between people, says GEMS Education chairman and founder Sunny Varkey Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The global pandemic has exposed the fragility of our world and our sense of wellbeing. Schools across the world have had to close down for long periods and many have turned to remote learning via platforms such as Zoom and Teams to maintain education. Home schooling has relied heavily on such platforms, and there have been interesting thoughts from various quarters as to whether these technologies might eventually replace the need for physical schools.

Undoubtedly, there already exists a host of innovative and well-established technological aids for learning and for supporting school systems. Many aspects of school life can be vastly improved through the use of technology, and the past year and a half has made this increasingly clear.

Distance learning students
Many have turned to remote learning via technology platforms to continue with education during the pandemic Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Indeed, at GEMS Education, we have long invested large sums in developing our own solutions – solutions developed for educators, by educators, which, I would suggest, is a key differentiator. We have implemented IT and AI infrastructures throughout our network to ensure the necessary administrative support offered by these technologies is well embedded and fully exploited.

Technology has, for example, hugely reduced the time consumed creating data sets and tables, and has helped streamline many aspects of the organisational work needed to run a large business such as ours. This has freed up teachers so they can spend less time on admin and more time actually teaching and focusing on their students. This can only be a good thing.

Use of the latest technologies has enabled our schools to vastly increase their ability to not only generate useful and vital data, but also turn this data-rich landscape into information that is useful for guiding decision-making and policies. The data has, for instance, enabled us to decide where best to focus our resources and spend, so that students and parents receive the very best value for money. And as technologies become ever more powerful, the algorithms are now able to help school leaders and their staff to understand, in much greater detail than ever before, how the overall values and objectives of their schools can be delivered.

Vast complexities

Of course, these technologies don’t merely enhance the infrastructures that support administration. Teachers are now able to draw on the vast complexities of digital, media and ICT to enhance the learning experiences of their students every day and everywhere. Students are using cutting-edge technology to produce high-level work on all sorts of different projects, from science labs using digital laboratories, to art, drama and media classes using the latest video, image and editing programs.

Maths classes are able to process complex data generated by using technologies in PE and sports, while music classes are using technology to compose, and language and literature classes are engaging creatively with their subject matter thanks to state-of-the-art technological support. And through the use of these technologies, we are preparing students for the future and ensuring they are always two steps ahead.

Our youngest learners, for instance, are coding in kindergarten, with developmentally appropriate introductions to computational thinking. We’ve witnessed our students explore Sphero drones, create sustainable cities using Minecraft, review fractions with Garage Band. We’ve seen them research climates and habitats with virtual reality and augmented reality, and create 3D-printed work using Tinkercad. And these are just a few of the tech tools our students and teachers have embraced in their educational journey.

On top of that, teachers are able to break down each student’s successes and needs using technology for formative assessment, so that they can adjust their teaching to address student needs and develop further successes. Personalised digital communication schemes of work and homework can now be easily accessed both in school and at home online, and new avenues for creative understanding are being continuously developed by our teachers.

Technology should not be misunderstood

There is no doubt that these are all extremely exciting and worthwhile benefits. Yet to suggest that the actual face-to-face experiences of students and teachers are no longer required, and to think about technology in terms of replacing schools rather than enhancing them, is to misunderstand both technology and schools themselves. That’s because, at its essence, education is a process involving relationships between people, and these relationships require people to meet and work together.

If education were merely about learning facts and how to do tasks, then remote learning might be sufficient. And certainly, where resources are not easily available, or when there is a crisis such as the current pandemic, remote learning has enabled learning to continue and proved to be a godsend for many. But for a fully enhanced education – one that offers everything a world-class education can and should offer – technology is simply not capable of doing everything. Nor should technology, no matter how advanced and powerful, distort a school’s objectives and values.

Yes, schools are now data-rich thanks to advanced technology. And yes, there are amazing technologies for every area of the curriculum that can add to the learning experiences of students. Both of these are wonderful. But for them to be fully utilised, for students to get the very best from these technologies, they need to be embedded in learning organisations that encourage them to meet each day with their teachers and their peers, to communicate with one another in face-to-face situations, to work, play, think, innovate and challenge themselves in the company of others.

Technology in education must therefore be seen as a way to enhance these interactions and understanding between people. Indeed, at GEMS, we believe in using the very best technology to support our students – but with the important proviso that it is the needs of students, and not the constraints of a technology, that dictates what, why, how and where we help them learn.

- The author is Chairman and Founder of GEMS Education and The Varkey Foundation