Bill Gates has written two books, both of which are listed in the “#1 New York Times Bestseller” class. In the foreword to the first one, “The Road Ahead” (1995), he wrote that from his sophomore year at Harvard University, he believed that personal computers would change the world, though he didn’t know exactly how that would happen.
At the time, nobody paid any attention to the computing revolution that was about to happen; and even then, historically speaking, there were always the pessimists – so cast in their own cynicism and limitations – ever ready to mock bold revolutionary predictions as silly thoughts.
In that vein, Gates cited an “Oxford professor who in 1878 dismissed the electric light as a gimmick.” Another professor “speculated in 1942 that the only way an airplane could break the sound barrier were if its wings flapped after it had been catapulted into the air.” In that regard, it’s so important to identify which type of people should teach and who must not; which people to connect with in sharing and discussing bold visions or initiatives, and who to avoid.
In claiming that he was not an educator but an enthusiastic learner (in a chapter titled: “Education: The Best Investment”), he said, “Information technology will empower people of all ages, both inside and outside the classroom, to learn more easily, enjoyably and successfully than ever before.”
In managing information to support thinking, technology aligns superbly with the mission of educational institutions. He knew firsthand how learning was enhanced when the right tools were available, and how frustrating it was when the lack of good tools and information wasted the potential of students everywhere.
In examining the critical benefits, he said new technologies would enable people to work from home and at hours more suitable for them; they would relieve pressures on natural resources because many products would take the form of bits rather than manufactured goods; they would help tailor people’s experiences and products to their interests.
In his second book, “Business @ The Speed Of Thought” (1999), he quoted Reed Hundt, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, who said, “Our national commitment to connect every classroom in every school in the country to the Internet will be the greatest advance in quality and equality of education in this century.”
Gates observed that “students who regularly use laptops gain many skills. They write more often and better; have improved research and analytical skills; express themselves more creatively; work more independently and also more collaboratively; more frequently rely on active learning and study strategies; readily engage in problem solving and critical thinking, and adopt higher-order thinking skills.”
The Internet has changed the learning experience from the traditional approach with the teacher glued to the front of the class lecturing away at a captured disinterested audience, to a more purposeful approach that entices and draws in the natural curiosities of students of all ages.
Today, technology is, invariably, at one’s disposal and helps one to acquire knowledge at great speeds. In teaching and learning, schools need to do what the Microsoft mavericks used to do to adequately respond to human curiosities, and that is to “read, ask questions, explore, go to lectures, compare our notes and findings with each other, consult experts, daydream, brainstorm, formulate and test hypotheses, build models and simulations, communicate what we are learning, and practice new skills.”
In an earlier column, “The wastelands in our tertiary education landscape: How technology can help,” I suggested that for a modern system, a website was necessary for every course taught from the tertiary curriculum. The site must contain the course outlines, the course materials, the online citations and links. Additionally, the lectures need to be uploaded at the sites for students’ easy access, any time, any day, and anywhere. Without such modern tools and abilities, the status quo makes mockery of the money and time spent hoping for quality education to happen all by itself.
I remember in my undergraduate years in the U.S. (in the early 1970s) the difficulties and long hours working with analogue systems with Cobol and Fortran programme, and the frustrating diagnostic errors that spewed punch cards from the large mainstay computers. It was quite an eye opener – when on returning for a graduate program in the same university (in the early 1980s) – how personal computers had made learning so much quicker and easier. But the bigger observation was the instructors and lecturers of the obsolete system who had been induced to upgrade their skills, and to learn the new technologies that had been introduced by the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
It is disheartening indeed that even today, after all those years of technological innovations and improvements, some university teachers in Ghana still resort to the talking, dictation and copying methods that have long been functionally obsolete. It is now not a matter of preparing for a digital era; that future is already here; and as Jack Welch, a former CEO of General Electric, observed, “Any time there is change, there is opportunity. So it is paramount that an organisation get energised rather than paralysed.”
In a constantly changing competitive world, technological skills prepare the youth with the ability to adapt, and adapt fast. But the instructors themselves must step up to the plate, and not place a passive burden on the youth in their care.