Common sense in harnessing digital technology for education

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

READERS of The Patriot may or may not have seen a recent story on the future of higher education attributed to Dr Godfrey Gandawa, Deputy Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development. Here I cite excerpts according to The Sunday News (October 8 2017):
“[Twelve] 12 varsity degrees to be redundant… It has emerged that at least 12 degree programmes offered by the country’s universities might be redundant in Zimbabwe by 2040 due to technology disruption.
Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Deputy Minister Dr Godfrey Gandawa said the degree programmes that risk going under include Media and Society Studies, Political Science, Paralegal [Studies?], Tourism and Hospitality Management, Psychology, Accounting, Business Administration, Marketing, Economic History, Heritage [Studies], Pharmacy and History.”
The reporter wrote that Dr Gandawa’s reasons for alleging imminent redundancy of the listed subjects included STEM education, industrialisation, modernisation, artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Whether or not Dr Gandawa’s speech was misreported or taken out of context may not be important here.
What is important is that it is obvious that as a nation, we face a serious problem, given the fact that such a story was reported, sub-edited, edited and published in a national paper without triggering alarm bells. By now the nation should know whether the view of education and digital technology expressed in that excerpt is truly the Deputy Minister’s view or the speaker was misrepresented/misunderstood. Even more important, does this view represent the Ministry’s policy?
Because new machines can simplify or take over certain operations once done by workers, it has been obvious for millennia that certain jobs or tasks can be abolished through automation.
But how, for instance, can machines abolish the teaching of history, including the burning subject of the history of technology and society?
There is no question that the scope and teaching of most subjects in the university have to change all the time; but that change is never uni-directional towards redundancy.
Most of these subjects will actually expand and become more sophisticated, resulting in some cases, in the splitting of the subject into several modules or the merging of certain subjects through interdisciplinary collaborations.
As an important aside, we can point out that the history of the US civil war of 1860-1865 which ended slavery; the history of US foreign interventions including the Vietnam War and the Korean War; all these have become hot subjects in the US because technology is making it easy for liars to create false texts and false interpretations; and because US President Donald Trump, as a billionaire capitalist, is hostile to history and seeking to distort it to suit his right-wing constituency.
Technicist hyperbole
The view of the future of education as reported by The Sunday News is old-fashioned technicism.
According to Brian Winston’s article called “Let them Eat Laptops: The Limits of Technicism”:
“Technological determinism, or technicism or diffusion theory, assumes that … a new technology, a printing press or a communications satellite emerges from technical study and experiment. It then changes the society or the sector into which it has emerged. This vision of the nature of technology is an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox [that is conservative] view of the nature of social change…”
The technicist approach foregrounds the wrong questions in favour of the salesmen of new technology: How should universities and Madzimbahwe adjust to new gadgets? Instead of: What are the obligations of universities and colleges to Zimbabwean society and what role can new machines play in meeting those national obligations?
Zimbabwe is a newly independent African society where the most critical tasks of education include the pan-African reconstruction of a new African personality after 500 years of racist demonisation and defamation through slavery, apartheid, colonialism and neo-colonial regime change; the reclamation of African assets and resources; and the reconstruction of an African economy with Africans as integral players in world trade and industry.
Those who do not know their history will not think any reconstruction is needed at all — whether it be reconstruction of the African personality or that of the economy.
The promise which is being offered universities if they agree to abolish studies of History, Political Science and African heritage is a false promise which has been made to other societies for centuries if not millennia.
According to Brian Winston in the same article already cited:
“Every new communication device has been hailed in these terms. … Technicism is no abstract mode of thought, no mere body of words without effects in the world. It is an intellectual construct with …salient consequences… Technicism’s gravest problem is that it is disempowering … At a most basic level, for example, technicism offers a justification for late capital’s consumerist drive. ‘We’ cannot help ourselves when faced with new technology but are forced in some way to [merely] adopt it.
And the ‘we’, it can be noted, includes those selling the technology as well as those buying it. Apparently these sellers, in our case the global conglomerates, can no more influence the communications industries than we can curb our consumerist instincts.”
In other words, the technicist
ideology presents the redundancy and abolition of History and Humanities as pre-determined by technology, which means that society is helpless in the matter.
It is significant that the article included the STEM programme as one of the causes of ‘disruption’ or one of the key reasons 12 subjects must become redundant.
In other words, instead of articulating a whole strategic national education policy which would justify abolishing the study of Heritage and History, one minority programme called STEM was cited.
Historically, such an approach to education has tended to worsen rather than improve national education policies.
The reason is that there are many silent and unexamined assumptions behind every such programme.
Instead of these being examined and opened for debate, stakeholders are confronted with a fait accompli whose far-reaching consequences remain unknown.
In Aid and Education in the Developing World, Kenneth King described the process and strategy of programme-driven higher education policy in Africa at the time of SAPS, as follows:
“What is intriguing about this part of the analysis is the implication that something positive and promising was in place to which serious damage was then done (which SAP and the agencies would fix). No (scientific) evidence is offered of what actually was in place…but it would seem that in many countries this 30-to-40 year-old tradition (of post-independence African education) is being undone (via SAP) without any very clear idea of the current social composition of Africa’s universities.”
The 12 targeted subjects are simply presumed to have become redundant!
The World Bank and its allied agencies would simply sponsor a hypothesis about African higher education or African science education.
Without waiting for the hypothesis to be tested, more projects or programmes would be sponsored and funded to enforce the unproven hypothesis or allegations as if they were a scientific law.
The old science and technology paradigm which has brought us what Naomi Klein calls The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism was based on Newtonian physics and Darwinist biology. It is called ‘a science of the dead universe’ in which the ‘scientist’ is treated as the only clever animal.
Under that paradigm, it would make perfect sense to take a programme-by-programme approach to the promotion of a science revolution intended to uplift research, innovation, entrepreneurship and industrial production.
It would make sense to select an elite group of young students to be favoured with free tuition while others failed to attend school for lack of support and due to poverty.
But in the aftermath of disaster capitalism and environmental catastrophe, there is “an emerging shift in the basic paradigm of science from the metaphor of the machine to the metaphor of the self-organising living organism.”
This new approach foregrounds the purpose of the whole society and not an exclusive elite or profession.
According to David Korten, citing Mae-Wan Ho, the emphasis moves from segregation and isolation to co-ordination, which is to say, it is a relational approach and against piece-meal approaches.
“The stability (and dynamism) of organisms (including institutions and societies) depends on all parts of the system being informed, participating and acting appropriately in order to maintain the whole.”
For Africans, that ‘whole’ was deliberately fragmented by apartheid education. Hence the need for historical reconstruction.
So, the selectivity underlying STEM has not been articulated and justified in terms of long-term policy for the entire education sector.
The second assumption is that the ‘STEM revolution’ or the focus on Maths, Biology, Physics and Chemistry for the 2015 ‘O’-Level cohorts will ‘stemitize’ all the other fields of study which have been excluded from sponsorship in this programme.
I take this to mean that the Ministry believes that from now on, all the excluded disciplines will be forced gradually to imitate or reflect the precision, thoroughness, accuracy, predictability and consistency which is generally expected of Mathematics, Biology, Physics and Chemistry.
In other words, the Ministry believes that it can redirect and control the entire sector or universe we call the education enterprise or the education establishment through STEM.
This is neo-liberal technicism. As Egbert Schuurman has written, “Technicism reflects a fundamental attitude which seeks to control reality, to resolve all problems with the use of scientific-technological methods and tools.”
But that reality, the entire education sector, has not been consulted or explored to establish that it can be transformed through a STEM revolution based on a narrow cohort of pupils.
The idea that choosing a small group to sponsor and support will force the ‘losers’ to adapt is a well-established World Bank tactic. Those wishing to pursue the 12 ‘redundant’ subjects have implicitly been classified as the ‘losers’.
Yet in the emerging science paradigm, the whole system in which the STEM project is supposed to operate and benefit society must be taken into consideration without dividing participants between winners and losers, let alone assuming that losers will be forced to imitate winners, whatever that is supposed to mean.
One illustration can be used to demonstrate the need to question assumptions in the The Sunday News article.
One of the most promising national projects in terms of innovation and productivity is the digitisation project.
Once the engineers and technicians finish constructing and testing the infrastructure, what would be needed of them is maintenance and repair of the system.
The biggest responsibility for innovation and productivity leading to profitable media products for African cultural reconstruction and for local and foreign consumption will no longer lie on the shoulders of STEM graduates.
It will lie on the shoulders of local content producers, most of whom have to come from disciplines such as history, journalism, film, mass communication, theatre, dance, choreography, story-telling, literature, poetry, wildlife conservation and agriculture.
In other words, if the purpose of STEM is to boost research, innovation and productivity, it should include the disciplines which can contribute the most toward the creation of original African content to fill the scores of new radio and TV channels made possible by digitisation and to export.
Yet the STEM concept appears to exclude altogether the dire need for content production for national TV, radio and film. This need for such innovation is urgent but it is not reflected in the STEM programme. Now, the article seems to go beyond the exclusion of too many relevant subjects from STEM to the suggestion that these subjects are now redundant!
There is no scientific basis for such an assumption.

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