Primary and secondary education could be made more efficient by offering and testing the subject matter digitally. This is the opinion of Prof. Egbert Harskamp, professor of Effective Learning Environments at the University of Groningen. ‘On the basis of recent research, my impression is that the software in schools is currently being underutilized.’ Digital subject matter processing could make a lot of marking work unnecessary and help to provide a quick analysis of the work done.’
On Tuesday 7 February, Harskamp gave his inaugural lecture entitled ‘Op weg naar digitalisering van het onderwijs? Over effectief gebruik van computerprogramma’s op school’ [En route to digital education? Effective use of computer programs in schools], in which he gave an overview of digitization in education. ‘On the basis of national surveys and some observational studies in primary and secondary education, it has been established that teachers and pupils currently use computers virtually every day. However, pupils are still generally working with textbooks. Less than twenty percent of the subject matter is offered digitally.’
Harskamp: ‘There are three things behind the stagnation in digitization. First, the current digital subject matter is mainly directed towards the processing of information from the textbooks. That’s got no added value other than feedback and digital exams. Second, most schools only have about one computer for every five pupils. That is not enough to be able to work with computers with all pupils at once, also because the computers are often not in the classrooms. Third, teachers often view the software simply as a supplement to the material in the textbook, and not so much as a primary source of instruction and subject matter processing.’
Teachers remain the most important link for exploiting the advantages of digitization in education to the full, states Harskamp. ‘Education needs example projects for teaching methods that can be effectively supported by software. Teachers need practical examples. How can the material be processed digitally and how can data be evaluated in an efficient way?’
Harskamp: ‘Teachers must be able to access training and coaching. They must be able to use innovations in a way that suits them best and improves the teaching. One example is the use of digital quizzes with instructions being repeated where necessary. The government could encourage teachers by earmarking funds for training in the didactic use of IT and giving extra target grants for introducing innovations whose effectiveness in actual teaching practice has been demonstrated.’
A striking example of unused potential in education is the digital blackboard, or Smart Board, says Harskamp. ‘That tool is already in many classrooms. Teachers can learn to use it every day for visual and interactive explanations of the material. In addition, the boards also have features to evaluate whether the pupils have understood the material. An intensification in the use of Smart Boards would improve the effectiveness of education, certainly if we can develop the didactic use of the boards based on academic research.’
Many pupils in secondary education already have a smartphone, a mobile phone with an internet connection. Harskamp: ‘That opens up the chance to conduct small research projects outside school, for example during a museum visit, and to cooperate on tasks remotely. I’m in favour of experiments to investigate how we can effectively apply this tool in education.’
Ideally, every pupil in the near future should be able to use a notebook or tablet during class. ‘We need to investigate what is needed to make that goal financially feasible. That may sound like an expensive measure, but digitization in education could lead to significant savings in the use of workbooks and written materials.’
Egbert Harskamp (1950) studied Educational Sciences and has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Groningen since 1978. In 2010 he was made professor by special appointment at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences in Effective Learning Environments by the Groningen University Fund. Harskamp’s research concentrates on the design and implementation of learning environments concentrating on problem-oriented learning.
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