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The Art-Tech Conundrum

Natasha Ridge
April 15, 2015

Technology is often touted as the answer to improving education, but its creative potential must be unlocked for it to be truly effective.

Countries in the Gulf have invested millions into technology for education with the hope that it will yield improved educational outcomes, stimulate innovation, and lead to increased economic diversification. However, beyond the introduction of new technologies in schools and universities, there has been little discussion of how this investment will address the key problems facing the education sector in the Gulf today.

It is widely acknowledged that issues relating to teacher-centered pedagogical practices, outdated curricula, and the disengagement and subsequent low achievement of students, in particular males, plague Gulf education systems. Few of these concerns, however, are directly impacted by technology.

While there are claims that technology will increase student engagement, transform the curriculum, open up new ways of learning and new learning spaces, and make learning more creative and innovative, there is still very little hard evidence to support this. Rather, it seems that technology could be dumbing down education, with the Pew Research Center finding that more than 90% of teachers believed that for their students the term research now equaled Google.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publication, "Inspired by Technology, Driven by Pedagogy" highlights how, across the world, there is a tension between new technology and teachers’ ability to engage with these technologies, with schools spending large amounts on new technologies, such as tablets and smart boards, only to find that very few teachers use them effectively. It points to three main reasons why this is the case. Firstly, the existing knowledge base has shown little connection between pedagogical practices, technology, and the impact on education quality and student performance. Secondly, teacher training still lags behind in providing new teachers with the skills needed to integrate technology into their regular classroom practices, and, thirdly, there are not sufficient incentives for teachers to embrace technology in the classroom. All of these are valid but perhaps inadequate reasons for why we fail to see the promise of technology realized in the classroom.

In contrast to the global interest in having more technology in schools, in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of technology as we know it, many senior executives are choosing to raise their own children away from technology. Steve Jobs famously did not allow his children to have iPads and strictly limited their use of devices in the home. He emphasized discussing books and history each night at the dinner table over the constant checking of an iPhone. Other technology executives in the area are going one step further and choosing to send their children to schools like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula where technology use is limited and only gradually introduced in the upper grades. The school still uses blackboards and chalk and encourages students to engage in arts and crafts such as knitting and sewing, but this does not mean that their students are ill-prepared for academic life, with over 94% of students going on to university.

In higher education, similar arguments are made about the transformative nature of technology. However, we find a lack of quantitative evidence to show that the introduction of iPads or other such devices leads to better performance or engagement of students. Technology does offer practical solutions for certain issues. For example, it prevents students from having to carry around large numbers of heavy textbooks, but beyond the more logistical and administrative benefits, instructors and faculty struggle with integrating more technology into the course experience. This is partly a result of a lack of training for faculty as well as a lack of technical support to enable them to use technology efficiently and effectively in the classroom.

Research on technology in higher education in the USA, where it was estimated that over 10 billion dollars were spent on education technology in 2014, shows that faculty are discouraged. In one study of 1,600 professors by Faculty Focus, they found that 34% of professors found keeping up with technology to be "moderately" or "very" problematic. In another study of faculty and technology usage by David Johnson from the University of Georgia, it was found that technology can create more work for faculty and lead to an erosion of professional autonomy.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf nations, there has been a similar enthusiasm for technology at all levels of education based on hopes of improved outcomes. However the challenges faced in our region are also the same. Technology is most effective when it is almost invisible, such as being able to register for classes online or to be able to search quickly and effectively for new information. However, technology cannot replace effective and engaging instruction, and that is where we need to focus our efforts. When faculty and teachers feel engaged and motivated, then they will approach their classes with a desire to try new things, including technology, but when technology increases their workload and creates stress over how to use it, it becomes far less likely that it will be positively integrated into the learning experience.

Technology in and of itself, however, contains very little ability to stimulate creativity or lead to innovation. New research suggests that the promise of technology may be only unlocked through an equally compelling encounter with the arts. A study of 150 of history’s most famous inventors, such as Galileo, Einstein, and Louis Pasteur, found that nearly all of the great inventors and scientists were also musicians, artists, writers, or poets. As education sectors across the world have embraced the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) movement, the latest research points to the need for STEAM. STEAM involves placing “Art” at the center of STEM, and in doing so, helping students to realize the creative potential of technology.

With the addition of the arts to the curriculum at both school and university levels, there is greater potential to help students be more creative, inspired, and engaged. The curriculum is broadened, lessons become, by virtue of the medium, student-centered, and education institutions have greater scope to engage with the wider community. Technology can stand alone as a piece of equipment or new software, but, when fused with the arts, it becomes so much more. It is this fusion that has the potential to transform education in the Gulf.