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Goodbye Mental Arithmetic ... Welcome Calculator!

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Technology is leaping forward, and will unlikely be slowing down in the foreseeable future. The impacts of these advancements are reshaping life in all its forms, guiding new ways of human interaction and interfacing with and understanding our environment. Much of this change is happening in irreversible ways, and inevitably changing the way we educate humanity to handle a futuristic world where what will matter will much less be about our mental capabilities to solve problems. Rather, we are being ushered into a world where our interactions with machines will be the most efficient ways to meet, move, control and even relieve some of our natural drives.

It helps to bring in some perspective to how this is just as realistic in our developing country context. Technological advances have revolutionized the way in which we access the world, particularly in resolving a growing worry in how we were going to facilitate business and personal transactions across borders at little or no cost. It is less strange now how businesses rely on voice-over-IP (VOIP) platforms to transact cheaply with suppliers of goods and services, use social media to not only transact but to also follow the news, chat, express and sell our talents, share productive assets (including transport) and even meet someone to love. Evolutions in data requirements needed to conduct meaningful business or access useful and complete information over the internet have facilitated a transformation for both the world’s rich and poor, with great potential to narrow socio-economic inequality.

These advances are having an enormous effect on one group of individuals, parents, who are unable to keep their children away from this avalanche of change. It is increasingly logical for parents to ensure, instead of prohibiting them, responsible access and use of computerized and cyber-based resources to advance their knowledge and learning, and to quell their large appetite for entertainment. This is aided by the computer age generation’s natural inclination to handling technology with such ease that is putting well-educated parents on the run to cope with numerous forms of software and, importantly, protect their offspring from cyber harm. Furthermore, children are increasingly proving to have better capacity to learn over computerized platforms than in the traditional classroom. It is on this latter point regarding learning that this article departs.

Some parents, today, feel the education system at all levels is failing them for its continued reliance on gadgets that children are using to solve problems, in lieu of their God-given brains to mentally figure things out. A genuine fear for the posterity of mankind! However, a recognition of the change of times is important for parents in the present age, who themselves have benefitted from significant changes in various disciplines that have enhanced their own learning. For Economists, a natural example is how John Meynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, about 472 pages of prose, were condensed into less than a page of equations when mathematics became more prominent in solving Economics problems. Today, College Algebra has become foundational to the instruction of Economics, sifting away all lovers of prose to less numerical Social Sciences while making room for non-economists to receive Nobel Prizes in the field mainly because of their mathematical prowess (see Jean Tirole, for example).

So, likewise, the infiltration of technological learning aids may not be the loathed symptom of a weakening curriculum, where curricula are designed right. On the other hand, it is a means of preparing children, i.e., future workers, for a world where interaction with gadgets will be the most significant way to work, and where deftness at manipulating machines will be core to our very survival. This is partly the motivation to an article recently published on this website (access it here), which focused on Ed-Tech in Malawi as an approach to education delivery with potential to bridge the gap between poor and rich children.

In a fast-paced technological world, the state of technology at the beginning of a child’s primary schooling will have changed by the time they enter secondary school, and their success will be profoundly dependent on their ability to speedily acquire ways to understand the new technologies facing them. This is a new field of education called adaptive learning. Much like the forced evolution some Keynesian macroeconomists had to undergo to fit in a new, mathematically-dense, Economics paradigm, making your application of math your only saving grace among naturally talented mathematicians like Robert Lucas. Adaptive learners must then continuously be presented with persistently changing situations that one has to maneuver through to survive or even to produce innovations that will be useful. In due course, the mastery of this skill, a.k.a. adaptability, is essential for the modern organization and for recognition in an industrial world poised to change at rapid speeds.

Adaptive learning will not fully replace conventional knowledge delivered in the classroom presently. It only substitutes the manner in which this information is imparted on learners’ minds in an interactive manner, usually taking a problem-solving approach. Critical information is absorbed in the process of pondering solutions to real-world challenges that, with the help of information technology, suggestions are arrived at by the learner. This tilts learning from its heavy reliance on information filed on the brain in the hope it would be useful someday, to development of solutions that depend on how much information is presented to the solver at every given time. This is the reason it is no longer absolutely important for the learner to spend time memorizing the multiplication table but rather why checking the exponential growth of some bacteria (figured out on a calculator) is instrumental to changing the prevalence of new diseases in the tropics.

Besides conventional learning, adaptive learning will be an important explanatory factor to the inequality among people, particularly between the rich, who are able to afford gadgets for their children, and the poor. Our article cited above could not explain this phenomenon better. The aggregation of accessibility of computer technology in developing countries such as Malawi will explain inequality among nations, underlining the difference between advanced countries and the Third World. This means that Ed-Tech must be a national policy issue for the education sector which should make an enormous leap towards exposing every child to technology in their path to education. In fact, technology should become the tool with which they access education from the time they enter Early Child Development (ECD) Centers. On 13 August 2017, this website made enough noise about how the long-term cost-savings of doing this are as significant as the associated education quality gains.

Another important factor Malawians ought to consider in the adoption of Ed-Tech and adaptive learning skills is the nurturing of political will to make these things happen. It is doubtful to this website whether we have a critical mass of politicians in our National Assembly who are privy to the changing world of education and technology, and the opportunities for Malawi’s future that lie within. Certainly, we would be happy to chat with every member of our Parliamentary Committee on Education, whom we are happy to challenge with such a topic to bring to the fore of national attention. We doubt the first citizen – a veteran educationist himself – is spending sleepless nights thinking about the future of education in the face of dynamics in technology at the scale it is occurring.

This is, again, an instrumental distinction between developed and developing nations, and why we may brace for a rough future as our development path staggers through stormy paths.


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