Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dialogue between Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association in Beirut and Ann-Louise Davidson: Using ICT to empower failing children
Authors: Dr. Ann-Louise Davidson, Nadia Naffi Abou Khalil, Dr. Kamel Dallal, Dr. Mohamed Naffi ,  Adla Chatila, and Ghina AlBadawi.
If we teach today’s students
like we taught yesterday’s,
we rob them of tomorrow.
–John Dewey-
When Dr. Mohamed Naffi was visiting his daughter Nadia who is studying for an M.A. in Educational Technology at Concordia University in Canada, he met her thesis supervisor Dr. Ann-Louise Davidson. What was at first a personal familial visit turned out to be the kernel for a stimulating discussion for Dr. Naffi. Indeed, Dr. Naffi thought that Dr. Davidson’s expertise in the use of technology in education, especially special education, could be useful to Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association in Beirut because they have always been at the avant-garde of educational ideas and have always known how to seize a good opportunity. The acquaintance between the two academics culminated in an academic meeting wherein educationists from Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association as well as other institutions interacted with Dr. Davidson to gain knowledge from her rich background.
The meeting was made possible when Dr. Naffi heard about Dr. Davidson’s visit to Lebanon. Being an astute alumnus of Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association, he proposed the idea of the meeting to Makassed President Mr. Amine Daouk. Perceiving this as a golden opportunity, Mr. Daouk requested from Makassed’s Director of Education Affairs, Dr. Kamel Dallal, to organize an educational meeting, which would bring together educationists and school principals of Makassed as well as other educational institutions.
To prepare the attendees of the meeting, Dr. Dallal presented a biography of Dr. Davidson and informed them on her work and experience in education and technology. As the attendees absorbed the eruditeness of Dr. Davidson, Dr. Dallal proposed that they prepare questions that they would like her to shed light on. As the meeting finally ensued, questions from Hanan Khrbatly, the principal of the  Makassed Secondary School for Girls, Ghina Badawi the principal of Khalil Shehab, and Dr. Dallal motivated other principals to ask further questions. Excitement rose as educationists thought of a myriad of questions.
The following article presents the rich questions asked by the attendees along with a synthesis of the answers provided by Dr. Ann-Louise Davidson.
How can ICT help and motivate children who suffer from low self-esteem, poor self-confidence and are labeled underachievers?
Children are fascinated by technological objects and with the recent discoveries in the sciences of education, we have gone through a shift of paradigm in teaching which is a shift from “teaching ICT” to “teaching with and through ICT”. This means that rather than teaching informatics as a subject, we now try to teach inside rich technological environments. This is an important distinction because teaching about the interface,  the software and computer languages is not for everyone. However, teaching with and through ICT involves using the technology as a tool to accomplish authentic tasks and to solve problems.
I have visited numerous computer labs and classes that had been designed with adapted technologies for specific handicaps and software specifically designed for various intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities. In some cases, I must admit that the work surrounding these labs and classes is amazing. Even more surprising, I have seen children with fine motricity problems who were unable to hold a pencil, but were able to use a mouse and type with a regular keyboard. This is quite impressive given the fact that we have seen generations of students who took typing in high school as a subject and were never able to type. We now have five year old children and people with various disabilities who are able to type. We can only think that with the tactile interfaces that have recently entered the market, we will see a lot of possibilities opening up for children who suffer from low self-esteem, poor self-confidence and are labeled underachievers. We have much research to do to understand exactly what works with them and what doesn’t in terms of interventions, but evidence so far shows some very positive results.
Children are also very fascinated by the Internet and social networking sites and they have the desire to learn to write to interact with others. Rather than being a chore, learning to write becomes a desire in children. They must learn to control the code to do something they really want to do, which completely changes their motivation.
In conclusion, I argue that in education, we should use ICT in authentic situations that are meaningful to learners, especially those who have motivation problems or learning disabilities. When they are successful, they feel they are able to do the tasks they must accomplish and their feeling of self-efficacy goes up, which tends to help them become more intrinsically motivated.
How can poor achievers use ICT as a means to study alone and improve their performance in math, languages and other school subjects?
There are many educational software and Web sites that have been proven effective to help poor achievers. Much research has focused on how to design such software and Web sites, but I always argue that this is only the “I” component of ICT. The “C” component, which is “communication technology”, is extremely important for the student who has difficulty in school. With social networking sites, these students can now be in contact with experts and a support network that can accompany him or her in the learning process.
We can compare this to the metaphor of the computer that is much more powerful when it is connected in a network with other computers or when it is connected to the Web. With communication technologies, or social technologies, we can break the frontiers of time and space and provide access to a variety of people to these learners that can help develop expertise in various domains that school cannot traditionnally offer as a subject. This opens up a world of possibilities. In fact, a student who doesn’t succeed well often has negative experiences that prevent him or her to achieve his or her full potential and I have seen many instances where social technologies can open a world of possibilities for these learners.
Moreover, I would strongly suggest to recognize what is good in every child. Each person, no matter his or her mental or physical capacity, can have a positive impact on society and will feel much better when being a fully fledged contributing citizen. To do this, we should rely on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. This theory allows us to see the child’s stength beyond traditional IQ tests and to focus on the child’s stengths, whatever they may be. Through these strengths, we can teach just about anything, but the teacher has to become creative in his or her pedagogical approaches and in the design of projects.
What does research say about the relationship between Technology and the achievement of students with special needs? What software do you use? What software do you recommend?
Research in education always concludes that there is “no significant difference” in learning gains whether technology is or not. In other words, technology will not make students learn better or faster. That’s usually the statistical conclusion. One of the problems I see in this is that we invest millions of dollars in technology since the 1980s to see “no significant differences”. Why do we put money in it then? Because we know that in our society technology has been adopted by a wide mass of population. The truth is that even an 85 year-old citizen cannot avoid technology today because when we go to the bank, one cannot avoid using a bankcard. That is digital technology. Indeed, the banking card has a chip in it, and you need it, you need to know there is a password, you need it to get your money from the bank.
No significant difference is a conclusion that we come to when collect data from a large sample and we can attribute this partially to the size effect, and partially to the fact that many teachers still use the Bell curve to mark and with this Bell curve, there needs to be so many A’s, B’s and C’s. However, if we start looking at the phenomenon with small populations, qualitatively rather than quantitatively, we see that the nature of human experience has changed, we see that the role of teachers has changed, we see that children are no longer passive receivers of knowledge, that simply listen, write, memorize, and repeat. Knowledge is now distributed. Teachers are no longer the sole possessors of knowledge, like they hold the knowledge in their hands. Knowledge is everywhere. Indeed, what has changed is the process of learning. There’s has been a shift in the mode of learning, and children can learn informally on their own, without a being in a formal setting. In other words, with social media children learn very differently than when they do inside the schools. That’s what we have to look at.
I don’t anticipate finding any significant difference in terms of memorization either; human memory is always human memory with or without technology. Some studies have shown that memory can be increased with some commercial formulas, but that’s not the issue that is of interest to me. We have already seen that with technology we may have less memory because of our new relationship to knowledge. For example, when we multitask we definitely have less result because we are not concentrating on one task at the same time and the human brain was not made for that. Indeed research shows that we are not made for multitasking. Some people handle it better than others but it creates a certain amount of damage in some neuronal pathways.
Therefore, I suggest that rather than looking at an increase of memorization or an increase of results, we should conduct research on the shift between the quality of learning from the learner perspective. The nature of knowledge has changed, the nature of the competencies to be employable has changed, the nature of our skills has changed and really, this is what we need to look at in education. We will see a significant difference when we start looking at what qualitative changes technology has brought to our lives rather than the quantity of knowledge we can memorize.
What software should we use and which software should be recommended? We all use a variety of software and of course we are not able to know all the software that exist. But the biggest potential I see right now is not the proprietary software; it’s the open software, the software that are on the cloud. For example, Google suite is impressive, especially that you can connect everyone across the world and you can work synchronously and asynchronously by simply giving access to your document to people who are working with you. Now that’s is extremely powerful! And you don’t need to buy any software, you can buy a cheap laptop without any software, simply connect the Internet and you have access to Google suite with a Gmail account. Because this technology is readily accessible for a mass of population that cannot afford expensive software licenses, I would recommend moving towards open software. Exploring open source software in class especially with people with special needs who often come from lower social class is extremely helpful. It opens up a world of possibilities for people and for school boards that are poor. We have seen this even in Canada. There are schools that cannot buy software licenses year after year.
As for which software I would recommend? My answer is the same: open software.
You are probably using Interactive Boards in many schools in Canada, What advantages do they have on the learning process?
Interactive boards are useful when they are used with collaborative software. That's the first claim that I would have to make. If the teacher simply uses interactive boards as a replacement of our old backboards, then they are not useful. In other words, the software has to be potentially collaborative and it would be even better if the software was in the cloud, and if children can have access to the content through whatever mobile technologies they are using. I am referring to technologies these children carry in their pockets. If this can be exploited and we can work together to build answers with a shift of responsibilities on the ownership of learning, then that changes everything in the teacher-learner relationship. It's not the teacher anymore that has the control on student learning; it is the student that has the control on his or her own learning.

I understand that this is a problem for a lot of teachers because we were grown as teachers to have control on the knowledge, and a good teacher is a teacher that knows everything. When it comes to technology children often know more than we do and they can teach us a lot about them. Every month I go and visit a school and a child teaches me something about technology, some new function or some new software. Just recently I’ve learned about Google +. I’ve been travelling for the past two weeks and Google + came out after I was travelling so I had children ask me if I had a Google + account. My answer was: No I don't but I’ll do that tonight and I will see if I can connect with you.

Coming back to interactive boards, I argue that they should be used with interactive software, which puts the teacher in a position of vulnerability with regards to the content of the subject matter and the ownership of knowledge. One other thing that we often fail to recognize with collaborative activities is the difference between collaboration and cooperation. On one hand, cooperation implies that everyone that does the assignment together, in a group, to get to the same objective. On the other hand, collaboration means that everyone in the group does something different to solve the problem or to accomplish a task, and we use everyone's strength in order to resolve the problem that we are facing.

So there is a shift again in terms of the perspective in which we look at the pedagogical relationship, a shift from teacher-centered activities where the teacher holds the knowledge towards student centered activities where it is the child that has the control. This involves setting up objectives with them not setting up objectives for them. Of course you have objectives for your lessons, and for your units and for your courses, but eventually what has to happen is that the children have to know why they are in this learning business, what are their objectives and how do they think they will reach these objectives. This is the perspective in which these interactive Smartboards have to be used in order to be efficient. Sadly, I've seen a lot of inefficient uses of interactive Smartboards and they are all related to a transmissive mode of pedagogy where the teacher simply uses the board as the blackboard so we have to avoid that. This shift will not happen tomorrow, but it is going to happen over a period of several years. What we have to do is set our objectives and we have to have a vision of what this could look like in order to develop an interactive/collaborative pedagogy. It is very difficult to do because as teachers we tend to want to have a perfect control over the knowledge and when it’s the children that have the control over the knowledge, we feel that our identity has been chattered.

Are you for or against using social media such as Facebook, Twitter…? To strengthen the relationship between school and students, or schools and parents?
I am 100% for the use of social media, but under certain conditions. A year ago, I went to a school and asked students who in the room had a Facebook page. The answer was: all of them. I also know the parents of these students. Many of them have told me that their child is not allowed to have a facebook page. Some allow their child to have a Facebook page if they are their friend and they can see what they post. So after my first question, I asked the students to raise their hands if they were friends with their parents on Facebook. I saw 70% of the hands go up. My third question to them was: who has a 2nd Facebook page? I saw the same 70% hands go up. The conclusion is not difficult in this case: children know how social media works and they are in control in this technological environment.
The problem with this is that we do not teach about social media such as Facebook in schools. Our children spend an average of twenty hours socializing on these social media sites, which are very powerful tools. However we do not educate them to use these technologies. This poses a major problem to us because we need to ensure that our children are safe and are using social media ethically, but we have no way of verifying that they have the knowledge and skills to do so. We need to educate them because they are not aware that what we post on the Internet stays there. It’s called a digital footprint. It is possible to set privacy settings on Facebook but those are dubious due to their changing nature. As for Twitter, the tweets are directly accessible on the Internet. Our children are also not aware of the other dangers awaiting them in social media, such as bullying, stalking, psychological manipulation, etc.
This is why I am 100% for the use of social media, but only if we use it wisely, safely, securely and if we learn how to use it for educational purposes with it rather than just to browse profiles. Can we start learning with social media? I am certain, but we still have a long way to go before Facebook becomes a social learning sofware. There are too many limitations to the interface. We need to go ask our teachers: how can we start using Facebook as a learning tool and can you give us insignt on your experiences with such tools? Only then, will we be able to start understanding what works and what doesn’t.
Do you have a reward system for schools or teachers that use technology effectively?
In Canada, the various provinces and territories all have different systems to reward teachers who use teachnology effectively, but the is no country-wide system, nor is there a country-wide system for rewarding teachers. Some school boards are at the “avant-garde” of using technology, but other school boards are facing much deeper problems than integrating technology and they have to focus on these fundamental problems before they tackle the issue of technology. There are some countries such as the United Statess and England that have more rigourous evaluation systems and if the teacher passes the evaluation, they keep their job, but if they fail, they loose their job. As far as I’m concerned, the question of using technology effectively is not a clear cut concept. There are  many shades of grey. For example, one school board can value their teachers for using technologies such as clickers. However, clickers are not deemed a learning technology but a teaching technology that does not provide a shift from teacher-centered activities to learner-centered activities. Moreover, it is probably not a good idea to use a behaviorist approach involving rewards and punitions with our teachers as we want them to consider themselves as professionnals. Technology is not something that should be used at the bottom of Maslow’s scale. On the contrary, teachers and students should feel safe when integrating technologies and they should do this in the perspective of human emancipation. We should should work with our teachers to understand, as philosopher Dewey once said, that “If we teach our children today as we did yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow”. If a country decides on a reward system for integrating technologies, it should be revolving around the idea of preparing children to live a happy life and living as fully-fledged citizens.
Can you talk about your experience with designing learning programs with special populations.
I have worked with various special populations in developing countries and in developed contries. On the one hand, the problem we have when designing learning programs with any of these populations living “on the edges” is that we meet with roundtables of experts to decide what should be included in the curriculum and then they implement it. The main issue with this is that what is important for experts living a good life, is not necessarily what is important to solve the problems of these special populations that is going going through this learning process. I have seen this occur with the phenomenom of inclusion in Canada, which involves integrating children in regular classrooms. The truth is that a child that has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound, has a set of professional around him or her, to provide a variety of daily services,  ends up being isolated from the group in which he or she should be included. The other issue is that this child may not be able to learn at the same pace as others who are fully mobile and have regular intelligence, and that creates other types of problems in terms of socialization with other students.
On the other hand people, when people from developed countries design learning programs for them, they often forget or are unaware of the issues that the people from these countries face on a daily basis such as the lack of human or physical resources. The experts decide what is important and the population says: well the person from the north said it was important, so it must be. They go through the learning program, memorize what is important and the knowledge is never translated in reality because it is not appropriate to the context.  The challenge is to go and see what are the problems with the experience of these people and to gather needs from their local knowledge structures using their own language. This might be a big challenge, but it is feasible through collaborative action-research methods.
Can you please talk about Capacity building?
Training for capacity building is an interesting concept that has become very popular concept in a lot of nongovernmental organizations. NGOs, telecommunication companies, multinational companies, etc. all want capacity building because they want to increase the skill level of their employees. The idea is that if I have 600 employees and I reduce them to 400, and I increase the skill level and the productivity of these 400 hundred employees by one third, I still have my 600 employees for less cost. This is the logic of capitalism. And training for capacity building often follows this idea.
What I see as problem is training for capacity building is very rarely to make our employees happier or better citizens, better to each other, and this is one of the problem that I've been working on with many NGOs. When we ask company executives if their employees are happy, they often don’t know. When I ask them if that is important, most often they reply that what is important to them is that they meet their financial objectives. Strangely, very little leaders seem to understand that when their employees are happier with their work, they are going to meet the objectives much more easily than if they are unhappy. When they are depressed, they’re often absent, they loose hours talking about their dissatisfaction during their day, at night when they go back home they carry their frustration at home they become less efficient. This is why we must worry about the happiness of our workers for capacity building. This the first message I convey to everyone.
There is also the fact that training for capacity building often fails to do one step before the training starts and that is the needs assessment. What is your organization’s objective? Is it to generate revenues? Is it to comply with regulations or is it to reduce expenses. If you tell me what it is and we look at your employees’ skill level, we can we look at the current situation and we can imagine an ideal scenario. We then need to analyze this gap and we need to know what to work on. Sometimes I get into NGOs and they tell me that they have 19 priorities to work on but we can only tackle one at a time. I ask them: what is our job one for this year? What is our major objective? We need to prioritize we need to identify what's going to make people more efficient and most of the time I have to tell you making people feeling more respected making people happier in their workplace and in their work environment should be our first priority. With these principles in mind, building capacity should be easier.
Can you please talk about teaching evaluation in higher education
Teaching evaluation in higher education is an interesting phenomenon. As we have all been students, we all know about teaching evaluation in higher education. We evaluate our teachers about our own perceptions: do you think that this professor is efficient as a professor? Well if you like the professor you are going to say yes, and if you don't like the professor you going to say no. Does this mean that the professor is good or not good? Absolutely not and the professor who has been evaluated as efficient very often is too easy on the students. So we analyze perceptions and there is no real connection between the evaluation and the reality and that's one of the problems that I can see from these teaching evaluations. We fail to measure if the pedagogical intentions had an impact on the learning outcomes. So if it’s only the students who evaluate the professors there might be some discrepancies between what happens in reality and the results of the evaluation.

The other problem is that many of us did a shift in our teaching approaches and I see that my students don’t necessarily recognize my facilitation skills, as a teaching skill. The truth is that facilitation is an extremely difficult skill to develop. It's much easier for me to transmit information that I have in my Powerpoint presentation and get my students to write the notes and to test them on the content. The tests are much easier to mark than the long assignments and the essays. When we facilitating we often start using a problem-based approach, for example. A problem-based approach for those who are not familiar with it, is using ill-defined ill-structured situations that do not have only one answer, problems that are multifaceted but also authentic problems that can be re-used in various situations. This is a teaching approach that has been developed by the McMaster school of medicine. Basically a problem-based learning approach involves facilitation of activities and involves getting the students to understand what is the gap between the current situation and the desired situation. Students must think that it's a valid problem to work on, and then to try to propose a solution to the problem in group, in collaboration, and this is a major challenge. In our higher education teaching evaluations schemes we do not have that as an element of measurement. So the teaching evaluation schemes in higher education are still extremely traditional and a little bit disconnected from the reality. I consider there is a lot of work to be done on the constructs we use to evaluate good teaching.

The ideas of collaboration and sharing expertise were what highlighted this meeting. It was considered a springboard for other fruitful joint meetings with experts around the world. In fact, this is what has been done! The director of ICT, Adla Chatila, was attending the session and seized the opportunity to arrange a follow up meeting between Dr Davidson and a group of innovative staff at Makassed, whereby they presented their work on using technology. Ghina AlBadawi, principal of Khalil Shehab School showcased how technology has been vastly used in Makassed schools- in administration and on the teaching, learning and assessment levels. Three innovative teachers from Khaled Ben AlWaleed/AlHorj College and Khalil Shehab Primary School showed concrete examples on how they prepare Flipcharts using Active Inspire on the Interactive Board, in addition to using web 2.0 tools for international collaboration, and also utilizing the newest ICT tools such as Microsoft Mouse Mischief and voting machines. They showed how they were pioneers in using the Teacher Management System to plan their lessons and use it to analyze data and help track low achievers to devise an academic intervention plan for them. They indeed showed that the use of technology is tempting in their schools environment, and provided best examples of the paradigm shift of using technology at Makassed . Dr Davidson, afterwards, was eager to pose some questions, to which they gladly provided response. ICT director, Adla Chatila, concluded the meeting by highlighting Makassed ICT strategic plan, which stresses reaching all staff and all schools, even those that are in the most remote suburban area.
At Makassed, we believe that ICT extends students’ knowledge and aspirations and brings them a world outside their own. It makes learning fun and reachable to all. A lot of money and efforts are invested to integrate technology in the Makassed system. The meeting with Dr Davidson is one instance of these efforts, and the publication of this article is a step in the direction of spreading knowledge to all Makassed staff, since only principals attended the first meeting with Dr Davidson. ICT integration is a work in progress in Makassed. It has the sole aim of helping to improve teaching and learning, and it is targetted to foster 21st century skills in Makassed youngesters - to offer them tomorrow’s education today!