The Cost of Education
Actually it can be quite cheap.
A couple of years ago I took a summer sabbatical in Malawi, in Africa. A very poor country, where everything has to be done on the cheap. I recall watching a class of maybe 100 toddlers, sitting on the ground in the shade of a Baobab tree, listening to a teacher standing on a box. I guess that’s the same way it was done hundreds of years ago. As the sun moved, children on the edge of the group quietly moved around the other side to stay in the shade. One thing that was there in abundance was an eagerness to learn.
I then visited a secondary school where they did have buildings, but only a few broken down desks. Again mostly the students sat on the floor. The blackboard was so worn only a small corner of it was still usable. I recall a conversation with an Australian accountant who was responsible for checking the expenditure of €150,000 Euro worth of Irish Government aid. I remember him reeling off the list of what that money bought – three new fully fitted school buildings, eight teacher’s houses, 20 outdoor toilets, 100s of desks – the list went on and on. We are not used to that kind of value-for-money here at home, but in terms of life-changing potential that money went a very long way. Here in Ireland €150,000 wouldn’t even make a decent banker’s bonus.
Anyway, I digress. My point is that here in the first world we actually don’t do teaching much differently. Teaching a subject like mathematics still comes down to a teacher standing in front of, and talking to, a classroom full of students. We have all sorts of technical aids, but in fact they are rarely used. I still use chalk and a blackboard, as do most of my colleagues. At the end of the course I set an exam, I collect hand-written scripts, and I mark them with a red pen. Could I do the same under a Baobab tree, or in a class where the students sat on the floor and the blackboard was only partially usable? Well yes I probably could just about manage.
So why don’t we use advanced technology more in our teaching? And if we don’t, why is education so expensive here?
One problem with technology is that you can’t always trust it to work. Chalk and a blackboard always works. Connecting a laptop to an overhead projector never seems to be straightforward. Why is that? Once I recall going to give a lecture in DCU, and looking up to where the projector was, only to see a hole in the roof where the projector should have been. It had been stolen the night before. Sometimes technology actually takes us on a major step backwards. PowerPoint. I rest my case.
So all we have done is to take the ancient teacher-in-front-of-a-class model and surround it with layers of bureaucracy and some ill-fitting technology which arguably doesn’t add much value to the process. Perhaps if we were to strip it back to the basics and then carefully build it back up again we might end up with a much better value-for-money education system. And the way things are going, maybe that’s exactly what we will have to do.