There are no reliable studies or statistics in South Africa on how many learners are struggling with the learning of school content. Conclusive and reliable evidence on how many learners have been ‘under-educated’ is scarce, versus those that have a certifiable barrier to learning. However, global evidence indicates that there are many barriers which inhibit effective learning.
There is a consensus that low literacy and numeracy scores are good baseline indicators of learning problems. Low literacy or numeracy achievement can be due to poor classroom teaching methods, nutrition challenges, genetic influences, gross motor problems or behavioural elements such as low concentration, attention deficits and so forth. It is in this context that we critically examine the question: “Can Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in schools assist those with learning barriers or can it become another major barrier to learning?”
For the purpose of this argument, the term ‘ICT’ will be used as an umbrella description and therefore refers to the use of technology in terms of computers, video-conferencing, tele-conferencing and interactive classroom biometrics, etc. Many school classroom technology offerings often have amazing functionalities and features that dazzle and even boggle the mind. It is evident however, that many of these ICT innovations in South African classrooms today are not always geared towards learners who have learning barriers. One of numerous examples would relate to the amount of learners, who, due to physical under-development and poor occupational stimulation, find computer keyboards a nightmare. The small-sized keys and letters make keyboard mastery a great challenge. Many of these learners are therefore not motivated to use ICT instruments, resulting in growing low self-esteem, which ultimately impacts on those already struggling with a learning disorder.
While a gross motor problem, as in the keyboard example, is often an identifiable problem, some of the more nuanced and unseen challenges with ICT relates to balance and posture where the position of the keyboard in relation to seating is a major factor in content mastery. Additional factors such as clumsiness and poor muscle tone impact on finger movement and mouse control and impede work completion and task motivation. Computers that are placed in poorly lit areas, with either too bright or dimly-lit backgrounds, allows for uncontrollable screen glare and may lead to headaches, tension and anxiety during the task. Social and emotional problems also ensue from those who have sensory problems and dislike touch. An educator not trained in dealing with learning barriers tends to label such learners. They are often seen as ‘unmotivated’ or ‘lazy’. Or take the case of an epileptic learner. Some epileptic learners react to flickering screens as these often stimulate the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain leading to unpleasant consequences.
Furthermore, problems with concepts, numbers and shapes, visual perceptual problems, auditory perception problems and so forth are also some of the many challenges that have to be considered in terms of ICT in classrooms today. On the other hand, many educators and learning barriers experts agree that the use of ICT have benefits that outweigh the risks if used correctly. There seems to be consensus that the key to making effective use of ICT in the classroom, is an educator who is trained in dealing with learning barriers. In order to achieve this milestone in South African education, massive re-engineering is required. The very foundation upon which many educators have been skilled and certified i.e. chalk and talk, needs to be updated. In Gauteng for example, the Department of Education has been trying to revive and re-structure the Gauteng Online initiative through the supply of computer tablets. Lying ahead, of course, is the huge task of skilling educators in using the technology effectively. At this point, for example, relevant content has to be sourced and adapted to the classroom while didactic approaches will also need to accommodate learners with a range of barriers such as dyslexics, those with eye-sight challenges, hand-eye coordination problems, etc. Some schools in South Africa, use ICT in the form of assistive technologies to address various learning barriers. These technologies help overcome learning challenges. Among the technologies available are screen colour overlays for photosensitive learners, screen readers for deficient readers or blind learners, screen print magnifiers as well as making use of barrier specific keyboards to name but a few.
It is therefore advisable that educators be well-trained in using ICT in classrooms with an emphasis on assessing learners in foundational concepts such as numeracy, literacy, study skills, study trends, keyboard efficiency and related areas. On a more encouraging note, it is hopeful to see that many schools, even those in the lower quintiles and FET Colleges in Gauteng are starting to use ICT for numeracy and literacy assessments. They are also using computers for performance benchmarking, placements and student support.
In the process of assessing they are collecting valuable data on student barriers as well and are adapting their support strategies accordingly. The use of ICT in a responsible manner and in trained hands will therefore stimulate an information revolution conducive for learning innovation and in line with the creative demands of a 21st century learning environment.
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- Gerald Williamson (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a clinical psychologist and an educationist active in education research, training and development. Refer to www.shapingthelearner.com for his contact details.