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While technology and its role in redefining education was a resounding theme at the fifth Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF), a keenly contested debate had the house voting for the motion that ‘education technology in the classroom is a waste of time and money’.

Introducing the motion, moderator Dino Varkey, Chief Executive Officer of GEMS Education, observed that education technology spending globally will reach US$19 billion by 2019, according to Fortune magazine. At that cost, expectations of measurable returns are increasing. He said: “While many sing praises of IT in classroom, recent evidence suggests tech’s impact in classrooms is limited, with OECED finding that access to IT does little to bridge the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.”

James Cantenera, CEO & Founder, TULA, Philippines, opening the debate for the motion, was unequivocal that investing in technology in classrooms is not the imperative today; with public funds in education being finite. While agreeing that technology is ‘great,’ he pointed out that “education technology will benefit people only when other essentials are in place,” and warned of the consequences of technology misuse in an impressionable young audience.

With the state of educational facilities being appalling, teachers earning low wages and advances in curricula being limited, the priorities today must be to bridge these gaps.

“Education technology will have its benefits one day, but right now it is wasteful before the classrooms are ready.”

Countering the motion, Zaki Khoury, Regional Director, International Organisations – Microsoft, UAE, said education technology is “not about the digital divide but about digital dividend.” He argued that how students access ICT devices has evolved significantly in recent years, and claimed the OECD report, which served as the foundation of the motion as dating to 2012 and therefore archaic.

“It is fundamental that in today’s technology revolution, we really need to leverage the assets we have and also use the opportunities to the maximum. There is no stop for innovation and we need to adapt for innovation. With the changes around us, can you believe that we can come to a conclusion based on emotion that are using same tools built on methods of learning created hundred years ago? Instead of choosing between education and technology, we must focus on education and technology.”

In a flamboyant retort, Antony Jenkins, Board Member of Blockchain, former CEO of Barclays UK, drew on the ‘simple story’ of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ to support the motion, and reinforcing that the tech giants are missing the big picture of the everyday realities of the educational system.

“Billions are spent on electronic white boards, tablets and software; it just lines the pockets of tech companies,” he thundered. “All these deflect resources from things that really matter – investing in teachers, for one.”

The youngest participant, Munira Rajkotwalla, a student of GEMS Wellington, Dubai, put up a defiant fight against the motion, highlighting her own experience with Blended Learning – a programme where only 50 students have been hand-picked to study online as against conventional education. She said that not just results but also the number of hours spent on studying endorsed the value of education technology, asserting that ‘technology offers flexibility’ for students.

While pre-debate the house had an overwhelming majority opposing the motion, final voting saw a swing, with the motion carried by the ‘fors’ underlining the majority’s views that we need to invest in fundamentals before education technology becomes the watchword.

– GESF Media