Technology, education and society

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Technology, education and society

STEPHEN VASCIANNIE

Sunday, September 13, 2020

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Jamaica needs properly to enter the era of information technology. There are manifestations of interest in information technology, largely among technical experts, some professionals, tech-savvy students, and others, but the society's IT competence remains limited.

Digital native youngsters have expectations of exposure to the latest, affordable items from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but sometimes are obliged to be content with hearing about developments, rather than participating in them.

Progressive companies

Forward-looking, progressive companies wish to bring their services and production processes in line with methods and procedures now commonplace in the metropole but find in some cases that the mobile phone is the baseline of technological exposure among many.

Investors, wishing to take advantage of Jamaica's comparatively low wage levels, want to set up technology parks and outsourcing operations in Jamaica but find that the country lacks the critical mass of technology graduates and students competitively to satisfy the investors' needs.

To these challenges must be added the fact that Jamaica has done relatively little to develop indigenous forms of technology to serve national needs. It is also sometimes argued that we are not disposed as a nation to excellence in mathematics. I doubt this, but the annual performance of students in CSEC mathematics at some schools certainly suggests that there are mathematics problems to be addressed.

Other subjects

Much – or all – of the foregoing points to the need for us to develop our modern technology capacity as a matter of national priority. And, in the nature of things, our universities will need to provide the subject offerings that will equip students for success in the current environment. Better late than never may be a maxim suitable to the circumstances.

So, we start from the assumption that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will rule. Moving from this, two general points should be made in addition. The first is that primacy for STEM should not imply exclusion of other areas of study. This needs to be said. Even as we praise STEM we must remember that law, economics, history, literature, education, public relations, communications, music, art, foreign languages, philosophy, theology, sociology, political science, and several other areas are worthy, challenging and rewarding fields of knowledge.

The good life

Many non-STEM subjects are of paramount importance to our conception of the good life. Some of these subjects build on the achievements of those who have come and gone before us, heighten our sensitivity to each other, show us alternative ways of thinking about issues and challenge us to sharpen our analytical ability in various disciplines. These are important values that should be engendered by universities.

Secondly, even as we produce experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it is important that these experts be exposed to knowledge beyond the limits of STEM. The architect who has formal exposure to governance issues in society may have a greater level of understanding of social and cultural needs of the community, and should, other things being equal, have a stronger capacity to contribute to society than the uninitiated. Our educational system should, therefore, add breadth to the deep knowledge of STEM to be acquired by students.

Thirdly, to those who narrow-mindedly stress the value of technology education above all else, or even to the exclusion of all else, I note that a broad educational foundation, built on humanistic principles, contributes significantly to the nature of the society we produce: education should encourage us to respect the interests of other people, fire the imagination, and push us all to our highest levels of attainment.

Purposes of education

Nowadays, as we promote STEM we should also be mindful of the main purposes of education. Some critics view the matter entirely from an economistic perspective. The argument is that society needs STEM specialists, and that's the full picture.

Viewed, however, from the angle of the broad-minded student, the picture is more nuanced. Many students seek not only technical knowledge, but also self-fulfilment – and self-fulfilment, including enjoyment and satisfaction, may come from the humanities or other non-STEM subjects. The satisfied student will find a place in the world more readily than the disgruntled STEM specialist who has been bundled into her field by forces from above.

Student financing

On occasion, some leaders imply that universities in the Caribbean have fallen short in helping our societies to achieve pre-ordained levels of development. This may be true, to some extent. The stronger point, though, is that some Caribbean governments have not funded tertiary education to the point for take-off.

Take, for example, the question of student financing. The typical Caribbean student cannot fully afford tertiary education. Some will sensibly rely on student loans, and, quite apart from what may be said at election time, a strong case may be made for the expansion of the students' loan scheme in Jamaica.

Thus, Phillip Paulwell, Mark Golding, Lisa Hanna, and other members of the Opposition in Parliament – together with persons outside Parliament by accident or design – must press the Government properly to fund the Students' Loan Bureau.

But if greater funding is made available for student loans, care needs to be exercised to ensure that the system works. Too many students who cannot afford to pay for tertiary education nonetheless refuse to take out student loans. Some, therefore, fall by the wayside when, in fact, a loan could have kept them in school.

On the other side, the Students' Loan Bureau will need to enhance the availability of its loans to students. Here I have in mind the issue of guarantors. Many students with considerable potential are unable to proceed with university education because they cannot garner the support of two guarantors for the loans they seek.

Given that the guarantee will in some cases exceed one million dollars, this is not surprising. True, the Students' Loan Bureau maintains that the guarantor requirement may be waived in some instances, but this waiver facility has not been fully publicised.

Secondary schools

The funding question also affects the overall standard of schools in the secondary sector. Each year, there are reports presenting a ranking of secondary schools based on performance in the CSEC Examination. Usually, about three important trends are evident.

First, some schools – Campion, Immaculate, St Hilda's, Hampton, Mount Alvernia, Wolmer's Girls, Westwood, Glenmuir, St Andrew High School for Girls and a few others – are often, if not invariably, at the top of the list in terms of results. Critics have sometimes questioned the criteria of assessment, but even so, the assessment seems to provide a generally clear indication of the schools which are best fulfilling their academic purpose.

Second, some schools – roughly those ranked between positions 15 and 40 in the informal ranking – present a mixed bag of performance. These are often schools with strong performers at one end of the spectrum, and weaker talents at the other end.

Third, there are schools which appear to be struggling in the achievement of their academic mission. The reasons for underperformance in some of these schools are usually not difficult to discern. Funding challenges abound. School infrastructure is inadequate. Access to technology is limited. Some students enter school ill-equipped to pursue higher studies. Some students face nutritional and emotional pressures that restrict learning. Some teachers lack motivation to overcome the difficulties in the learning environment.

The schools in the first two categories above are, for the most part, “traditional” secondary schools, and tend to benefit from the fact that they attract some of the stronger pupils within the educational system. Some of these schools carry the same socio-economic burdens of the schools in the lowest category of performance.

Recommendations

This background provides us with immediate recommendations. Governmental effort must be directed vigorously at raising the level of performance of students in the underperforming school groups. Where a significant majority of students are failing to obtain five CSEC subjects after five years of study, this is evidence that the educational system is just not working. The technological aspirations of our policymakers will come to zero if this situation is allowed to persist.

In practical terms, enhanced governmental effort in underperforming schools must include methods of raising teaching standards, and introducing initiatives to overcome cultural factors that weaken these schools.

Another set of recommendations should be concerned with schools demonstrating mixed performance today. These schools have shown that they have the capacity to promote success of some students; their challenge, then, is ensure that this success level is extended to others. And, with respect to schools in the top category, one recommendation must be “full steam ahead”.

University responsibilities

Universities will be enhanced if secondary schools provide them with stronger students. But what are some of the responsibilities of our universities themselves? From time to time, this is a matter of debate in various societies.

At one end of the spectrum, some universities are veritable ivory towers. Far removed from the broad populace, their academics generally aloof, they pride themselves, ostensibly, in the pursuit of knowledge in its pure form. They try, as a goal of policy, to be untouched by the immediate social, economic and political conditions outside the campus gates. They want to be centres of academic quality dedicated to the long view.

At the other end of the spectrum, some universities aspire to be centres of social activism. In some instances, the need to engage fully with the wider society expressly forms part of their mission, their raison d'etre. So, for instance, a college for criminal justice policy established in the heart of a major metropolitan centre known for its high level of crime and violence is, by definition, required to take on the problems of the immediate environment.

Spectrum

Government-funded universities in Jamaica – The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Technology, (UTech) Jamaica – seem to fall somewhere within the two extremes of the spectrum. Exactly where you place these universities on the spectrum may vary from time to time; and their positions will also vary according to where the eye of the beholder is located at any point in time.

Thus, there are those – and they are legion – who embrace the view that UWI and Utech should always reach out to the wider society: Caribbean societies have far too many problems for a large number of its trained academics to stand aloof. A part of our mission must be to contribute in practical, specific wa ys to the formulation of solutions for pressing problems of people.

And yet, there is a quietly expressed counterview: Caribbean problems are deep-rooted and trace their origins to well-known historical realities. These problems require, for their solution, systematic analysis and long-term vision, matters that may best be addressed by a well-placed academic. The academic, working through institutions such as UWI and UTech, should be left to pursue the long-term solutions; he or she shouldn't really be diverted from the task by day-to-day problems; problems for which other people, teachers, lawyers, politicians, engineers and so on, are eminently qualified.

This counterview is not entirely convincing. In our society, academics should be prepared to use their knowledge in addressing both long- and short-term issues.

Good grad

As the educational authorities place greater emphasis on technology, it may be appropriate for us all to consider some of the main characteristics of a good university graduate.

My list would start with the graduate's place in the world of ideas: she or he should be prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, to raise questions, to provide precise answers, and to acknowledge circumstances in which issues are unresolved. If the student is prepared to devote three or more years for a degree, at very least an enquiring mind should emerge.

Also, bearing in mind that intellectual curiosity and vigorous argumentation are best accompanied by clear powers of expression, the graduate should have, at very least, advanced writing skills. The graduate should be comfortable with reading, not only as the means to understanding, but also as an avenue to the development of elegant writing skills.

My list also includes commitment to the wider interests of society. This consideration takes into account the fact that Jamaican society invests in almost every graduate coming through the educational system. Even if the investment is inadequate, a debt is owed. And it may be repaid through work in the public and private sectors, the introduction of methods to promote greater efficiency, participation in national and local discourse, and indeed through remittances from abroad.

And, as a major item, my list must include technical competence in a specialised area of study. This, after all, is one of the main reasons why thousands of students pay school fees and trek to distant places for university education. Whether or not these graduates take degrees in STEM subjects – however defined – they wish to be qualified to the highest standards of professionalism and skill.

Early childhood

Finally, we should recall that the STEM specialist of today – in whatever form – was once a pre-primary or primary level student. The society will not benefit from its tendency to pay little regard to early childhood education. In some of the debates on education, we appear to presume that the funding of early childhood education is necessarily in competition with funding for secondary or tertiary educational purposes.

This is a misconception. We should view the educational system as an integrated whole and strive to raise standards at all levels.

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is Professor of International Law at the University of the West Indies, Mona.


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