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Commentary: Education: It's time to come out of the nosedive... successfully
Published on June 14, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By David L Evans PhD

Most economists, prime ministers and politicians are very happy if economic activity shows growth of at least two percent each year.

When a plane goes into a nosedive does anyone get anxious? I think you know the answer!

David L Evans PhD is a mathematics and science graduate of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, presently in Grenada, a construction consultant, a physical and medical scientist, business, quality assurance and quality control consultant, architectural designer, software engineer and educator in the process of establishing Balthazar University
Part of what drives an improving economy is the increasing knowledge and knowhow in the heads of a country's citizens.

Primary, secondary and tertiary education accelerates the acquisition of knowledge -- at least that's the theory -- and it works pretty well in some countries. On top of formal education is compliance with international standards and on-the-job training at many levels.

Research and development (R & D) also accelerate a country's progress and can make the difference between lagging behind, keeping up or moving ahead of the competition.

R & D takes place in individual businesses and in universities and research institutes.

But something is not well in the Caribbean. Rather than CXC mathematics grades improving each year, there has been a marked continuing year by year deterioration in the results being obtained.

Mathematics performance in the Caribbean is in a nosedive -- are you anxious -- perhaps you didn't know about it... And, English is not doing too well either...

There are four important factors in students acquiring knowledge and skills:

• the quality of the teachers

• the quality of the teaching methods teachers are expected to use or it is fashionable to use

• the quality of the students

• the effort the students put into their schoolwork, which is influenced by a variety of positive and negative factors

Now, that's probably a longer list than you usually hear but that's the way I see it.

Whilst I have views on all of the factors, this commentary is to address the second one as there is a significant technological change approaching the primary and secondary education scene here in Grenada and it is in various stages of implementation in other Caribbean countries and, of course, elsewhere in the world.

This involves the use of computer technology in the classroom in a serious manner.

This Is the Question

Mathematics is in a nosedive -- will the computer technology chosen pull the 'plane' onto an upward path before it hits the water?
will the computer technology steepen the dive into the water, making recovery even more difficult ?

Now it's like this

Nice to meet you, Mr Grenada, thank you for visiting our country. We heard you have a mathematics problem at home and we have just the latest, greatest devices (and we're trying to help our friends who make them) to help you recover -- how about some of our tablets -- just what you need -- cure any educational illness and enable you to relax in the sun... (and meanwhile our smart people are using their laptops to keep ahead of you).

Now, Mr Grenada, we have the greatest educational tool for education in Grenada -- it only requires a super, super fast optic fibre network to connect all your schools (and you'll feel so powerful spending all that money -- don't worry about paying those enormous monthly bills you're not going to find out about until later). And, we are offering to provide help (but we're being very careful to avoid saying exactly what)...

And, whatever you do, don't read about other people's experiences, nor dig too deep, nor read editorials in local papers concerning the short-comings of tablets -- TABLETS they're the ONLY cure for your educational illness. (Well that's our version -- and we know that the Caribbean loves to have the latest -- whether or not it is actually is the greatest -- we are telling you it is, so IT IS...). (Oh, and we forgot to tell you about the key stroke software relaying everything back to us from your country -- we don't need spies -- children tell all!)

We see the IMF is giving Grenada another bucket of money and our (super slick) salesmen are so good at helping developing countries like yours to spend their money in a very wise manner (with us of course) and we'll wine you and dine you until you do...

Should it be like that?

You may have guessed -- I have a different view...

Recently I've been hearing people using a word 20 times in as many minutes -- like they learnt a new word ... Here's a clue -- are you searching for wildlife you never knew about before ?

Today's new word is "specification" but I'll get hoarse and you will get bored if I say it too often...

The evidence at the CXC level and at other testing levels in schools is that mathematics needs to hear from Kirani James rather than the drivers of laziness. When I purchased two items for $22 each and the woman (in another country) had to use a calculator, I knew something was wrong...

Addition, subtraction, multiplication are taught in the first few years at school -- they are a foundation for mathematics, accounting, science, business. Nay lok ere -- Ah got this wundrful DVice, an it's gonna make larf so easy u can jus relax all day an in it's got dis fansy great name - it de CAL CU LATER (ah tink ah need a SPELL U LATER too) an u can ha do no 1 one for free (and when it breaks just now u can buy one).

And, schools got into issuing licences to drive calculators, and mental arithmetic was a thing of the past and better ones came each year so we could buy one and show off our new model (and not be slapped, in the face, by our ex when flaunting a new friend) .... and they wouldn't let a lot of us go to high school as the CXC people would find out about us driving calculators instead of our brains and Standard and Poor’s would give us a downgrade and the IMF would tell us to get serious about working... we're on a tropical island and there are laws against doing things quickly, changing our ways... and we gotta hav de latist!

So, whilst calculators have their place, they can be counter-productive in education. Yes, they can make processes quicker but they do not quicken the brain, nor do they teach people anything much. I would say that the change of emphasis from the training in brain agility of mental arithmetic has been a severe backward step.

Computers have been around for over 50 years and in common use for the past 20 years. They were mainly used for calculations in their early days. Word processors did not exist; computer screens did not exist and when they first came had no more than one colour and display of images was unheard of. (I had to write my own word-processor.)

Their use as tools to assist teaching has been steadily growing.

Computers can be used to:

• speed up calculations

• de-skill work so that lower level workers, with the assistance of a computer, can do work which would have been done by higher level workers in the past

In education the use of computers has to be somewhat the other way round:

• to assist the student to learn to do tasks with their brains more rapidly

• to assist teachers to educate more quickly than in the past so that the result is that year by year students come out of school knowing a few % more than the ones who left the year before -- that is with higher mental skills and higher levels of knowledge and better problem solving abilities

If an investment in computer technology for education were not having this result then it would be a waste of resources.

Let's look at the characteristics of modern computer technology and then draw up a specification.

PCs, laptops, all-in-ones, tablets and hybrids all have the following:

• they are physical objects with screens and typing systems for some of the data entry

• with an operating system -- an internal organizer, which determines particular limitations

• the ability to run software compatible with their operating system -- to process data for many purposes

• means to send and receive information -- email, internet, music, images, voice...

PCs, laptops, all-in-ones are essentially the same in terms of their capabilities.

There are two main operating systems for these:

• A, the Microsoft DOS and Windows operating systems, which come together and refer to the same filing system but have differing capabilities
  o DOS for the specialist
  o Windows for the general user

• B, the Apple windows operating system

Tablets have the following operating systems:

• Android
• Apple

Different operating systems are like foreigners who do not understand each other's language -- their systems do not understand one another -- put simply they are fundamentally incompatible.

To date the only hybrid is the Microsoft Surface Pro 3:

• which has all the capabilities of a laptop
• and the touch screen and light-weight of a tablet

Microsoft, which has been principally a software manufacturer, is now venturing into the world of hardware and is promoting the Surface Pro as the laptop of the future -- and that is probably true as things stand at the moment but the other long established laptop makers will soon be in the chase, so in five years’ time the landscape will be different again.

Let's take a look at common software categories:

• Web browsers
• Email
• Office Systems
• Programming languages
• Entertainment software
• E-book readers
• Video players
• Sound players
• PDF readers

What is the relationship between these software categories and the different operating systems?

In general:

• Browsers -- one has to install the browser compatible with the operating system -- and compatible versions of the major browsers are available.

• Email is often done online. There are also email systems for offline preparation and storage but compatible versions do not exist for tablets.

• E-book readers are available for the various operating systems and whilst E-book purchases and rentals are relatively cheap modern E-text-book availability is limited.

• Office systems are where the biggest disparity exists. Android and Apple tablet operating systems do not accommodate all of the components of office software suites, in particular spreadsheets and drawing packages.

• Programming languages are operating system specific -- and it makes sense to teach programming on the operating system used for work by the majority of computer users.

• Entertainment comes on various media -- tablets do not have CD drives so cannot be used for viewing CD videos but flash-drives are compatible.

Technical considerations:

• Availability of free software and its compatibility
• Availability of service when repairs are needed
• Availability of spare parts such as fans, screens, keyboard components and chargers
• Battery Lifetime
• Ease of damage
• Ease of loss and theft
• Electricity Consumption
• Obsolescence and replacement policy
• Other systems to be purchased
• Product Lifetime
• Repair/replace policies of manufacturers
• Ownership Policy

Educational Considerations:

• Teaching material available, for use online
• Teaching material available online for use offline on paper
• Teaching material online for classroom use on a computer
• Teaching in an economical amount of time
• Self grading systems
• Student friendly systems
• Teacher friendly systems
• Teacher training to add on-screen methods to their present repertoire of on-board and on-paper for both themselves and the students they teach


• Cost-effective systems
• Educationally effective systems

Cost considerations:

• Technology purchases should fit the specification and neither be too cheap nor too expensive

• Electricity has to be paid for so bills should not be too high nor should the cost dictate the principle type of technology to be used -- comparative information is available -- the cheapest is often a minefield

• Economical ways of doing things do exist and need to be sought out.

• The following packages should never be paid for:
  o Web browser
  o Office suite
  o Image Editor
  o Offline email program

• Virus protection software should be paid for as free systems do not have the resources to provide the same quality of protection

Office Suites:

• Microsoft Office - has to be paid for, in widespread use, not geared to compatibility with others

• Open Office - free, not in such widespread use but increasing, is geared to compatibility with others, including Microsoft

These office systems include the following:

• document writer
• spreadsheet
• drawing package
• database
• presentation system


Tablets are cut-down versions of computers so do not have:

• CD readers

• hard-drives -- but rather use flash memory, which is slower

• no fan as do not have motors generating heat

• a mouse but rely on a touch sensitive screen for finger or stylus operation

• an operating system compatible with the office systems described above
  o and any spreadsheet capability is insufficient for first-rate education
  o no drawing capability (at a detailed level or none at all)

Thus tablets are not adequate/suitable for subjects requiring spreadsheets and drawing as in integral part of teaching and learning:

• accounting
• book-keeping
• mathematics
• science
• history
• geography
• technical drawing
• garment and other design
• principles of business

Thus tablets are not suitable for many teaching and student activities where students need to utilise spreadsheets and do drawings to accelerate the acquisition of

• knowledge
• and skills

It is necessary to be able to incorporate images and drawings (as images) into spreadsheets to instruct and provide information for the mathematics to be carried out. Take a look at the example to the left (click on the picture).

Put simply, with tablets one CANNOT adequately DRAW nor use SPREADSHEET apps vital to enhancing the education output of teachers and the knowledge and skills of the students.

Other free software of significant value is not compatible with tablets as they have the wrong operating system.

Apple computers are generally incompatible with business software beyond (their versions of) basic office systems and as 95% of the world's software was written on computers with the Microsoft operating system. Also much other free software of significant value is not compatible with Apple computers either.


Taking into account the comments above what should one do?

If you want to purchase an orphan, find you wasted your money then go ahead and do so!

If you want a super-duper expensively impressive system of dubious educational value then accept all the gifts and sign up to pay the necessary millions for a continuing stay in poverty. Remember not to cry about broken, missing, irreparable items -- that's definitely not allowed!

It a successful investment in education is the goal then take the path that will lead to the best outcome by selecting/finding the following (shortcuts are outlawed!).


• Laptops/All-in-ones/hybrids of a robust brand such as Toshiba/Dell/Acer/Microsoft

• Note – presently, apart from the Surface pro 3 (at US$800 each), tablets would be a boy sent to do a man's job in terms of use as an educational tool -- a quality tool is needed not a toy!

• Microsoft operating system


• Free -- Open Office -- excellent for student and professional level work utilising spreadsheets, drawing package and presentations
• Free -- Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers
• Other free software of merit
• Free teaching material -- websites such and many others
• Other free teaching material online
• Free E-book readers
• Free PDF readers
• Access to free PDF writers
• Free image editor such as LVIEWPRO -- which is also great for taking images of what is on the screen (screenshots)
• Free email system such as Eudora -- excellent for creating internet compatible documents
• Paid anti-virus system such a Norton/McAfee
• Free programming/coding languages such as QB64, PHP, HTML, C++

Put simply, 99% of the software necessary for successful education is free and anyone wanting to sell you items in the list above is wanting to put their hand in your pocket!

Sometimes much the same item can be purchased but a search including the word free may successfully leave the money in your bank account.

As a software engineer, amongst other things I use those free items all the time for professional work.

Training generally has to be paid for:

• Teacher training to use the above

• Teaching training to create spreadsheet apps to take pen and paper student exercises to on screen exercises and to also create teaching material for computer presentation

• Teachers and students can put their imaginations and creativity to work to help each other take mathematics out of its present nosedive...

Getting back to the Foundations in Mathematics Teaching in Schools...

A significant task for teachers is to prepare exercises for students to do on computers rather than in exercise books. (Exercise books will still be needed to learn to write and to practice it -- they will not totally disappear.)

And, the objective needs to be exercises which will accelerate the learning by the students of which addition and multiplication are very important. To this end the following examples have been recently developed.

Counting is a good place to begin...


Learning the names of numbers and the symbols which represent them

On the computer one can click the number to find the English version of its name as has been done for some of the examples here...


Learning to add and multiply can be fun too

This has the learning spreadsheet app for MULTIPLICATION on the left and the testing one on the right.

It tells the pupil whether they have no error with a 0 and an error with a 1.

Answers are entered in the green boxes.

The teacher explains how to use this spreadsheet app and can set a time limit for entering answers in the table on the right which can be set to a different table to the one on the left so it is a test of knowledge rather than copying ability. The random order can be set differently for adjacent pupils to facilitate honesty.

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WOW!!! This should be required reading for every Minister of Education, every Education Officer, every teacher, in the region. This article has put the issue of technology use for teaching and learning in proper perspective. It is time we in the region wise up and find our own sustainable solutions to fixing what is wrong with our schools rather than accepting uncritically what the donor and lending agencies offer, strings and all. Our sustainable solution starts with teacher quality: investing in quality teacher preparation and institutionalized support for teachers' continuing professional development.


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