From slate to iPad

Published: Sunday | August 5, 2012 Comments 0

Michael Witter, Guest Columnist

I began my schooling 60 years ago with a slate, and I will retire when the prep-school kids are starting out with iPads. I doubt that most iPad users ever heard of, much less saw, a slate. My guess is that most persons who used slates probably do not own, or even know how to use, an iPad.

For those who know both, they look remarkably similar in form, but the content is incomparably different. The slate was essentially a rectangular piece of brittle graphite in a wooden frame on which we scratched our letters and numbers, whereas the iPad is a very advanced application of modern information and communication technology that brings a world of information to the touch of the user on a rectangular screen.

In those 60 years, the education process in Jamaica has changed greatly, but surely not enough to meet the needs of today's society. In 1953, there were 4,000 teachers at 700 primary schools catering to about 210,000 students. At the secondary level, there were 360 teachers in 27 schools with an enrolment of about 7,000 students.

In 2006, there were 828 schools at the primary level, with an enrolment of about 320,000 students, which meant that the average enrolment of schools at the primary level had grown by about 29 per cent. At the secondary level, the number of schools increased by more than sixfold to 172, with an enrolment of a little more than 246,000 students, a massive thirty-fivefold expansion over 1953.

Accordingly, the average enrolment in secondary schools went from about 260 to about 1,430, or more than a fivefold increase. In 2006, the total number of teachers at both levels was 23,862 teachers, also a more than fivefold increase.

In summary, there are many more primary and secondary schools today, and the typical school has many more students and a much larger staff than 60 years ago.


In 1948, the University College of the West Indies opened its doors. Today, the University of the West Indies has three physical campuses and the beginnings of a virtual one, catering to 47,000 students across the region, more than 15,000 of whom are in Jamaica. In addition, there are more than 50 other tertiary institutions, at least six of which have official university status.

There is no doubt that the education system has expanded and become more inclusive. My mother was a super-bright little girl who was told by the expatriate headmistress that she was too poor and too black to attend a well-known 'traditional high school', and she should go to 'technical'. That was Kingston Technical, which is now quite a prestigious institution, along with more than 20 other 'technicals' of high reputation in Jamaica.

Class photographs of some of our elite high schools 60 years ago will show that they were, indeed, schools for the elite. Certainly, far more children of the working class, especially females, are attending school today. There is even general acceptance that the system should cater to students with special learning needs, even though the lack of resources, and too often the lack of imagination of our administrators make a mockery of the facilities for these students.

The challenges faced by the education system today are well known. It is woefully underfunded, which accounts, in large part, for the poor quality of the average graduate from the primary to the tertiary level. Teaching and learning resources are insufficient, inadequate, and too often out of date. The curricula at all levels need to be more closely aligned to the needs of the society for creative thought, technical expertise, and productive work attitudes.

As in many other societies, the males are underperforming for want of proper motivation, while the females are self-motivated high achievers outnumbering the males by more than 3:1 at the tertiary level. Of course, those graduates who excel here in Jamaica also excel on the global stage. The problem is that too many are failing to achieve the basic literacy, numeracy, and social skills and to build the self-confidence that are required for them to compete for jobs that pay enough for them and their families to escape poverty.

A modern competitive economy needs people who can communicate clearly and efficiently, who can work independently but within a team, who can adapt to changing technology, and who are self-motivated and self-disciplined. This translates into strong language skills in English and at least one of the other principal regional languages - Spanish, French and Portuguese - and/or Mandarin (Chinese).

It means that our students must develop strong analytical skills from mathematics that equip them to have a basic understanding of the sciences. It is analytical thinking that students must learn from mathematics because calculators, computers and iPads now do the calculations I had to do as a child in my head or on my slate. Kids today are certain to live through rapid technological changes that have to be harnessed for the production of wealth and the generation of incomes, and not just entertainment that distracts their minds from reality.

More and more, the work process will require individuals to operate at their own individual stations within a network. Each person will have to be able to work independently and to exercise initiative within an overall plan.

The education system, at all levels, must provide more nurturing and development for the natural cultural and athletic talents of Jamaican youth. These have to find an integral place within the curricula, instead of being relegated to extra-curricular activities. Our educators need to think through the requirements for developing the knowledge, techniques, and competencies for artistes, performers, athletes, and all the ancillary roles within the respective fields of culture and sport.

Relevant techniques

The iPad generation cannot be taught like the slate generation. New and more relevant techniques utilising information technology have to become basic tools that are expertly used by the modern teachers, instructors and lecturers. Perhaps the emphasis should be shifted to learning, and away from teaching, with the leaders of the instructional processes focusing more on stimulating the students to discover information on their own.

The iPad generation can use Google Earth to visit every geographic formation in real time, which is far superior to a boring description from a teacher who never went there. Unlike my slate generation which had to be satisfied with what was in the teacher's head, and in out-of-date encyclopaedia and other reference books in limited libraries, the iPad generation has unlimited resources on the Internet.

There is a developing system of master teachers who lead teams of teacher assistants that should be institutionalised across schools. Few are the excellent teachers who have the gift of motivating students, imparting knowledge to them, and helping them to tap their intellectual potential. We should pay them well, so they can devote themselves to teaching without having to hustle a living after work, or worse, leaving the profession entirely for better working conditions and more pay.

Master teachers should straddle several schools, and, in some cases, all the schools, given the facilities of online instruction that now exist. For example, all students should have access to at least basic online lectures in mathematics and English presented by the system's best teachers over cable channels reserved for educational institutions.

Sharing common services will also be critical to improving the management systems for educational institutions. The traditional principal who made all administrative decisions should have gone out with the slate. We need to rethink the management, as opposed to administrative, processes that will support modern education. For example, one good bursar with a laptop can manage the accounts of several schools much better than several mediocre or poorly trained persons without proper tools, probably at a lower cost. School management software must become standard. Along with the slate, the handwritten, dog-eared class register with misspelled names and crossed-out grades should give way to computer-based spreadsheets that allow for rapid and thorough analysis of class performance.

It cannot make sense for the society to be funding students who are underperforming academically, and wasting time outside classes, even during school hours. Education should be reoriented to a work-study mode in which the society gets a return from its investment in educating young people while they are students, as well as after they graduate.

Socially useful activities

There are a myriad of socially useful activities that students at the secondary and tertiary levels can perform to extend the social and administrative services of the State, to contribute to the operations of their schools, and to support the production and distribution processes in business enterprises. Students benefit from properly organised internships by their exposure to the world of work that stimulates their imaginations and sharpens their career objectives. Similarly, host institutions benefit as well in many ways, provided the internship is properly managed.

This proposal extends the notion that the education system should shift the balance away from teaching and towards learning, and in particular, towards learning by doing through practical exercises. Practical exercises include research at the level of student projects as well as participation in national research projects.

Reconfiguring the education system around the iPad, instead of the slate, will require resources to equip the institutions, retrain the teaching staff, revise the curricula, and re-engineer the management. 'Offshore' education institutions can earn foreign exchange by producing trained persons in demand in North America, such as teachers, nurses, doctors, and hotel workers.

My most recent reminder of us being behind the times is the refusal by a university lecturer using chalk-and-talk instruction, to allow a student to take notes with her BlackBerry, on the grounds that the student would send text messages. Some students are trying to use the technology to advance their learning, and lecturers have to embrace the challenges of new technologies of instruction as well in order to engage such students. Boring monologues that seek to deposit dated information, as an excuse for knowledge, in the brain of a student using an iPad is metaphor for underdevelopment. We cannot entertain it as we travel the road to Vision 2030 where iPads, too, will probably be technologically obsolete.

Michael Witter is senior research fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, UWI. Email feedback to and

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