Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tablet computers are no cure for our ailing schools

Tablet computers are no cure for our ailing schools
By The Nation
Published on August 4, 2011

The eye-catching policy lacks planning, and could even erode our childrens' capacity to concentrate

Could tablet computers be a magic solution that makes our children smarter?

This is the burning question that Thais have been asking (and even hoping for a positive answer to) since the Pheu Thai Party announced its "One Student, One Tablet Computer" policy.

Of course, it is undeniable that tablet computers can be a high-tech classroom aid. But no one should believe they are a "magic bullet" that will instantly improve the quality of education, as the marketing gimmicks that Pheu Thai used would have voters believe.

Thai students have for decades been the victims of adults' failure to provide them with a proper educational environment. The quality of our schooling system is generally below par. The rich can afford to send their children to good schools but the vast majority of us are stuck with the low-quality education system.

Decision-makers and parties involved have been complaining about this issue for years but no sufficient effort has been made to fix it. It is no secret that one of the major weaknesses of our school system is the quality of teachers coupled with large class sizes. Each class at a typical public school usually accommodates 50 students or more, which makes it impossible for every student to receive proper attention.

Instead of addressing these fundamental problems, our politicians have opted for the quick-fix of the tablet PC scheme. In truth, these politicians are treating our education system as merely another channel for their populist marketing gimmicks.

They have diverted our attention to a narrow focus on physical materials in schools, even though education reform requires a more subtle approach that addresses the "software aspect" of learning.

Our children should be equipped to become responsible global citizens with the ability to express their thoughts, excel in whatever interests them, and with the conscience to protect our environment.

Taxpayers are willing to support our children. But we need an effective and strategic approach to ensure that this project is worthy of investment, not simply another empty mask hiding corruption.

First of all, the Pheu Thai Party has not come up with a proper plan to ensure that the tablet PC scheme will serve its purpose of enhancing the learning experience of our students from elementary school.

While the government plans to seek more than Bt2 billion to purchase 800,000 tablets, the Education Ministry and the politicians in charge have not convinced the public that they have a good plan to maximise their use. For instance, what will be the benefit of these tablets in rural areas where there is no broadband coverage? In addition, has the ministry prepared teachers so that our students will have qualified instructors to provide proper guidance and ensure that these gadgets will promote their learning ability.

The Pheu Thai Party is trying to justify the scheme by saying that they can acquire cheap tablets at around Bt6,000 apiece or less. But that is not the point. While these tablets could have a lasting impact on the environment when they become electronic waste in a couple of years, what guarantee do we have that they will produce any lasting impact on the intellectual capacity of our children?

Worse still, without proper guidance, these gadgets could exacerbate the problem of attention deficit disorders in children, and negatively impact their ability to analyse and think. In contrast, the much cheaper option of mass-produced textbooks has a proven educational value and, as history has shown, many of these books last for decades - even a century. Textbooks have served their purpose well in Thai schools, with their valuable information passed from one generation to the next.

It is also unclear how the tablet would encourage children to form a reading habit, which is widely recognised as a means to improving intellectual capacity. Thailand's slide in education rankings is no surprise if you consider that Thai children are now reading an average of only five books a year, while Singaporean students read 60, and South Korean around 80. Don't be surprised if Vietnam soon outsmarts Thailand - each Vietnamese kid now reads an average of 50 books a year.

In short, the priority for Thai schools is not an electronic gadget that could shorten students' attention spans, but good libraries or learning resource centres where they can spend time learning about whatever topics interest them.

Distribution of tablet computers is certainly not a crime, but politicians need to get the priorities right. They should ask themselves what our children can learn from these give-away tablets; have they prepared the infrastructure to enable our children to excel in their learning environment? But instead, the authorities are focusing on a mega-budget project which will, yet again, squander money that could have gone towards genuine improvements for our children's education.

These gadgets are no substitute for a good education - a point that even Steve Jobs likes to make. At the launch of the new iPad, Apple's CEO had this to say: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

Breathing space for America, but for how long?

Breathing space for America, but for how long?
By The Nation
Published on August 3, 2011

Debt ceiling deal is a short-term fix for long-term problems that endanger economic recovery for rest of the world

Although the US House of Representatives on Monday night managed to pass an emergency compromise to allow the government to up its borrowing, the US economic crisis is still far from over.

As of press time, the legislation to increase the debt ceiling is being hurried through the Senate. But once rubber-stamped, the agreement will only help the US administration pay its bills. After weeks of confrontation and suspense, the House of Representatives' vote on Monday simply eased worries that the US would default on its debts for the first time in history. But the legislation still falls far short of addressing the fundamental issue facing the US.

While the emergency compromise, passed by a vote of 269 to 161, enables the US to stave off immediate economic catastrophe, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have yet to address the structural reform that will enable the US economy to recover. The deal may allow the US administration to borrow more to avoid defaulting, but America is still struggling with stalled growth and a high unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent.

The US economic woes are a result of years of big spending. The financial meltdown triggered by the sub-prime crisis in 2008 dragged on because of the failure to reform. The administration's stimulus packages have not produced the positive economic "multiplier effects" the White House had hoped for. All these issues have snowballed into a heavy weight of economic woe, evidenced by the soaring deficit.

Though an agreement was finally reached in the Lower House, the deal has not spelt out how the US administration will turn around the economy. Washington is in desperate need of a long-term plan and structural reform to promote stronger growth and increased revenue, if it is to escape this economic trough.

The dilemma facing the US administration is whether the cash-strapped nation should spend more to stimulate growth or, alternatively, apply austerity measures to slash public spending. The Congressional Budget Office expects the present deal to cut federal spending by US$2.1 trillion over 10 years. But some economists have pointed out that austerity might not be the solution to reversing the economic slump.

Passing measures to fix the US economy is being made more difficult by a polarised Congress in which lawmakers have taken up entrenched positions on different sides of the aisle. The ultra-conservative Tea Party camp will shout down any attempt to raise taxes while liberal Democrats are adamant that social benefit programmes be maintained.

But while the debt ceiling issue will be decided in domestic political circles, the crisis Stateside is having serious repercussions for the global economy. The US debt-service ratio will hit the credibility of dollar-assets. Many countries in Asia hold billions of dollars in US treasury bills as part of their foreign reserves, with China and Japan holding the largest portions of US debt.

The US debt problem also puts pressure on Asian currencies, especially the yuan, because the crisis will potentially further weaken the value of the dollar against currencies in the region. In fact, the debt-ceiling impasse in recent weeks pushed up prices on Asian stock markets.

America's indebtedness could bring upward inflationary pressure, too, as the US is also likely to inject more money in a bid to boost the economy. But at the same time, the prospective cuts in federal spending could affect domestic demand. If that is the case, Thai exporters to the US market can expect to suffer.

The US crisis is also a glaring lesson in how the global economy has become closely interconnected. It is no surprise, then, that the rest of the globe is watching anxiously to see whether the world's biggest economy can find a solution to get out of this mess.

This week's deal in Congress may provide some breathing space, but the relief will only be short term. Meanwhile, the world is staying tuned and desperately hoping that Uncle Sam can come up with the right solutions.