When I reported that few Yemeni students were collaborating with students outside their schools, my colleague Mrs. Reem Bsaiso at World Links Arab Region replied, essentially, What's the problem with that? If their teachers are guiding collaboration with other students in the same school, the desired technique has been adopted.
A few days later, when I complained to another friend about the all-to-intuitive conclusions of an article on the importance of education to former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, she said, Oh, it's social science.
It's taken me some time to figure out why these two statements bug me. Especially since, they're each true on at least one level.
With the Yemeni students, the problem is that a huge proportion of project "inputs" have focused on the Internet: Getting computers and connections in schools, getting teachers to understand how to use computers and the Internet, getting students to understand etc, maintaining and paying for Internet connections, organizing tele-collaborative projects, and so on. Now, from some perspectives, these inputs notwithstanding, the project is in fact managing to change some teachers' thinking and the kinds of activities that these teachers' kids do in school. Bravo!
From the point of view of the teacher... Well, let's just pretend that I'm a teacher in Say'un, out in rural Wadi Hadrhamout, so my school's Internet connection exists only in theory, or when there's electricity, or when the principal pays the (exhorbitant) phone bill that covers our lousy dial-up connection. And the training that I'm getting--and which is keeping me from taking care of my kids, or managing with my scooter-repair business, or tutoring seniors privately as they prepare for their national exam--emphasizes computer skills and particularly use of the Internet by me and by my students.
Given that my school Internet connection is lousy, and the Internet is obviously essential, I might not _actually_ finish my training. It's interesting and all, but I don't see how the Internet enable all this in my school. I've got things to do.
And as it happens, a large percentage of teachers don't complete their training. But if these teachers who do finish then guide their kids in collaborative-learning activities, skipping the Internet research, the vetting of information, the crafting of Powerpoint slides--at least from the important perspective of the student, we are making progress? School is marginally engaging, I'm learning at the same time that I'm socializing, I'm sorting out how to speak in groups and work with others. And leadership, I've got leadership down. It really is OK.
From alternative but relevant points of view, however, this scenario is not so good.
Foundation-type donors might be concerned with their Theories of Change. And observing that few teachers complete their training, and that few students ever communicate with someone outside their schools, these donors might conclude that there's only limited impact. Money might be better spent elsewhere.
Policy makers (Ministers of Parliament, congresswomen and men, for example) might determine that teachers and students aren't very excited about the Internet. There's no point going to visit the telecommunications company, or ministry, to get a reduced rate for schools' Internet connections, if students aren't going to go nuts about it when they go home and talk to their parents.
The administrators at the Ministry of Education might be concerned with the high cost-per-teacher-trained. Perhaps it's US $45 without infrastructure costs, and US $95 with capital and operating costs when those computers and the Internet are included. And of course, once the schools are on their own, they'll cancel their Internet accounts because they have no funds. Perhaps this entire exercise might be made more efficient if we just skipped the technology.
And this is where we arrive back at Ms Bsaiso's original question--Isn't it OK if the teachers are adopting the techniques of collaborative learning even if they aren't using technology to practice those techniques? On arriving there, we also bump into my other friend's dismissal of education research as social science. I've got a couple of points still to make about this, coming up... but in general my understanding of the situation is, well, no.