The education of our children has always been emotive and when the mass media is added to the mix, volatility is inevitable. Hardly a country in the world is spared controversy in education, but when one looks behind the sometimes anarchic scenes, there is a lot about which to be optimistic and hopeful.
Traditionally, the mass media and education have enjoyed a love-hate relationship. On one hand television and newspapers particularly, have provided extensive and extremely useful education content. On the other, however, their newsrooms never seem to hesitate when controversy rears is ugly head.
In theory, it is absolutely vital for the mass media to keep an eye on the way in which governments administer and develop education, but it has to be said that in this day and age of a battle for survival within the mass media industry, the watchdog does tend to become somewhat rabid at times.
Like most businesses the mass media often takes a line of least resistance when problems occur and a first step always seems to blame the trades union movements.
In South Africa the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) inevitably faces tremendous criticism from the mass media when its members protest the enormous challenges and deprivations they face in the classrooms. Many of those challenges having very little to do with actual teaching.
Regrettably, the relationship between the mass media and education involves a lot of indulgence in blame-games and reaction by both sides to superficial symptoms.
There is undeniably an urgent need for the education authorities and the mass media to join together in improving the lot of our youngsters and young adults. The media cannot just be a watchdog and nothing else and the national and provincial education departments cannot work in isolation or
out of the public eye.
It is no good the mass media simply reporting on “delinquent learners burning classrooms” without delving into the underlying causes. Understanding perhaps, that after years of promises for proper school buildings to replace dilapidated, unhealthy, decades-old temporary structures, the only option left was to destroy the old building so that a new one would have to built.
There is no question that the only way in which the mass media can continue to perform its role as an education watchdog but at the same time become involved in helping build an efficient education system, is through improved communication.
This probably sounds extremely glib, but when you think about it, bad or non-existent communication has been the cause of everything from wars between countries to divorces between married couples.
In simple terms, this communication would mean the mass media and the education departments talking to each other a lot more. I have to say, though, that this is a wild hope and probably entirely over-optimistic.
However, I believe that two innovations will force this essential communication to take place.
The first is the involvement by private sector companies in the education environment and the second is new media.
Argo, for example, is a good example of a private sector media company that is successfully creating bridges between education authorities, unions and affiliated and non-affiliated teachers. Companies such as these are becoming vital links in improved communications among stakeholders.
The private sector is pioneering the use of new media, specifically social media in the education environment with for example, websites such as ed.org.za and increasing activity on interactive social media platforms such
as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Mxit.
The importance of social media among education authorities, educators, unions, private sector stakeholders as well as schools, pupils and parents, cannot be emphasised enough.
Communication is one thing, it is a vitally important thing, but it is not enough.
Conversation is what is going to ensure increased collaboration by all players in education and the beauty of the social media conversation is its endemic role as watchdog. Not a one-sided watchdog but one that has sufficient information at hand to ensure an even-handed approach.
It would be a grave mistake for anyone in the education sector to assume that things like FaceBook, Twitter and Mxit were strictly for children or young adults. They are extremely efficient creators of conversations among all parties, providing not only information and advice but most importantly able to address misconceptions and wrong perceptions almost immediately.
As technology makes farther inroads into education, as the iPad has already done in private school classrooms, the ability for pupils, teachers, parents along with education authorities to communicate instantly will be an absolute boon in terms of increasing the efficiency and efficacy of education.
There are those that might feel that all this might be a little too transparent and instant.
But, when you think about it, the future of education rests on being as transparent as humanly possible.
And it will be the private sector that leads the way – Twitter, YouTube, FaceBook, Mxit, online forums and pioneers such as Argo.