Classroom Technology and the Changing Role of the Teacher - Part I

Make a Note to Never Take Notes

 

For my undergraduate studies I went to Hindu College, a reputed and well established institution within the fold of the illustrious University of Delhi. I studied English Literature for my bachelor’s degree, a traditional course celebrating the glory of the British canon, where we covered all the bases one would expect from a program such as this – from Shakespeare to Milton to the Romantics and the Victorians, going all the way back to Chaucer, and even parts of the King James Bible, before coming around to the more fashionable Modern and Postmodernists. There also was a healthy smattering of Indians writing in English such as Amitav Ghosh, translated pieces from a whole variety of languages – Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, French, Spanish, Russian. Oh, not to forget classical texts, both from those of antiquity such as Homer, Aristophanes to those closer home such as Mahabharata, Shakuntalam etc. This wholesome meal was frequently interspersed with an adequate amount of background texts and theory. All in all, a nutritious package meant to instruct and delight the young mind.

But this curriculum wasn't the only traditional thing about that course. It was the way in which it was taught, a system of teaching which made the teacher and the written text paramount. The taught nature of the program made us, the students, into passive recipients of knowledge – something which we were supposed to acquire during the course of the lectures and retain. The ideal way to retain this valuable knowledge that was being supplied to us was to write it down, lest we forget. As this transmission of knowledge happened at a very fast pace, one of the essential attributes of a good student was efficient note taking – a process where you shut down all other mental and sensory functions except the auditory kind and rely on your motor skills and muscle memory to reproduce the pearls of wisdom onto the cherished notebook while minimising transmission losses. I have felt seismic vibrations emanating from the fervent note-taking going around the classroom. Jokes aside, this pedagogical approach meant that we all ended up with the same set of thoughts, ideas and opinions, or a subset of it (depending on one’s ability to retain) and this was contrary to the very meaning of education in some ways, as this method aimed at filling up the student’s brain with external information, assuming it to be a tabula rasa. When it came to evaluation, written exams constituted eighty percent of the grade. They were designed in a way to test the retention of classroom knowledge and one’s degree of alignment with the said conventions. As one’s individuality wasn't rewarded, students learnt (some more so than others) to make necessary changes to their reading, writing and thinking habits to excel at these evaluations.

Knowing no other way to go about it, I accepted this pedagogy to be the way things were supposed to be in a liberal arts classroom. The result of this approach to liberal arts education was that I became averse to writing term papers and frequently resorted to blatant plagiarism, which went unnoticed more often than not. I never felt the need to be creative or original in my work, or you can say that I never had the confidence to be original in that system. Thus, unable to fit in this system, a lot of my peers moved away from academics to other vocational avenues. 

These problems aren't specific to Hindu College or the University of Delhi. They constitute a systemic flaw because of which humanities education has fallen by the wayside and out of favour for the brightest minds of today. In other words, most people just don't get it – the essence of a liberal arts education and the need to think critically. This rot has grown to the extent where I’ve had people come up to my parents expressing their concern on knowing that I have chosen to further pursue this discipline. Some have even made conjectures as to the kind of company I was keeping in Delhi, while living away from my family. Keeping that aside, I still had my fair share of issues with the way humanities were taught and the frustrating part was that I didn't seem to have any solutions for these persistent issues.

Fortunately, my graduate school experience was a more fulfilling one and there were many reasons for that: the research university system which privileges critical inquiry over a one-way flow of knowledge, the flexible and updated curriculum, greater freedom to choose, smaller classrooms etc. But, the most important factor, in my opinion, was the way technology was embraced by this system. In fact, technology was an essential and defining part of the learning process (yes, I am calling it a learning process and not a teaching process anymore). Technology in the liberal arts classroom is not just a tool to aid the learning process but an essential pivot in the creation, dissemination and consumption of knowledge. It is about establishing new paradigms which not only make in-class learning wholesome and research wide-ranging, but it also brings together the academic community in ways unimaginable hitherto.

This paper takes a up-close look at the use of technology in a graduate, liberal arts classroom through a personalised account, by contrasting it with the limitations of the traditional pedagogic approach. That is intertwined with a close look at the changing role of the teacher in the classroom from what was called “a sage on the stage” to a guide by the side i.e. a facilitator in the learning process. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we are today living in the information age – a time where information is at one’s fingertips or, to use another cliche, just a click away. This means that one no longer needs to get a handle on facts and thus can concentrate better on how to use those facts – a phenomena which Nicholas Carr talks about in his book Is Google Making Us Stoopid? This understanding of stupidity (and cleverness) is deeply problematic as it refuses to let go of the age-old connection between perceived human intelligence and the ability to mug up and reproduce facts at will. At any rate, when it comes to memorising facts, none of us can hope to do a better job than the existing technology. Not to sound like too much of a Luddite, that is a race we have already lost to technology. So if we are never going to best the search engine, why bother running that race at all? Persisting with that race has already put us at the risk of losing our jobs to automation as machines can perform most of the simple tasks with a greater efficiency, lower maintenance and cheaper costs. I believe that instead of looking at this phenomenon, the rise of the machines, as a threat, we should take it as an opportunity – one that frees us of menial tasks and allows us to focus on ideas, analysis and critical inquiry, which are areas where we are inherently better than the machines, at least for the time being.

However, there still exists a lot of trepidation when it comes to embracing educational technology. This has led to a disconnect between the classroom and the world outside. The internet continues to be seen as a threat, a machination which might cause unbridled harm especially in the case of children. The internet is seen as something dark and creepy, lurking beyond the school’s firewalls. Passed in 2000 in the United States, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires public libraries and schools to install internet filters on their computers in order to receive federal funding. Expounding on the consequences of this act of censorship Charles Kilfoye writes in his essay “A Voice from the Past Calls for Classroom Technology”:

Part of the ethical dilemma is that the administrators are expected to create school environments where students learn the skills and behaviours required to succeed in today’s technology driven world. Therefore, being able to use technology to access and create information is essential. But, they must do this while intelligently limiting access to those same technological resources to ensure student safety and the integrity of the information systems.
— Charles Kilfoye (page 54)

This dichotomy is at the heart of why technology continues to remain under-utilised in schools and colleges. What our educators and policy makers need to realise is that the world has its share of ills and you can’t protect the children from them by keeping them in the dark. Keeping them unaware of those dangers is in fact a counterproductive strategy as it has the potential to catch one off guard. The internet is not a manifestation that happens in a vacuum but an extension of the offline reality, and acknowledging that is the foremost step in dealing with it. The ridiculous lengths to which today’s educational institutions go in order to shield the students from the supposed harmful content on the internet can be seen from the categories of blocked websites in Shiv Nadar University – pornography, peer-to-peer torrent websites, drugs and psychotropics (these even include informative websites that caution against drug use), other adult content (a loose umbrella term for anything perceived to be even remotely threatening to the students fragile morals; never mind the fact that all students legally qualify as adults), lingerie and swimsuit (this includes e-commerce websites which sell lingerie, as apparently that is taboo), and my personal favourite: sex education! This anachronistic moral policing is not only ineffective as everyone has to use data packs when the meagre 3GB weekly usage limit runs out, but it raises questions about the policy-making at such institutions. 

It was earlier believed that the job of a teacher is largely immune to the threats of automation as it requires understanding the specific learning needs of individual students, subjective analysis which involves discretion and what Benjamin would call aura. But recent trends have destabilised that cosy idea. Talking about the future classroom, Michael Godsey writes:

I describe what I think the classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The ‘virtual class’ will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers, and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record. 

In each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the facilitator won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and they will earn about $15/hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the facilitator can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore ‘individualized’); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.
— Michael Godsey

If this is what the future holds for education and educators at large, there is an urgent need for teachers to pivot towards a different role – to that of a facilitator. This is akin to a conductor in an orchestra where the teacher focuses on optimising the resources that are available at any given time.

The second part of this essay will focus specifically on certain technological interventions in the classroom and the paradigmatic change in the concentration and dissemination of human knowledge.


Reading List

Porter, Sarah - Technology in Teaching Literature and Culture: Some Reflections.

Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 34, No. 3, Computers in Humanities Teaching and Research: Dispatches from the Disciplines (Aug., 2000), pp. 311-324

Kilfoye, Charles - A voice from the past calls for classroom technology. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 94, No. 7 (April 2013), pp. 53-56

Rochette, Laura - What Classroom Technology Has Taught Me about Curriculum, Teaching, and Infinite Possibilities. The English Journal, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Nov., 2007), pp. 43-48

Hahendahl, Peter - The Future of the Research University and the Fate of the Humanities. Cultural Critique, No. 61 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 1-21


 
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ANUNAYA RAJHANS

Finished a Master's degree in English Literature and now teaches Critical Writing to an exceptionally eccentric bunch. Research interests include memes, cyber subculture and internet humour - so as to make sure to not be taken seriously. Loves trivia quizzes.

 

Anunaya Rajhans