Digital India – teacher vs. tech

Madhumathi Ravi

There’s a teacher in each one of us waiting to teach the world something. There’s also a learner in each one of us refusing to learn from that teacher.

For most learners, it appears that learning with the aid of technology or “digital learning” is easier than ‘learning from a teacher’. To begin with, the digital learner assumes that the computer is not superior to a human being. It has no ego. It is not going to judge or ridicule the learner. It is not even alive!

The digital learner also assumes ownership or control of the tech-based learning process. With technology, it appears that the learner chooses what to learn, when to learn, and where to learn. A technology educator once asked a class of students “How do you know that you’re the one in control of your learning?” and a child replied, “Because I own my laptop and I do all my learning on it!”

It also appears that it is easier to learn ‘from’ technology than ‘about’ technology. Mostly, learning about technology is a specialized category of learning and is limited to the user interface. The backend or the lab where the R&D happens is not instantly accessible by the learner. In contrast, we see from teacher-student interactions that “analogue learners” tend to also wonder about things they don’t need to about their teachers. As an outdoor educator, on my ocean learning walks with school children, I’ve been asked many questions that reflect students’ need to know about me. “Which school did you go to?” “Are you a marine biologist?” “Do you also surf?” “Do you eat sea food?” While there’s nothing unusual or unacceptable in such questions, it does make me wonder about the role of real-life teachers and the hidden dynamics of the student-teacher relationship in light of the apparent success of technology-driven education.

While tech-based systems have not yet rendered human teachers obsolete, how will they impact the teaching-learning function in schools in Digital India? Digital India’s e-education project aims to connect all schools with broadband and provide free wifi in secondary and higher secondary schools (roughly 250,000 schools). This brings us to the question, will Digital India’s teachers be mere tech-enablers; focusing on customizing the learning experience that suits the individual learning style of the student?

How relevant is the human factor in the already “digitized” international schools in India where the emphasis seems to be on state-of-the-art tech-integrated classrooms? Some of these international schools even encourage students to bring their own computing devices and almost all applications are cloud-based and accessible from any place with an Internet connection.

Surely, if these programs are validated and proven successful they need to be implemented in schools for children from low-income families where the teacher-student ratio is less than desirable and the potential for such ventures in a country like India is immense.

students-&-teacher-in-the-classroom

That said, serious educators should go back to the drawing board and re-examine these tech-based systems, as they mature and evolve with time. Eventually, learners may get as frustrated with technology as with teachers. It’s only a matter of time before digital learners growing up on tech-based learning understand that a long-term relationship with technology is far worse, considering it’s more unequal, obsessive, and counter-productive.

Here’s something I could propose as a probable model for understanding this relationship between the learners and learning channels. The ‘learner loop’ starts with boredom with the present learning channel and progresses to curiosity, which results in the discovery of an alternate channel, followed by fascination with that channel, which inevitably also brings about the next phase – criticizing or testing which then leads to validating or rejecting the new channel and irrespective of the outcome, finally back to boredom with the new channel.

In a school, a visiting social media educator played a film titled ‘selfie’. The film’s purpose was to empower school children to redefine the ‘traditional’ perception of beauty as stereotyped in glossy magazines and movies by taking selfies. At the end of the film, student participants in the film learnt that some of the features they disliked about themselves were in fact what others considered to be their most beautiful attributes. After viewing the film, students analyzed the message conveyed by the film with the help of the social media educator. Students seemed to approve of the message and were all for embracing the selfie. The educator then revealed the credits, which mentioned the brand/corporation behind the film and asked the students to re-evaluate the message. This time around, the students were a lot more skeptical of the message and there was greater dissent.

In the above case, it’s obvious that it still takes a discriminating human educator to help children navigate the challenges of academics and everyday life. Empowering teachers in real world classrooms help students ask the right questions and keep the process more open-ended. Is that going to stop the tech onslaught? Maybe not. However, it’s best to conclude that with the impending arrival of the bionic educator, there’s never been a better time in the history of education to go back to our teachers.

The author is an education entrepreneur, ocean advocate, and an outdoor educator. She works with Bay of Life – an organization focused on ‘Learning in the Natural World’. At Bay of Life she has been designing and facilitating Outdoor Learning Programs in natural environments, for several schools in and around Chennai. She can be reached at madhu@bayoflife.com.