Making the best of tech tools

Hriday Ranjan

Since time immemorial, a teacher has been looked up to as the most knowledgeable. Someone with years of experience in guiding pupils, someone adept at the subject, with a vast ocean of knowledge at his/her disposal.

But very soon, all of this might change. The teacher might end up being the least comfortable, the least experienced. The teacher might be left floundering at every step, in an age when decades of experience could be neutralized by a few years of technology.

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video-classroom
To a teacher, these lines might read like the back-cover blurb from a Stephen King horror novel. And yet, it is not far removed from the future.

The giant strides that technology has been taking in the domain of teaching have turned the tables in numerous ways. For, in today’s schools, the manner in which instructions are given might undergo a 180°-turn in the coming years.

Where do teachers figure in this revolution? How does the invasion of technology into the classroom impact the teacher on a daily basis? Is it time to ‘Adapt or Perish?’ We will explore a few of these questions in this article.

Firstly, one obvious impact of technology on education is in the flow of information from teacher to student. While earlier, the textbook was the primary source of information (with the additional reading that came in handy during exams!), today’s teacher has to compete with a completely new breed of players. Websites, applications, online portals, YouTube, educational CD-ROMs – all jostling amongst themselves for the attention of the student – lead one to believe it is a world wide web of conspiracy against teachers!

With many competitors comes the pressure to remain updated and accurate. There will always be that one student who looks up websites before coming to class, and you can’t afford to be caught on the wrong foot. The teacher of today needs to be updated on the subject, always ready with suggestions and recommendations.

Here, the role of the teacher has an additional aspect to it; that of a guide. Transcending the usual method of opening Google and typing in a few keywords, the teacher must inculcate good searching habits in students. Rather than remain passive consumers of information on the internet, the students should be able to look and find information for themselves – a skill that becomes crucial later in life, irrespective of the field they go into.

T. Sudha, a teacher in one of Hyderabad’s oldest schools was faced with such a problem. “As part of the curriculum, the students had to look up information on the internet. But we found that most of them were familiar with computers and the internet, but were at sea when it came to looking up information. I spent two sessions on training them to look for websites, to scout through information. Once students learnt it, they began to look for topics on their own. I realised that the process was as important as the product.”

But the challenges of technology do not end here. For an enthusiastic teacher who is willing to take the plunge, the very nature of technology itself poses larger problems. It is said that hundred years of human life are equal to seven years in the life of a technological innovation.

This continuous change results in a constant race for the teachers to catch up with technology. Floppy disks came and went. CD-ROMs, the de facto medium of educational software till about two years ago, might be on the way out in a few years, with the coming of cloud servers where information can be saved and accessed everywhere.

And then there is the rapidly growing market of educational supplementary content that is vying for your students’ attention. Interactive modules, websites, games – all of these use puzzles, songs, games, and videos to attract students. All the parents I spoke with, for this article, admitted to spending hours with their children, getting them familiar with computers and the internet. “Much before our kids enrolled in primary school, we spent time getting them familiar with computers. It is clear that the earlier the child is familiar with technology, the better its chances of doing well in a world where technology has entered every sphere of life,” says P. Shobhit, who works with an MNC software firm in Hyderabad.

An interesting example is the Khan Academy. Run by Salman Khan (not to be confused with the actor), a Harvard graduate with Indian roots – the Khan Academy puts up videos that explain complex concepts in a lucid manner. There are about 5000 such videos, and all of them are free. Last heard, efforts were being made to convert the videos into local Indian languages.

texting-teacher If that doesn’t sound troubling enough, there is always the possibility that students will be more comfortable with technology than you are. In a generation where babies use tablets and smartphones, the grasp that a child has over technology will always be widening. And students are smart enough to know when you are uncomfortable with the new sword you’re wielding.

I asked a few students if they thought their teachers were comfortable with technology. The answers I got weren’t surprising. Pratyusha, who studies in Class 6, giggled when I asked the question, adding that “the younger teachers were more comfortable with technology than the senior teachers.” And this phenomenon could lead to the otherwise highly experienced teachers suffering the most.

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However, things are not as gloomy as they seem.

Fortunately, schools are not factories. Teachers are not replaceable machines. The invasion of technology into the classroom needs to be accepted and embraced. Technology also brings with it certain advantages.

Less paperwork is one of those advantages. Websites like Edmodo and apps like Wet, Dry, Try can be very handy tools in the classroom. Even more heartening is the fact that teachers can assign tasks, projects and submissions online, without having to carry home piles of paper. But even this comes with a caveat of its own – familiarity with computers. Shilpee Mohapatra has been a teacher for 14 years in a school that is slowly making a transition towards digital assignments. She says, “Initially, it was a struggle since we were unfamiliar with the media. And it took us about a year to get comfortable with the system. If teachers are patient, they can reap the fruits of the change.”

Also, the very nature of homework could change. Moving beyond the “writing down” method, where the teacher has to go through each and every word written by every student, group assignments and interactive projects could take a heavy load off their shoulders.

Another interesting fact that came up was the way different subjects made use of technology. I asked Avipsa Mohanty, who studies in class 9, about which subjects were most impacted by the ‘Smart Classroom’ phenomenon. Social Studies and Science were the subjects she named. However, in subjects like mathematics, physics, and chemistry, the role of the teacher is still of utmost importance. While computers and technology can provide glitz and glitter, there is really nothing that can compensate for personal attention that a teacher brings in to the class. For technology, all students are of the same level. But a teacher has the advantage of being able to tailor specific strategies for specific students.

Avipsa’s mother, Sarmistha Mohanty, isn’t reading too much into the influx of technology into classrooms. “No matter how developed technology becomes, I would still give the most emphasis to the role of the teacher. Technology could be an added bonus, but without an efficient teacher, all of it would go waste.”

And her assurance doesn’t come without reason. Technology can at the very best, be an addition. For there is no software that can patiently answer your students’ doubts, there are no modules that can make your student smile, encourage them, to create a rapport with them. Those are still well within the domain of the teacher.

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From a distance, it might seem like an ‘Adapt or Perish?’ situation. But scratch the surface, and you will find that in its own unique way, the influx of technology takes teaching back to its basics. Of being a facilitator, a friend, and a guide.

In the age of internet, the role of the teacher has advanced in many ways, and yet in others, it has gone back to its basics. It is a call to adapt, to change our methods and processes. To enjoy the transition from being the primary source of knowledge to a facilitator. To be the person who holds students’ hands and guides them through thick jungles of information that are available everywhere.

The author is a blogger and an aspiring novelist. He can be reached at heartranjan@gmail.com.