Thinking through the techno-maze

The first time I was confronted by anything resembling “high technology” in a classroom was more than a quarter century ago, when I was asked to sit at an electronic typewriter and in ten minutes flat type a one-page script, double spaced, with a one inch margin all round. I stared at what seemed to be an impossibly complicated piece of equipment and for the next five minutes tried to figure out how to turn it on. Then I spent another five minutes trying to understand how the line spacing worked and how not to pound the keys as I did on my hardy manual Remington!

Well, I have come a long way since then and so has the technology of printing and publishing – and of course, the technology of education. Within that same year, I was introduced first to a desktop monitor that was a window to a distant mainframe computer, and a few months later, to an amazing device that allowed one to type, re-type, erase and save – all without spending reams of paper and carbon sheets! The desktop computer had arrived!

Of course we cannot pretend that technology has changed everything about our environments and about education – clearly, there are many classrooms that lack even the most basic tools, where teachers must make do with their wits and little else. But in the places where technology has entered, it has changed ways of doing and ways of thinking. And in yet others, new forms of technology have led us to hope that a type of leapfrogging is indeed possible. While we may laugh at the idea that a mobile telephone can take formal learning into remote areas, we cannot deny the promise of such connectivity. And of course other technologies have held out such promises too. Radio in the 1950s and even today brings communities together and creates educational opportunities, while satellite and cable television has brought the world into our homes and our classrooms.

Computer and communications technologies have truly brought about changes that are “ecological” to use Neil Postman’s term. They have not just mediated our relationship with the material world but have generated new ways of relating with the world, and in fact created new worlds, making possible new representations of thought and action.

As we accept the “naturalness” of technology in our lives and our educational environment, and while we exploit its potential, we need to be aware of what it does to our old ways, and what we are setting aside in adopting the new.

Most of the articles in this special issue of Teacher Plus celebrate the immense potential of information technology to extend and enhance the traditional classroom. Indeed, it was a recognition of this potential that prompted the Indian government to initiate in the mid 1980s a project called “CLASS” – Computer Literacy and Studies in Schools. We were not sure how computers would change things, but we had an inkling that these machines could ease our way into the future and close the gap between us and the more information-driven societies.

At the time, computer education – teaching children how to use computers to write programs to do things – was an end in itself. But as computers became easier to use, and computer based tools became more and more easily available and wider in range, it was less important to learn how to make the computer do things (as with programming) and more important to learn to do things using computers. This shift has important implications for learning that we may not consciously acknowledge as we adopt technology into our practice.

Having said this, it is still important to see how we can use these tools to our best advantage, and how we can ensure that we retain a critical attitude toward them. None of us will deny the value of what we have been granted: the expansion of the realms (and reams) of information available to us, the opportunities for retaining existing and making new relationships that have been thrown open by social networking, the ease of aggregating and analyzing different kinds of data, the extension of human potential and overcome disability with the ability to turn text to visual to sound without expert intervention… the list can go on.

But if you read carefully, and not even between the lines, you will notice that every one of our writers in this issue has reiterated what might seem obvious but becomes marginalized by its very obviousness – the centrality of the teacher to the process and outcome of learning.

Cover Design: The design for this month’s cover met with an enthusiastic response from the editorial team for its interesting concept and rather unusual creation. In the words of Agat Sharma, who designed it, the artworks could not have existed in a non-technological environment for they were created automatically using contemporary design tools. Technology has opened otherwise inconceivable landscapes of imagination and even its use has therefore become a learning experience. This art work has been visualized and created using certain quintessential images representing education and technology like books and circuit boards.

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