One of India’s many visions for the coming years is to mould her young learners to be able to take on the 21st century world. A fair bulk of literature states that the skills required of a 21st century learner are creative thinking, problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and cooperation.
Without doubt, the innovative solutions that technology provides makes it a one-stop-shop to address, or rather enable all the aforementioned skills. Or at least that is what the algorithms want us to believe with hundreds of “ed-tech” start-ups’ advertisements coming our way, asking us if we’d like our children to become the next stars of Silicon Valley.
Of the many traits that we humans have carried down from our ancestors, along with the need for survival, is the desire for achievement. We fail to recall it but it underlines much of our experiences. After all, without a yearning to achieve, how would we learn, grow and aspire to greater perfection?
This holds for all actors in today’s covid-induced “screen” world– the students who wish to outshine their peers, the education technology companies that wish to justify their growth numbers and even parents who wish to get their child on that next flight to Silicon Valley.
However, the question is, how well can technology nurture the aforementioned 21st century skills?
Surely the education technology companies and the technology-induced learning it provides has a lot to offer. For instance, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, gamification, among other aspects, definitely are an impressive as well as a colossal leap in the education domain. These technologies make powerful strides in areas where the age-old traditional system is said to have suffered– in handling tedium, strength and speed, unwavering focus and a “perfect” objective recall. Of the many “plusses” that technology offers, a feature that gives it a lot of, if not the most, mileage is a certain sense of assurance– a guarantee of precision, efficiency and accuracy; the avowal of undertaking a task without the risk of human error.
While the penetration of technology into education is not entirely new, the pandemic, with its physical distancing mandate, has augmented the scope for minimizing the human variable from the domain of education. What is worth pondering over is how a learner will upskill herself in areas like creative thinking, problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and cooperation without the human variable.
It is here that the either-or philosophy becomes important. To make sense of the appeal of these platforms, it is pertinent to understand what they sell: Cultivation of individuality, free activity*, acquisition of skills as a means of attaining ends and acquaintance with a “changing” world. It is committed to a kind of empirical and experimental philosophy.
But who is the learner experimenting with? With a core focus on “individualized, one-on-one” modules, the experience is treated as if it were something which goes on exclusively inside a learner’s body and mind. Not to say that child-centred learning is undesirable, but how educative are such on-screen “experiential” lessons if they manifest in a vacuum?
It is undeniable that technology has made headway in all aspects of human life, including that of education. But has it stridden enough to recognize surroundings that are conducive to altering learner’s outlooks and attitudes? Further, has it cracked the know-hows to utilize the surroundings that exist, to borrow from them, to shape shared experiences?
The risk of such disembodied education is that in our spick and span sanitized worlds, outcomes and solutions outweigh good pedagogy. Even if one likes to believe that the education technology companies do well for one’s child and gets her “ahead” in the race, is it vital to see who can participate in the race and what the race track looks like. A pedagogue holds the power to transcend these boundaries and attempt to deliver an inclusive education that aims to develop ‘human beings’ rather than merely develop ‘human capital’.
Approaches presented by technology may very well solve tertiary teaching problems– to the extent that everything can be categorized, processed and synchronized through a screen. However, the cost, apart from the hole in parents’ pocket, is the thrill of discourse, the human enthusiasm that excites and encourages and a shared classroom space where arguments erupt and sensibilities take shape.
*Free activity, in this context, refers to the sense of being free from a tightly-knit schedule that one is tied to in a collective and physical school setting. For instance, having the option to pause or “shut down” a module when one feels like and resume as and when one deems fit; skip a certain chapter and move onto the next; having the option[s] to learn in the kind of “flow” that suits “individual” sensibilities, preferences and styles.
The author is pursuing research in higher education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org