The generation of students in our classrooms today is the first to have been born into the digital world. It is a natural part of their ecosystem, seemingly one they scarcely need be taught about. Constantly online, they text friends, interact on social networks, turn to Google rather than to books. This virtual world they inhabit is inevitably reshaping the way they think and learn, creating new demands of educators who were trained in a wholly different way of processing ideas. Accustomed as they are to jumping between links on a web page,students today have moved away from reading a chapter from beginning to end, towards a non-linear progression of knowledge. At its best this is a heady process: begin looking up one thing, stumbling upon another and pursuing an expanding circle of ideas makes learning an exciting adventure driven by the interest of the individual learner. Technology seems to seduce even a primary school child to investigate and discover on his/her own. It has the possibility of making every learning journey unique.
The biggest challenge for schools and educators is to shift our own approaches to embrace this tidal wave. Teachers and school systems typically have engaged with this in a partial and sporadic way. Many schools have made the capital investment necessary – expanding bandwidth, bringing in LCD projectors and Interactive boards. But unless the fundamentals of the learning process itself are altered, these remain cosmetic changes. For instance, if while teaching the National Movement, a teacher produces a PowerPoint projection, puts up some pictures of the leaders or even shows a movie clip, nothing has fundamentally changed. Such a teacher will still stand at the head of the class and teach, students will passively take notes and reproduce them in tests without any deepening of understanding beyond what they got out of a textbook.
However, as educators, we now have the capacity to be able to harness the power of Web 2.0 tools – to change education, to help children learn better and to sharpen the skills which they will need in the world outside the classroom. But there are a number of challenges for schools in bringing this about. Educational practices and materials are changing very slowly. The Board exam system remains traditional and unforgiving. Learning based in real-life experiences is undervalued. Teachers do not get sufficient support – not just via one-day workshops but in systematic ways when they go into a classroom. In fact, the only way to change this is to plunge in, to begin to use tools, experiment, messy and challenging as this may be.
Teaching digital citizenship
It is common to hear the view that the younger generation is far ahead of teachers but let us be clear about what they still need to learn and be taught to successfully navigate the digital world. There is a strong need for schools to formally teach new skills – information literacy, visual literacy. They need to be taught about online etiquette, online safety and what to do about cyber-bullying. The huge and unregulated space which is the world wide web means that there are social and personal teachings necessary – a new version of the old-fashioned moral science classes. Schools must create a curriculum on digital citizenship, helping students understand areas like ethical use, intellectual property rights, and plagiarism. It is a good idea for a school to create a Policy on Responsible Usage of Technology as a means of making students and their parents as well, aware of the issues.
Because the personal computer seems to be just that – personal – adults can make the mistake of ceding this space to the child. With automatic access to the Internet, nothing could be more unwise. Just as other learning or social spaces are automatically supervised, so too is activity on the web. Schools and home must ensure safety, teaching strategies to enable this from guiding suitable sites for web searches such as www.safesearchkids.com to teaching children not to post personal details or pictures online. Instead of locking out technology, banishing social media or gaming, education must embrace it to ensure that every child learns the skills to be safe and responsible. Technology is a double edged sword and it is only with sensible safeguards that the web enhances learning. Properly used however, it is a powerful medium to develop skills and enhance learning.
What are the real-life skills which enhance learning? It is not simply about having access to the millions of tools which are available. Today there are hundreds of sites and apps which are added every day. By being aware of some, the creative teacher guides students towards some options rather than prescribing just one. Most importantly for the first time, it is possible to individualize learning, to use the tools which best fit a student’s learning style and pace. If a student learns best with the use of drills, they can access flash cards and prompts. For those who use games there are maths, or science, or history, or economics tools. If they study best with a partner they can work online, even with someone from across the world. Best of all they can go over things they do not understand, revisiting a topic at their own pace. This individualization is equally true of assessment – to show their understanding they can create a video or write a blog in addition to the more common tools of making a Powerpoint projection or projecting photographs.
An essential skill which children will need in the future is collaboration. Good teachers have always been aware of the learning enhancement enabled by group work. The problem is that this kind of collaboration which happens only in class can be time-consuming. With large numbers it can be difficult to manage. But online collaborating sidesteps those problems. A group working together on google docs for instance can give ideas, comment on each others’ answers, suggest what else needs to be included. Ideas and resources are shared and practice problems solved together. It can be a more powerful means of creating a project or strengthening revision than individual homework.
Young people are accustomed to using social networks to connect on their personal lives. Now more than ever, it is possible to use this strategy to strengthen learning. Learning communities enable groups of young people who have a common topic to deepen their understanding by communicating on an ongoing basis. A school which creates a community of learners can go beyond limiting the learning of a topic to a particular class or age group. Imagine the powerful potential of students from Grade 9, 10, and 11 sharing ideas on Pulsars for instance. Advanced students from each grade can collaborate together to learn from each other. Many online tools – Edmodo is one example – create the shared space for conversations, postings, or links.
All that is true of learning for students is equally true of teachers. Traditionally, teaching has been an intensely private activity with very little sharing of ideas or of problems. This has dramatically changed with technology and the generosity and openness of teachers around the world is breathtaking. Lesson plans, tips, tools now flood teaching websites and many teachers in India are engaging with colleagues in Malaysia, or Australia, or the US to find solutions to practical questions like how to introduce or assess a topic. A new group of experts is making its presence felt on Twitter or in learning commons which serve as online libraries or study circles. And what is more, these come at no cost. A school which encourages this approach to professional development enables teachers to access some of the best minds in education from anywhere around the world.
Finally it is important to remember that technology and all the tools it commands are simply ways of accomplishing the heart of what education is – enabling students to learn. Ultimately, it must positively answer the question – does it strengthen learning? In the 21st century students need to be creators of content not simply consumers of information. To learn to do this creatively, responsibly, and ethically is surely the purpose of all education, not simply that of technology education.
The author is Director of Pathways School in Noida and a strong advocate of technology in learning. She is the author of Schooling the National Imagination (OUP). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.