Innovation starts in the classroom

Last Updated 21 September 2016, 18:29 IST
A fundamental change, driven by technology, is coming over the field of education. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) available on various platforms provide teaching content delivered by top-notch experts in a variety of subjects. MOOCs have come a long way since open-looped video recordings. 

They provide a variety of interactive experiences through video quizzes, discussion forums and team activities among others. Furthermore, MOOCs often come with attractive features like being self-paced. Increasingly, course completion certificates offered by MOOCs are being accepted by employers as valid evidences of one’s expertise in a topic. One run of a MOOC may see enrolments easily in the range of 50,000 to 1,00,000. These courses promise to bring the best educators to millions of learners in the comforts of their own homes at little or no cost. This clearly smells of a revolution. There are several aspects to the MOOC story: how they will deliver on their promise of bringing learning to an unprecedented scale spread across the globe; the pedagogical and technological challenges; the business opportunities; sociological angle etc. Here, we want to look at one specific angle: their impact on the practice of teaching as it exists today.

A majority of teaching community is currently in a state of denial about what’s coming. We continue running our courses in the same manner as before: lecture-based, semester-oriented and through traditional styles of assessment. When we hear of MOOCs, we turn up our noses, saying that teaching is based on innate human creativity which no machine can replicate. However, several disturbing observations make their way to us everyday. And they may be signs of a deep transformation taking place: dwindling attendance, inattentive students, mass plagiarism, bad feedback and so on. We teachers like to look at these as irritants, as a sign of the young generation being spoiled by distractions of the electronic media. To be fair, there surely must be a grain of truth in this view, but it’s far from the complete truth. The other part of the truth is that students find it increasingly hard to convince themselves that they need to be lectured this way when they can access any amount of instruction material online.

Inevitability of tomorrowLet’s be honest: when we teachers are looking for examples and explanation for certain tricky topics, don’t we search for them on the Web? Then what makes us think that our students will not be able to do the same themselves? At the end of the day, technologies leading to profitable business just happen, whether for the better or for the worse. MOOCs are one such technology. And therefore, they are here to stay. So, how can we, as teachers of today, prepare for the inevitability of tomorrow? Does history have some lessons for us? For me, there are at least two things that have survived earlier trade revolutions: uniqueness and scalability. This means that fighting the technology juggernaut will not work in general. The only way to survive would be to align with technology (thus ensuring scalability), while preserving a speck of identity for oneself that technology can’t replicate (thus ensuring uniqueness). With this in mind, here are a few suggestions that teachers can try: 

n Have your own unique narrative: The best way to score on uniqueness is to create your own story. The most reliable way to do so this is by teaching from your own experience. If knowledge imparted originates from a textbook, the author’s lectures are very likely already available on the Internet. However, if the knowledge arises from your own field experience, no textbook can talk about it better than you. If you do not have any unique perspective, you must try and create one no matter how specialised, small or niche it may be. And once created, there surely will be takers for it. The only part of teaching which is not clearly mass-producible at present is experience. The hands-on, interactive experiences and the excitement of do-it-yourself activities are some aspects of teaching that still hold some ground. So, if you wish to continue being a teacher of the traditional world, leverage on the experience, not just on the content.

n Join the bandwagon: Creating a unique narrative or experience requires a degree of independence which is not available to many. For example, what if you teach in a large university with prescribed syllabi? If you are small players not resourceful enough to create your own world, you have to be a part of a larger ecosystem. In such a case, it’s better to belong to an upcoming ecosystem than to one which is going to whither soon. Be a part of initiatives by your own university in offering online courses or MOOC platforms. Let your lectures be video-recorded. Create electronic contents and let people use them. Leave digital footprints of your teachings and be tech-savvy. In the least, take interest in the MOOC phenomenon and gather information. Be prepared, and increase your probability of being picked up by Noah on the day of the deluge.

n New approaches to teaching: With various developments happening in the IT world, the traditional lecture-based teaching is far from being the only choice. Today, there are a variety of options available such as blended learning, online courses and MOOCs, each levering on IT infrastructures in varying degree and style. Developing an understanding about these methods is going to be critical for a teacher’s survival in tomorrow’s educational world. It will be therefore important to be familiar with various aspects of pedagogical knowledge, which constitute the other pillar of MOOCs such as learning objective taxonomies (Bloom’s taxonomy), instruction design models (ADDIE) and principles (Merrill’s first principles of instruction). If you have used these concepts to develop your teaching material and styles, you will find it easy to adapt them to technology, as and when required.

We teachers are at an inflection point in our careers. Most of us will see MOOCs sweeping away the ground beneath us as we know it, replacing it with a very new globalised, technology-enabled world of teaching and learning. Some will perish: those who deny the coming of the inevitable. Some will survive: those who adapt to the coming changes and make the best of it. Which of the two would you like to be?

(The author is assistant professor, IIIT, Bengaluru)
(Published 21 September 2016, 16:51 IST)

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