Teaching in the times of technology

Teaching in the times of technology

Every time I meet a new batch of students, I establish one rule. The rule involves students shutting down their laptops and putting away their mobile phones by the time I finish calling out attendance.

There have been times when I have waited politely, but pointedly, allowing a few extra minutes to tick by before students manage to drag their attention away from their screens and make eye contact. Although students rarely challenge this rule (I would like it if they did), I offer three reasons for my insistence on the rule.

The first reason has to do with my teaching style which is interactive and requires fairly clear signals from the students indicating that they are involved in whatever is being discussed in class. In a large class of 40 or 50 students, it is obviously unlikely that everyone will be able to participate in the discussion verbally, but as a teacher I can get a sense of their involvement by watching their faces and studying their actions. Yawns or vacant expressions are indications that I have not been able to draw these students into the discussion. A face that is hidden behind a laptop screen or turned downwards towards a mobile phone does not provide the necessary cues for me to discern student engagement. This reason, however, has more to do with me as a teacher and is less about what may be good from the students’ perspective.

Conventional classrooms

The second reason for my insistence that students shouldn’t use their laptops during class has to do with something that I had suspected but had no evidence for – namely, that using laptops during lectures impedes learning. Well, research is beginning to indicate that this indeed is the case, especially in the case of conventional teacher-led classrooms, where students use laptops to take notes.

The third reason for discouraging the use of laptops or cellphones in class is because it impedes direct social interaction and dialogue. For Greek philosopher Socrates, the invention of writing had negative consequences for thinking. His critique of writing arose from the notion of thinking being inevitably bound with face-to-face dialogue. Inspired by Socrates, Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘dialogic’ in the context of reasoning.  “The idea begins to live, that is to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others,” is what Bakhtin has said.

Laptops, and the more ubiquitous cellphones cut off interaction with the immediate circle around a person, even as they promote a form of communication with distant others. If teaching is about promoting thought and inquiry, then, the teacher must make the classroom a community that fosters dialogic relationships and take full advantage of the presence of multiple individuals. Rupert Wegerif, a well-known professor of education, in a paper titled, Technology and teaching thinking draws upon dialogic theory to argue that learning to think is about being drawn into a dialogue with multiple perspectives. Personally, until I discover ways in which I can use technology to promote dialogic inquiry, I will continue to encourage the more familiar forms of talk, discussion and conversation in my classes, consequently restrictingthe use of computersand cellphones.

Well, what about my own usage of laptop while teaching? Over several years of experience, I have more or less learnt to avoid Powerpoint presentations for teaching. Classroom discussions tend to be much livelier when there is no fixed sequence of slides to be presented. Besides, in the age of the Internet, the teacher has no monopoly over information. Instead, what she or he has to do is to teach students about analysis, interpretation, critique, discernment and a willingness to suspend judgment till sufficient evidence and argument are available.

Of course, nowadays, it is quite simple to project a video clip or movie in the classroom and this enables the entry of images into a class that has drowned in wordy arguments. This in itself may be a significant change in the way we teach. The main purpose of teaching is broadly to enable better understanding of the world and ourselves. Such an understanding may help humanity recover its connection with inanimate objects. With information and communication technology (ICT), text and images can be intertwined and much more can be conveyed in ways that can powerfully shape thought.

The relative newness of this technology coupled with its reach and spread means that there has been very little time to understand what it is doing in terms of shaping behaviour, perceptions, thinking and action.

A mere tool?

The common sense understanding is that technology is just a tool to deliver educational goals. An alternative view in the tradition of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky would say that the use of tools changes who we are and what our educational objectives should be.

Personally, I haven’t worked out this conundrum to any level of satisfaction and hence prefer to follow a more direct approach in my teaching — one that is less mediated by technology.

With the computer, words, sentences and entire paragraphs can easily be deleted, substituted, transposed and shuffled around till one is satisfied with composition, the meditative pre-writing process has more or less been replaced by a somewhat frenetic outpouring.

In the case of students writing to me, I am happy to receive soft copies of essays rather than hand-written ones. It saves me a lot of trouble deciphering handwriting and I can focus instead, on deciding whether the student has something original to say. These are just some probably idiosyncratic perceptions of technology’s influence.

The claim that use of technology can shape thinking does appear to have some truth. However, technology on its own doesn’t think, nor does mere usage of technology promote thinking. As teachers, we first have to discover what technology is doing with regards to thinking and then respond appropriately. These twin challenges are already provoking a range of reactions from the teaching community, but the concern is about how to respond creatively and reflectively rather than be swept towards an unwanted destination.

(The author is professor, Azim Premji University,Bengaluru)

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