So I feel I am running a bit late on ocTEL activities and therefore I am still catching up with Week 1 activities here on this blog even though we are now well into Week 2. So I have just spent a very good portion of my morning, re-listening the talks that I had actually seen and heard before but had in the meantime, forgotten some of their essence. My title in-fact was taken from Helen Keegan‘s PELeCON talk last year.
However if I had to choose two particular talks and two particular speakers which I think I am finding as my kind of ‘virtual mentors’ at this stage in my life, I would say that I would pick Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra. In fact I have blogged about Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in an earlier blog post. Their talks are so inspiring because they, to me, have brought me closer to that “aha moment”, as described by Eric Mazur – leading the way to the “connect the dots” process that Steve Jobs mentions [I do suggest viewing this commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005]. I think that one concept which both Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra have in common is in fact, this sense of giving responsibility to the learner for his own learning. I believe that with all the interactive whiteboards that we have, and for all the tablets that we might get, we are still so far away from actually shifting our mindsets to that direction. I ask what good is a tablet when all you use it for, are drill and practice exercises in class? What good is an interactive whiteboard in class, when all the interaction it seems to stimulate is between itself and the teacher, as the teacher presses the forward button on the powerpoint presentation that is displayed to the students?
I ask, why is it so hard for us teachers to accept that maybe, just maybe we don’t really know everything, and we therefore let go. As Mazur, rightly described – this is so easy… it is so easy to go for an information transfer approach. Me, the teacher, have the information – the content. You, the student, are there to get that information – the content. Content in, content out on the exam paper. Easy yes? But no… the outcome is disastrous. It might certainly be less easy for the teacher to help students reach the hard assimilation process. It is so hard to watch learners try to understand, and let them explore, inquire, reach their own conclusions and be there to guide them along the way. Certain people I know, would say I am speaking in theory. In practice, this can never be done. Well in practice, it is what my young 3 year old son does. And he’s not a genius either. It’s what and how every child learns – through exploration – constructing and deconstructing knowledge. Yet when it comes to the classroom, and to the application of technology, a certain fervor seems to grab us by the throat and we decide that we are not able to handle seeing our students learn by themselves. So we instruct them. We have to be the ones to tell them how to open a Microsoft Word document. We have to be the ones to tell them that Facebook shouldn’t be used. We have to be the ones to tell them, to fill them up with something, whatever that might be.
What I have been trying to point out all along, even in previous posts is this. Technology, any technology or device or tool, if used for mere information transfer is absolutely nothing more special than a pen and paper – for what it’s worth. Information transfer is what we have been used to, what we have been taught. But today it is different. Today’s world is different, today’s economy is different, today’s society is different – their needs, our needs are different. We’re no longer secluded objects living on separate lands. So a student cannot just live on information transfer. People are showing they have very little engagement with schools and especially with the content taught at schools. I ask: why would that be? Sugata Mitra describes how in the traditional teaching setting a teacher spends his time trying to give content to the student, and the student spends his entire lifetime trying to forget it! It’s true. I have experienced this myself when I taught using the traditional information transfer, ‘sage on the stage’, kind of approach. And even if my powerpoint had an amazing design, and even if I had so many videos showing throughout the lecture, and even if I almost did acrobatics to engage my students, in the end, after the lecture, they could hardly remember one single thing which I talked about. None of them were talking, none of them were on Facebook or Twitter, none of them slept – yet none of them got any souvenirs back from my lecture.
This particular instance had started to make me realize that technology without the right approach and methodology is really quite glitzy and shiny, but it’s as shallow as cheap costume jewellery. There is no depth there. What Sugata Mitra was talking about, and what always impresses me when I watch this talk, is that the kids, during his many experiments, and wherever in the world they were (be it in the slum areas of a tiny village in India, or in the UK) managed to reach a depth in their level of understanding that could not even start to compare with what any teacher can ‘pour’ into them. And this is not to say that teachers are useless. We, as teachers, have to stop feeling scared of letting go. Both of the speakers focus on an approach that sees a major involvement of students, to solve problems that might be more complex than we think people of that age can handle. And yet, using the technology as a “conduit for connections” – (taken from the interview with George Siemens) they both manage to create learning experiences that are not only fascinating and engaging for the learners, but that manage to run deep in the learner’s minds.
I think that in essence technology is not just about the tools or the devices. I think it’s about the pedagogy, the art and science of teaching – and this centers around the teacher. I think that the technology is all about the use and application and how the teacher/mentor manages to apply this as the “catalyst that fosters connections” (another quote by George Siemens) and as Steve Jobs says, something that “helps us connect the dots”. Whether or not, technology has to be used everytime, everywhere is a debatable issue. I think that as with everything, there isn’t a clearcut black/white line… there are different shades that most often depend heavily on the context in which the learning experience is set.