Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Teaching virtually

cyber age: ND Batra

Teaching virtually
From The Statesman

There is a misplaced feeling on the American campus today that old faculty members are generally resistant to pedagogical technology and feel stressed by it.

But who wouldn't feel the pressure especially when every year vendors relentlessly push software and hardware upgrades, even though the older ones are quite functional and adequate? Most professors do not see any special advantage in teaching by pushing most advanced information technology in the classroom, which somehow gives the erroneous impression that they are too hidebound or too dumb to learn new things.

The good news is that a majority of professors in the USA are still in their most creative period, 55 or less, according to a report from the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Of the various instructional methods used for undergraduate teaching by American professors, the use of computer or machine-aided instruction hardly exceeds 25 per cent; and that too may be limited to the use of PowerPoint or video clips to break the monotony of the long lecture.

No one has come up with an equally good alternative to classroom lecture-discussion method that has been at the heart of the teaching-learning experience since the days of the ancients.

Nor has any instructional technology been developed to replace cooperative learning that occurs in group projects, field studies, recitals, performances, and writing and re-writing or students critiquing each other's research reports.

Having used PowerPoint for quite sometime, I feel that more often it is a barrier to engaging students deeply in class. Some students positively resent PowerPoint because it has homogenised teaching. From class to class, it is the same, a student bemoaned.

Sometime ago I attended a daylong workshop on the use of information technology in the classroom and asked innocently what I should be doing instead of lecturing if I go for the on-line teaching method. The response was a counter-question: Why do you lecture? The simple retort jolted me and I began to wonder how much lecturing is essential when apart from the textbook there are several reliable sources available on the Internet.

It is true that students do not learn only from the textbook; otherwise teachers won't be needed. When the textbook with supplementary readings is brought to bear upon a discussion topic in the classroom, you see the beginning of learning, which is further enhanced through projects, term papers and the stimulus (or fear) of quizzes, weekly short essay assignments, and mid-term and final examinations.

Learning is a process of pattern building that requires frequent breaks and discontinuities and the silence of the mind. Human brain is not a storage disk. You cannot download knowledge at the stroke of a key or ingest it as a cascade of PowerPoint slides.

Internet on-line courses and software programmes being pushed by publishers on American campuses are no doubt posing some fundamental questions about our traditional pedagogical methods. Although students sometime hesitate to join classroom discussion, I have found that many students enthusiastically participate in on-line discussion.

Many of them express themselves freely if I encourage a free-style discussion, de-emphasising grammar and style for the time being.

Of course, students and professors would miss a lot if there were no face-to-face encounters, dramatic moments which not infrequently result in repartee, witticism, humour and other minor conflagrations that enhance teaching and learning and make the dialogue such a joy.

The American campus is under stress, as is the office workplace, simply because there is no way anyone can be perpetually at the cutting edge of information technology. Even younger faculty members feel stressed by technology. Partly this is due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly; resistance to its adoption has not much to do with age.

Instead of keeping ahead in their academic fields, the faculty members are expected to master newer technology every now and again, which sometime causes frayed tempers. In contrast, the chalkboard and the test-tube have lasted for hundreds of years. If a breezing presentation using PowerPoint does not lead to a lively discussion, it is of no use. A mathematics professor might not feel comfortable to teach abstract concepts to his undergraduates on-line, which could probably be better done by leading students step by step in the old fashioned way.

It would be quite a task to expound to on-line students, for example, the mystery of black holes; the string theory; or the eternal hope in "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" But in this age of abundant technological choices, when everything from facial features to automobile is being customised and personalised, we are being pressured to think whether college instructions too could be made to fit the abilities and aptitude of each student.

I am not sure if information technology can give us some leeway in treating different students with different pedagogical methods to enhance and quicken the learning process for a generation that is growing up with iPods, computer games, chatrooms, instant messaging, and mobile Internet.

The technology gap between the young and the restless generation, short on attention span yet bright and inquisitive, on the one hand; and the campus gray professorate, on the other, has begun to matter a lot more, in fact so much that some of us find ourselves in the wilderness, wondering: Why do we teach the way we do? Should we "coursecast" our lectures on iPod and do something else?

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