Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Keeping young minds open

Letter from university campus

From The Statesman
When I look at the face of a student sitting in my class, I do not think that one day he might become a corporate killer, a drug peddler or a suicide bomber. I firmly hope my students will become proud and successful professionals, parents and responsible citizens as most of them do.

Once upon a beautiful day at Morehead State University, long ago, a school nestling in the rolling hills of eastern Kentucky and Daniel Boone Forest, I was teaching an undergraduate class when I heard a gentle knock at the door. As I opened the door, I saw two cops standing solemnly and one of them, after apologising for the intrusion, said that they would like to speak to one of my students, John Doe. He asked politely and authoritatively: “Is he there?” It’s a drug inquiry, the other said. I was shocked and puzzled. Should I turn in one of my students to the cops, or turn them away making a plausible excuse for his absence?

The classroom, unlike a temple or church, is not a sanctuary; but nor is it a public forum. It is a place of awakening and certainly my students were awakened that beyond the world of textbooks there is another world, with which they are not totally unfamiliar. I closed the door behind me and returned to the class. The students, most of whom were girls, devoured me with their inquisitive and anxious looks and after a moment of extreme embarrassment and discomfort I asked John to leave the classroom. He looked at the window but understanding his drift I said, no, go from the front door. After two weeks of absence John returned, presumably on bail, and asked me if he could do the makeup work and continue in the course. As per the university rules, it was for me to decide whether to allow him to return to the class after such a long unexcused period of absence.

By this time the campus had learnt the truth about John, and I felt that it wasn’t exactly like allowing a confessed killer to sit in my class; nonetheless, it was somewhat of an ethical dilemma. Most people think that ethics is about what’s right and wrong within a given moral system into which they are born, but it is more than that. Ethics sometimes is about making a choice between two equally competing values or between two wrongs, and choosing the lesser one in compelling circumstances. Consider for a moment the ethical dilemma of a doctor who has two equally desperate patients and both likely to die, but he has only one kidney available for transplant. What should be the basis of his decision when the Hippocratic oath enjoins him: “First do no harm”? His decision, however rational it might sound, would let one of them die, which probably would remind you of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Doctor’s Dilemma.

I begin my fall semester law and ethics class at Norwich University with the ethical dilemma posed by Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century philosopher. If a man with a handgun knocks at your door, asking about another man who is hiding in your basement and with whom he wants to settle an old score, what would you do? Will you let him in and drag the man out to be shot, or tell a lie to save his life?

Both killing and lying are morally wrong according to the Christian morality, the framework within which my students have been growing up. Whatever the post-modernists might say, I think moral relativism is a worst form of immorality. But what was my moral framework under which I made the ethical choice to let John sit in my class, in spite of his dubious past? I am personally a mixed-up person. I grew up in a Hindu family where karma, compassion and truth are regarded as the highest virtues; nonetheless, the superstructure on this foundation has been that of post-Christianity Western secular humanism. And when John confronted me with the ethical dilemma, I recalled Oscar Wilde’s notorious words: “The difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” John would have a future if he completed his education, but if he were dismissed from the university he might become a drug dealer and harm the society and self-destruct.

I wasn’t bargaining like a game theorist.

Norwich University, once upon a time, faced an ethical dilemma about the presence of the Indonesian military-sponsored students. The American people used to watch on television the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military against innocent people of East Timor (before their independence) and some in the media accused the university of unintentional complicity. Should the university have let the students continue in the programme hoping that they would return to Indonesia as good citizen-soldiers in service of their country rather than killers of the innocent? A private university depends upon the public goodwill and must be accountable for its actions, including its investment decisions and foreign collaborations. The university gave the Indonesian students a chance and let them continue hoping that they would do good to their country when they returned.

Today American campuses, in spite of a diffused threat of terrorism, remain open and welcome everyone to their portals. The United States needs a steady inflow of talented young people without whom its brainpower will dwindle and its Silicon Valley will dry up.

(Dr ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom: How much Can You Handle?)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

With a friend like China, who needs enemies?

Not easy sleeping with a friend like China

From The Statesman

China is not an easy country to deal with. Chinese diplomats are tough negotiators; they use whatever leverage they have and in the process create more opportunities for themselves, as the American, Australian and European experiences show.

On a recent visit to the United States, the Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi yielded not an inch in negotiation, not on the revaluation of the Chinese currency, Yuan, which gives China an undue advantage; not on trade surplus, which has ballooned to $232.5 billion last year; and not intellectual property, which costs Americans billion of dollars. The U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the former head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., who took over the job last year, believes that Chinese are more likely to respond to negotiations than to trade restrictions, and has refused to call them currency manipulators, hoping against hope that they would come around.
He instituted Strategic Economic Dialogue with China and the second meeting, which was held in Washington with Wu in May, produced no results regarding currency or any other economic issue. China has all the advantage, why should it give up anything? China is heavily invested in US Treasury notes, which enables Americans to get cheaper loans for buying home mortgages and Chinese goods.
The mounting trade surplus threatens American security and weakens American diplomatic power. China has developed tremendous leverage against the United States, which it uses to its advantage in trade negotiations and to exercise its influence in international conflicts, for example, Iran and Sudan.

China never hesitates to leverage trade advantages for political gains. Australia’s Trade Minister Warren Truss was quoted saying that free trade negotiation with Beijing have “become tortuous,” and insisted that regardless of trade Australia will “deplore abuses of human rights, wherever they occur in the world, even if those abuses occur in countries where we have a strong trading interest.” Chinese have raised serious objections about the current 11-day visit of the Dalai Lama to Australia, warning that the bilateral relations could be adversely affected. “We express our strong dissatisfaction and stern representations over Australia ignoring China and insisting on allowing the Dalai Lama to engage in activities in Australia,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
China is now Australia’s biggest trading partner and its most important commodity destination. So far Australia has not yielded to Chinese arm twisting. Keeping with the tradition of openness, Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer told Australian television: “China has a very different political system from Australia. I’ve asked the Chinese to respect the way our culture and our political system works. It’s just not a proposition for us to refuse to give someone like the Dalai Lama a visa to visit Australia.” Nonetheless, it is to be seen how long Australia can keep up with its rhetoric on China. Trade might trump decency one day.

China-European relations are entering a difficult phase after more than a decade of upsurge, according to David Shambaugh, Professor and Director, China Policy Program, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a fellow at The Brookings Institute. He wrote that the European Commission’s October 2006 white paper, Communication, regarding trade and investment, asked China to change its international behaviour, which included, among other things, requests to: “open its markets and ensure fair market competition”; “protect intellectual property rights”; “end forced technology transfers”; “stop granting prohibited subsidies”; “[ensure] more accountable government”; be more “results oriented with higher quality exchanges and concrete results” in the human rights dialogue; ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; enter into formal dialogue with the EU and “improve transparency” concerning aid policies in Africa; “maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. Although EU-China dialogue on Partnership and Cooperation Agreement has been continuing, nevertheless, according to Professor Shambaugh, “the EU documents do reflect a change in tone, substance, and approach to China from past precedent.” European Union has begun to take a more realistic look at Chinese trade aggressiveness and nationalistic mercantilism camouflaged as “China’s Peaceful Rise.”

Last week, Ma Ying-jeou, opposition Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate in Taiwan, visited India on an officially approved private visit. In the light of China’s blatant claim that Arunachal Pradesh - more than the total area of Ireland (and don’t forget Aksai Chin) - belongs to China, and denial of a visa to an IAS officer from the state, one among a hundred Indian officials purported to visit China, the Taiwan leader’s visit takes a diplomatic significance. It is time for India to understand Chinese soft-gloved aggressiveness and start building its own alliances. A former KMT chairman and a two-term mayor of Taipei, Ma met Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rajnath Singh, president of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, for wide-ranging talks. He also visited India’s IT technology centres stating that cooperation between India’s software industry with global pre-eminence and Taiwan’s prominence in computer hardware could be mutually beneficial.
Taiwan and India do not have official diplomatic relations but they have maintained business ties with trade amounting to $3 billion dollars, a pittance compared with the $100 billion between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. It is time for India-Taiwan relations to grow. “Certainly we appreciate the opportunity to come here, particularly as a candidate for the presidential election. This is a very sensitive role,” Ma said. “But on the other hand, I also appreciate the pragmatic attitude in doing that.” Taiwan needs breathing space and relations with India will serve both the countries. Mark his words in Delhi: “I stand for the Renaissance of Taiwan,” said Ma. “If Taiwan has to move forward it has to open up to the rest of the world including China,” he said.

In dealing with China, India cannot depend upon the generosity of “our greatest neighbour,” as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a spirit of irrational exuberance, in fact another form of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai-ism of the Nehruite era that led to the 1962 humiliations. Dr Singh is certainly well versed in Adam Smith but it is time for him to read Kautilya’s Arthashastra. India must develop diplomatic and economic leverages to negotiate with China, including building durable international alliances, strong missile defence deterrence, creative public diplomacy, and double-digit economic growth with special attention to north-eastern states, the neglected seven sisters.
(Dr ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University,USA)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Global Talent Hunt

Keeping global knowledge workers happy

From The Statesman

“It’s foolish to believe today that the smartest people are in one nation,” said Henning Kagermann, chief executive of SAP (Germany) in an interview with Steve Lohr of The New York Times. SAP has 3,000 software engineers in India.
And thank God there is no quota and reservation system in the private industry in India. A global company can select the best. But the question is how do you keep them since competition for headhunting is severe.

In a piece, Beyond the Information Revolution, published in The Atlantic Monthly (1999), Peter F Drucker, the management guru, said that “bribing knowledge workers,” who are leading the Information Revolution, with stock options and other incentives may in the long run prove nonproductive and even disastrous for the United States in the 21st century. We need to revamp the status of the class of workers who have many career choices.

A strange fate hit the Victorian England, where most of the technologies of the Industrial Revolution were developed, Drucker noted. Because of the British class system which valued a “gentleman” more than engineers, traders and entrepreneurs, the industrial leadership passed on to the United States and Germany as early as 1850s. England bred Cecil Rhodes, Robert Clive, East India Company (a trading rather than a manufacturing venture) and commercial banks but no venture capitalist, like JP Morgan in the United States, a person “who has the means and mentality to finance the unexpected and unproven.” Drucker’s observation about the 19th century England might be questionable, especially when you consider that with the crushing of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 (or the First War of Independence, as some Indians are calling it today), Britain had become the master of the world, almost. The British lords and ladies could not hug their sweaty traders and technologists into their bosoms; instead they sent them overseas to build an empire for her Majesty. Their “mental geography” had become a captive of the empire, not of the railroads as it had happened in the United States.

Drucker was right about the venture capitalist who has been mostly responsible for the information technology growth in the United States, though we should not forget the role of the federal government because initially The National Science Foundation and the Pentagon financed the development of the Internet. More than the venture capitalist and the blossoming e-commerce, it is the idea of the Internet — open standards and communal sharing of software — which has bred the Information Revolution.

Drucker wrote that at the heart of the Information Revolution is not the computer, which at best is a tool to routinise information processes; nor is it software, which is nothing but “the reorganization of traditional work, based on centuries of experience, through the application of knowledge and especially of systematic, logical analysis.” It is the creation of knowledge that is fueling the current wave of the Information Revolution. It is time to re-evaluate what social position knowledge workers should occupy and what recognition should be given to their value system. If the United States treats knowledge workers as England treated its engineers and traders, as social inferiors, the 21st century, warned Drucker, would be the beginning of its decline and fall.

About two decades ago, Paul M Kennedy of Yale issued a similar warning in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Economic Powers (1989) that since the United States had become a global cop and was spreading its economic resources too thinly, it too would meet the fate of the earlier imperial powers, which had declined by overextending themselves. But instead of economic and political decline, the United States has been going through one of the most unprecedented economic growth periods in human history.

And since Professor Kennedy’s forecasting, the US has continued to be the sole superpower with $13 trillion plus growing economy, in spite of terrorism and the Iraq war. Although it is important to study the past, history cannot predict the future.

The future economic growth, Drucker wrote, would not come from the booming stock market and Internet industry; rather from those industries where knowledge worker would be more important than the financier or the capitalist, such as in biotechnology where the gestation period is long and rewards for workers cannot be stock-market driven. He suggested that since “performance in these new knowledge industries will come to depend upon running the institution so as to attract, hold, and motivate knowledge workers,” we have to do something else, something symbolic. Call knowledge workers “fellow executives and partners.”

But the problem will not go away with symbolic gestures. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tamara J Erickson, the president of the Concourse Group (Boston) and Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, recognised that finding and retaining top talent is tough. Companies must communicate to their highly mobile footloose employees, “what it means to work here,” by providing them “signature experience,” something more than compensation schemes, health care benefits, “a visible, distinctive element of an organisation’s overall employee experience.” It is “bringing distinctiveness to life,” along with attractive salary and fringe benefits that can “dramatically improve employee engagement and performance” and also retain them.
Nonetheless, in the knowledge hubs of the 21st century there will be “hired workers.” You may call them principals and partners and give them flexible work hours or freedom to work-wherever-you-go with BlackBerrys, iPhones and wireless laptops. But there will still be the need for command and control and the need for a corporate vision that holds global knowledge creators together in a digital beehive. To paraphrase JM Barrie, the Scottish playwright, there will always be hewers of wood and drawers of water from the digital well.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, USA)
http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0742555747&thepassedurl=[thepassedurl

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Amidst the eternal bonfire: Tagore

Thou Hast Made Me Endless
Part-IV

From RAJAT DAS GUPTA
Calcutta
rajarch@cal3.vsnl.net.in


Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941 AD) the Nobel Laureate of 1913 was introduced to the West primarily through the collection of English translation of some of his poems/songs captioned as ‘Gitanjali’ (=Offering of Songs).More translations of his works followed by the poet himself and others after he had won the Nobel, including poems/songs, dramas, short stories etc. However, such efforts were sporadic and sluggish, mostly on individual initiative, which still remain so.As a result, a vast volume of the poet’s works remains un-translated while, it appears, it is an impossible proposition to translate even a substantial part of the poet’s total works to permit those, not privileged by the knowledge of Bengali language, a reasonably broad view of his myriad creations where unfathomable perceptional depth of top grade aesthetics runs through, literally true to his song “Thou hast made me endless / Such is Thy pleasure”.Notwithstanding this, an upsurge of Tagore translation took place in the last decade of the twentieth century by virtue of a good number of eminent poets/translators e.g. William Radice, Joe Winter, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, to name a few, all of whom left their valuable contribution to this oeuvre and my book THE ECLIPSED SUN is a modest addition to this. I have put stress on a few aspects of the poet’s works, particularly those in his twilight years, which seemed to me quite inadequately covered so far. The followings are presented mostly based on this book. Poem No: 5 of the book Janmadine (On My Birthday) written in April 1940, shortly before the Poet’s death in 1941

[Translator’s note: The two visions of the Poet that may be noted in this poem are, the cosmic origin of man’s existence and his progress for a supreme goal as an international community, both being the intent of the Creator and both of which we miss in our mundane life. He never lost sight of this panorama even amidst his severe ailments for quite long before his demise when he wrote this poem. He reveals this broadness of vision in his book Viswa Bharati (=World University) while explaining this objective of education in his University (chapter 6 of the book) as follows –
“ I know, to work up such an attitude in our students’ mind is a great object. That man has been born in a vast family in this earth with such a great heritage – orientation toward this perception should be firm. In these miserable days of our country, object of education to many is a job. This deprives us of the treasures of the world, stifling the link of Anandam (Heavenly joy) with mankind as a whole. But man must know where is his right. Just as he has to harmonize his mind with nature, so he should for a union with the entire mankind.
……that is why in their search for knowledge humans are rushing to the North Pole, to the interior of Adrica accepting unbearable pain and even risking life. In search of work, wisdom and idea, they have taken rugged paths. They have known ‘Bhumeba Sukham’ [i.e. Man’s happiness lies on the paths of pain- Upanishada (ancient Indian scripture in Sanskrit language)]. We, in our country, have forgotten this and so we have crippled our soul within our narrow objectives for a limited living.
While establishing this University, at the outset I thought of liberating our students from their narrow outlook and cowardice. The Ganges, that has originated at the mountain top, flows through various lands and its water may be put to small and big purposes. Similarly, the knowledge that springs from the heights of human perceptions, directed towards the infinite along various directions perennially, should not be confined within narrow limits of our personal interests; but we should take dip in it for our ablution where it is boundless in its universal dimension.
‘sa tapohatapyata sa tapostapta idam sarbamasrijita yadidam kincha’ i.e. ‘the Creator is on meditation to create everything’ (Upanishada). His meditation is inherent in every atom and molecule and so there is continuous friction, rush of energy and ceaseless orbiting among those. Man’s meditation too flows along with the Creator’s and he is not a mere onlooker. Because, Man is also a creator and his main mission is creation. That he piles up is not his best revelation, which is in his sacrifice and there is his true self. That is why God’s universal seat of meditation is also his. Man is a sage which he is to appreciate and must perceive as truth all the dedications of everybody of every time and of every country.”]

As the eightieth year I enter
Of my life, it is my wonder –
The silent millions of stars –
Their ceaseless showers
Rush in bewildering speed
The infinite space, aimlessly to feed.

Within that boundless dark
My existence abruptly did spark
Amidst the eternal bonfire
In the chain of centuries never to tire.
In that earth I did appear, where
At the seabed from the swamps mere
On the vast lap of the inanimate
Life in slimes did vibrate
In its myriad branches to flower
To divulge its profound wonder.
The dusk of inchoate existence held firm
A stupor for ages on the animaldom;
On whose meditation
At countless days’ and nights’ completion
Appeared in slow pace
Man in life’s stage with his grace?
Lamps lit up there one by one
Newer significance to earn;
Amidst vast illumination
Man observes his future in brilliant revelation.

On this earth’s stage
To evince from age to age
Act by act, Man’s wisdom
There I too did come
As that drama’s performer
Along with many a other.
I too had my role
That curtain to up roll;
That is my marvel utmost-
Mother Earth that does host
The heavenly soul;
For what goal-
In her sky, light, air,
Soil, seas and mounts bear
What deep resolve
Around the Sun to revolve?
Stitched in that mysterious string
On this Earth I did spring
Eighty years ago,
A few more to go.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Poem: To Bloom [Phool Fotano in Bengali by Rabindranathnath Tagore from his book ‘Kheya’ (Ferry) (1906-1907 period)].

[Translator’s note: However much man may try to emulate God in creating beautiful things, his creations can never match God’s. The seemingly simplest entity in God’s animate world (and even the inanimate one)), is an object of wonder, a flower being exemplary thereof which manifests from God’s meditation for it over ages. The pragmatists may try to explain this phenomenon by Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution’ or like dogmas to gauge this unfathomable mystery of creation, yet, at the back of their mind they know –
“…..The path of Thy creation
Thou have strewn with deception….”

There may never be dearth of braggarts to beguile themselves with the belief that man has caught up with God, if not for anything else, but at least for his ability to-day to ‘clone’ even a human being, what to speak of a lamb or flower! This complacence notwithstanding, the fact is, the great feat of ‘cloning’ wholly stands on the biological base evolved by God over eternity, which man can never brush aside to start from the scratch. Man is simply a captive to the Arcanum of God’s creative process, being its infinitesimal bye product, thus ever incapable to perceive the whole of it, though often with height of audacity that he is God’s peer, maybe to His amusement. So, all brilliance of man notwithstanding, in whichever field, the poet’s ‘no confidence’ in man, as this poem depicts, is hardly belied.]

Bloom you can’t,
None of you –
Verbose however,
Despite all endeavor,
All your flaunt,
Passions day and night
And strokes at the stalk
With all your might,
None, with all your power
Can bloom a flower.

With your relentless sight
Its tenderness you may blight,
Its bunches you may tear apart
In dust to smart.
Amidst your babel
If its lips will reveal
Its hue and fragrance
Will not radiate thence.
So, by no means oh man,
Flowering a bud you can.

But, He who can bloom
Does as His boon –
Only opens His eyes
And, as their ray lies
On the bud there,
Spells of animation bare;
So, He who can bloom,
Of His own can groom
The flower tender
With all its wonder.
At His breath, in an instant,
The flower does bend,
Poised for a flight
Stretching its wings light
Of the leaves
As the wind heaves.
With d├ęcor of many a hue
Pining for a passionate clue
How one to entice –
Spreads its fragrance nice.
He who can bloom a flower,
At ease graces the bower.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Being virtual, being everywhere, being nowhere

Teaching in a virtual world

The Statesman

Virtual teaching has made me a global teacher, though not necessarily a great one. My graduate students are scattered all over, in Africa, North America, Asia and Europe. I am in touch with them all the time in cyberspace.

A report about technology and pedagogy said not long ago that older professors are resistant to technology and feel stressed by it. It is true, I do feel stressed, especially when the system breaks down and vendors keep pushing newer software. Not everyone perceives an overwhelming advantage to student learning by thrusting information technology in the classroom, when simple lecturing can do equally well.

Of the various instructional methods used for teaching by American professors, the use of computer-aided instruction especially at undergraduate level is limited to PowerPoint or video primarily to break the monotony of a long lecture. No one has come up with an equally good alternative to classroom lecture-discussion method that has been at the heart of 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 and performances.

Having used PowerPoint for quite sometime, I personally feel that its excessive use can be a barrier to engaging students in class. Some students positively resent the technology because it tends to limit exchange of ideas.

Why do I lecture in class?
Partly it is to establish intellectual relationship with students even if the same material may be available in the textbook. Sometime there is no alternative to lecturing especially when a tough topic and fundamentals have to be explained. It is also true that students do not learn only from the textbook, otherwise teachers won’t be needed. When the textbook along 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, weekly essay assignments, and the stimulus of quizzes, mid-term and final examinations.

Internet online courses and software programs being advocated by publishers on American campuses are no doubt posing some fundamental questions about our traditional teaching methods. Along with classroom discussion, in which some students, especially girls, hesitate to participate, I have personally found that students very enthusiastically participate in online discussion. Many of them express themselves freely if one encourages free style discussion, de-emphasising grammar and style for the time being.

Online discussion creates a level playing field between the extrovert and the shy type. Of course students and professors miss a lot when there are no face-to-face encounters, dramatic moments which occasionally result in witticism, humour and other minor confrontations that enhance teaching and learning and make the dialogue such a joy. Information technology causes stress on the campus, simply because no one can always keep up at the cutting edge of technology. Even younger faculty members who have grown up with the Internet feel stressed due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly. Instead of keeping ahead in their academic fields, professors are expected to master newer technology every now and then. In contrast, the chalkboard has lasted for hundreds of years. If a colourful presentation using PowerPoint does not lead to a lively discussion, it is of no use.

A mathematics professor might not feel comfortable teaching abstract concepts online to his undergraduates. It would be quite a task to explain to online students, for example, the scientific mystery of black holes, or the string theory. But in this age of abundant technological choices, when everything is being customised, the question is whether college instructions too can be made to fit the abilities and aptitude of each student.

Can information technology help us in treating different students with personalised teaching methods to enhance the learning process for a generation that is growing up with virtual games, iPods, Facebook, MySapce and Second Life?

Here are some of the random anecdotal reactions to online teaching I culled from an online discussion about online teaching:
Teaching online requires a different attitude because communication between students and teachers is asynchronous.
Many adult students find working on their own time a great advantage.
If one teaches exclusively online, it is likely to isolate one from the scholarly community.
How to get your point across without facial gestures and vocal cues is a challenge. The classroom animation, the thrill of being with students is absent online.
Lecturing is performance and some of us become teachers because it gives us a sense of participation in the learning process. Physical presence and face-to-face meetings can bring out the best in students.
Engaging students and encouraging them to do things online on their own can be a problem. The adrenaline rush that one feels in the class when there is something unexpected, the laughter, the body language and voice inflection, and the instant feedback including sleeping and yawning, all are absent in the virtual classroom.
Since most of virtual teaching has to be done through the written word, writing should be exciting and must kindle the imagination.
How to bring one’s personality into the virtual classroom is the real challenge.
And remember, admonishes a colleague, virtual communication is never lost in cyberspace. So one has to be very careful while communication with students, especially in this politically correct age.
ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom

Being Virtual

Teaching in a virtual world




Virtual teaching has made me a global teacher, though not necessarily a great one. My graduate students are scattered all over, in Africa, North America, Asia and Europe. I am in touch with them all the time in cyberspace


A report about technology and pedagogy said not long ago that older professors are resistant to technology and feel stressed by it. It is true, I do feel stressed, especially when the system breaks down and vendors keep pushing newer software. Not everyone perceives an overwhelming advantage to student learning by thrusting information technology in the classroom, when simple lecturing can do equally well.


Of the various instructional methods used for teaching by American professors, the use of computer-aided instruction especially at undergraduate level is limited to PowerPoint or video primarily to break the monotony of a long lecture. No one has come up with an equally good alternative to classroom lecture-discussion method that has been at the heart of 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 and performances. Having used PowerPoint for quite sometime, I personally feel that its excessive use can be a barrier to engaging students in class.


Some students positively resent the technology because it tends to limit exchange of ideas. Why do I lecture in class? Partly it is to establish intellectual relationship with students even if the same material may be available in the textbook. Sometime there is no alternative to lecturing especially when a tough topic and fundamentals have to be explained. It is also true that students do not learn only from the textbook, otherwise teachers won’t be needed. When the textbook along 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, weekly essay assignments, and the stimulus of quizzes, mid-term and final examinations.


Internet online courses and software programs being advocated by publishers on American campuses are no doubt posing some fundamental questions about our traditional teaching methods. Along with classroom discussion, in which some students, especially girls, hesitate to participate, I have personally found that students very enthusiastically participate in online discussion. Many of them express themselves freely if one encourages free style discussion, de-emphasising grammar and style for the time being.


Online discussion creates a level playing field between the extrovert and the shy type. Of course students and professors miss a lot when there are no face-to-face encounters, dramatic moments which occasionally result in witticism, humour and other minor confrontations that enhance teaching and learning and make the dialogue such a joy. Information technology causes stress on the campus, simply because no one can always keep up at the cutting edge of technology. Even younger faculty members who have grown up with the Internet feel stressed due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly. Instead of keeping ahead in their academic fields, professors are expected to master newer technology every now and then.


In contrast, the chalkboard has lasted for hundreds of years. If a colourful presentation using PowerPoint does not lead to a lively discussion, it is of no use. A mathematics professor might not feel comfortable teaching abstract concepts online to his undergraduates. It would be quite a task to explain to online students, for example, the scientific mystery of black holes, or the string theory. But in this age of abundant technological choices, when everything is being customised, the question is whether college instructions too can be made to fit the abilities and aptitude of each student. Can information technology help us in treating different students with personalised teaching methods to enhance the learning process for a generation that is growing up with virtual games, iPods, Facebook, MySapce and Second Life?


Here are some of the random anecdotal reactions to online teaching I culled from an online discussion about online teaching:


Teaching online requires a different attitude because communication between students and teachers is asynchronous. Many adult students find working on their own time a great advantage.


If one teaches exclusively online, it is likely to isolate one from the scholarly community. How to get your point across without facial gestures and vocal cues is a challenge. The classroom animation, the thrill of being with students is absent online. Lecturing is performance and some of us become teachers because it gives us a sense of participation in the learning process. Physical presence and face-to-face meetings can bring out the best in students.


Engaging students and encouraging them to do things online on their own can be a problem. The adrenaline rush that one feels in the class when there is something unexpected, the laughter, the body language and voice inflection, and the instant feedback including sleeping and yawning, all are absent in the virtual classroom.


Since most of virtual teaching has to be done through the written word, writing should be exciting and must kindle the imagination. How to bring one’s personality into the virtual classroom is the real challenge.


And remember, admonishes a colleague, virtual communication is never lost in cyberspace. So one has to be very careful while communication with students, especially in this politically correct age.


ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom.