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Story of the month: How to make the most of this digital opportunity?

Vagish Jha

Even though the overall situation seems to be limping back to normalcy, a sense of uncertainty is still writ large on the face of our times. The schools are gearing up to open in a phased manner. The Third Wave, experts say, is about to knock our doors. Future is always unknown. But when the present gets into a turmoil, incertitude about the future deepens further. The tension, you would agree, is palpable. The school community in general is looking forward into a haze trying to make sense. Let us draw attention to three areas that need to be highlighted as we tread cautiously into what is known as the ‘new normal’ of the digital teaching-learning ecosystem.

The first area is the tension between new tools and old practices. As COVID-19 struck like a Tsunami, the schools woke up quickly after the initial daze. Teachers valiantly faced the laptops and mobiles and taught like they did in their physical classes. They did what they knew; teach face-to-face. Much water has flown into the Ganges since then. 16 months plus in the vortex, today we have gained several crucial insights.

One of the most prominent ones has been that using old practices with new tools does not work. Though some of us are still in denial, hoping to keep doing the old way without recognizing that the world of education has changed around us, we need to remind ourselves of what the great educational philosopher John Dewey[1] said: “The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. Continuity of life means continual readaptation of the environment to the needs of living organisms.” Teaching, therefore, needs to re-adapt because our teaching must reflect and connect with how our students learn today. More importantly, it needs to resonate with the world students will emerge into. So, to go back to the old ways would be to ‘rob them of tomorrow’. But what does this mean?

This brings us to the second important aspect. We need to remember that technology is a tool to achieve certain goals. It is not a panacea. This simply means that technology must service the learning model. To think of augmenting digital infrastructure alone without a cogently worked out plan in place for how it’s to be deployed or what new teaching-learning approaches it would support, will be infructuous. We also need to be clear that technology is not just the carrier. Using technology to amplify the way face-to-face teaching happens is to squander the opportunity provided by the digital environment.

It also needs to be emphasized here that this argument is being used to suggest that technology alone is sufficient to manage the teaching learning. This, even if theoretically and practically possible, will not go in the interest of the overall purpose of education. Let it be clearly stated here that technology cannot substitute schools or replace teachers. Schools and teachers play a much greater role than just providing a physical space. Those envisaging the future to be an AI-led education need to pay heed to what Brian Christian calls the ‘alignment problem’. In his latest book by the same name, he brilliantly sums up the scenario of us being reduced to ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’[2] with an unhindered growth of machine learning. An entirely AI based education can solve the problem of intelligence but leaves gaping holes in critical and affective areas. Schools and teachers play a crucial role here. Thus, the way forward is to think in terms of “teachers and technology” and realise that tech-enabled solutions create greater impact only when adopted and effectively infused in the process of teaching by the teachers.

This third aspect follows from this. It is a question that many may find strange before giving it a proper thought – Are you using the tool or is the tool using you? Most of the talk about building teacher’s capacity revolves around giving them the knowledge of how to use certain digital tools for online teaching. In this perspective there are two inherent assumptions. One, a teacher is looked at as a mere consumer of some technological tools and platforms. Second, a teacher is just a transmission or delivery agent.

The sudden disruption caused by the pandemic has created an unprecedented pressure on teachers to prove themselves. This pressure to keep themselves relevant has resulted in a child-like enthusiasm of using a ‘new toy’ of digital tools handed over to them or grabbed by them. Nationwide, or perhaps globally, teachers are on a spree of ‘creating’ lessons using one or the other digital tool and sharing them with students on the available platforms. Schools, in their eagerness to prove that they are firmly riding the digital bandwagon, flaunt that their teachers have created YouTube tube channels of lessons on various subjects. There is a glut of such basic digital resources produced by umpteenth number of teachers – more of the same or similar kinds. We tried to test this by typing ‘Newton’s law of motion’ on YouTube and got 6,96,000 results. The ‘Indus Valley civilization’ threw up 2,19,000 results (on 15th July, 2021 at 12.16 pm).

Just look for the data on how much content is being created on YouTube?[3] As per one report, “The number of video content hours uploaded to YouTube every 60 seconds grew by 40% between 2014 and 2019.” It would have multiplied exponentially when the entire teaching community got on to the YouTube band wagon. But where are the figures? It is a telling example of how much of the ‘latest’ information one can find on the internet!

Given this, there are some crucial questions to ask. If we already have so much resources on content areas already available, why are we creating more of the same? Another important aspect is that as teachers go on creating these resources two crucial questions are not being asked: Do you do what a tool allows you to do? Or, you decide to select a tool to do what you want to do? The fact is that by using a new tool like a new toy, we end up creating something basic which depends on the type of tool used and how much we know about how to use that tool. The level of one’s proficiency with a tool constrains the quality and nature of creation.

Another related question that needs to be asked about this process is that – Is there any pedagogical innovation happening? Most unlikely. The main focus of a teacher is to learn the basic functioning of a digital tool or the platform. Teachers would be able to do what a tool will allow them to do or what they know to do with this tool. Constant and fast upgradation in tools and platforms also needs them to be on their toes and well informed to exploit the full potential offered by the tool. The most important loss in this process is that the pedagogical advantage a teacher may otherwise have, gets diluted while using a digital tool under duress or even out of curiosity.

In the end, there is a pertinent question to ask. In such extraordinary situations, where a teacher is stressed about conducting online classes, what is important is not so much about how to create YouTube videos or share them on WhatsApp but whether a teacher has the abilities by which an existing resource can be used, modified or adapted effectively. Rather than trying to tell them how to use ‘Google Meet’ or Zoom, the focus needs to be on honing the digital pedagogy. It is the process of technological infusion where pedagogical priorities lead to decisions on which tool to use for achieving the goals of the lesson. Otherwise, most of a teacher’s attention goes in managing the ‘digital monster’ rather than achieving the purpose of education, one of which is achieving the learning outcomes.

It would be great to hear from you on these thoughts to take advantage of the digital opportunity that the pandemic has presented to us. So do write to us with your views on this article and we will publish it in our upcoming issue.

[1] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Aakar Books, First Published, 1915, Indian Edition, 2004.

[2] “As machine-learning systems grow not just increasingly pervasive but increasingly powerful, we will find ourselves more and more often in the position of the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’: we conjure a force, autonomous but totally compliant, give it a set of instructions, then scramble like mad to stop it once we realize our instructions are imprecise or incomplete—lest we get, in some clever, horrible way, precisely what we asked for.”
Brian Christian, The Alignment Problem, Machine Learning and Human values, A Norton Professional Book, 2020, Page 19-20

[3] As per Statista, “As of May 2019, more than 500 hours of videos were uploaded to YouTube every minute. This equates to approximately 30,000 hours of newly uploaded content per hour.” Surprise is not the volume but the period for which the data is available. This is pre-COVID data. It is interesting to note that the official blog of YouTube  also talks of the same figure – “YouTube has more than two billion monthly users around the world, and 500 hours of video uploaded every minute”. And, this is not the latest figure, by the way. This Blog cited above was written by Susan Wojcicki, CEO YouTube, on Feb.14.2020.