Phase Change – The changing language of education.

My friend Brin has a beautiful young daughter – we call her Boo. Boo’s 6 years old now, and truly is one of the gentlest, most giving souls any of us could ever meet.

One of my earliest memories of Boo, was when she was a precocious 3year old tyke. As a whole bunch of us late 20s early 30s folk watched, she got pretty damn good at Need For Speed on my laptop . Admittedly, she got help – Brin dutifully pressed down the accelerator as she steered. But  it was still surreal – watching …well, this baby become adept at a “technology” which many adults can’t master.

A few months ago, my student groups had to give presentations on any one entertainment entity. Through fairly competent ppts, I heard about bullfighting, Amitabh, Indie record labels, and anime characters. The final group (thank god for the rest that they were last) decided to present on Kamal Hassan. And they did it in a novel way. They took one of his seminal scenes from Nayakan, and “reshot “ it in a slightly funny way. After 75 minutes of presentations, this group was like a breath of fresh air. We all broke out into a spontaneous standing O. No marks for guessing who topped.

You can find more videos by these students HERE

The funny thing is, all of us have these stories, about youngsters who are amazingly proactive and confident in using technology that scares the rest of us. Many of us may have even enlisted the help of a youngster to help us in a complicated “digital task”. Some of us just look on in wonder, unable to quite grasp what is going on.

An educator’s task is to prepare his students for a future that no one fully understands, a future that changes much faster than we give it credit for. You tube didn’t even exist 5 years ago. When I finished my MBA in 2002, there was no facebook, no youtube, hardly any Wikipedia, no twitter. Hardly any cellphones had cameras on them, nearly 2/3rds of  the currently 1400 television channels didn’t even exist!

Lets flash forward to the life of an 18year old in 2015. Born in 1997, this youngster will never have experienced a life without internet or cellphones. He will not nostalgically remember when there was just one tv channel, when the world stopped on Sunday mornings. He will truly not be aware that all this is  a “new medium”/ “cutting edge technology”.  After all, Technology is only Technology for those who were born before it was invented. How many of us still marvel at the miracle that is television?

Is this 18 year old significantly different than me when I was a teenager? Does his capacity to receive and process information differ significantly to mine? How should I as a teacher best evolve my teaching practices to take into account this shift? What are we educating for? And what is the best way to teach?

Until now, it was quite clear. The education system, especially one inherited by the the british, was built to create a capable workforce to power the Industrial Revolution. Hence we needed Engineers, Scientists, Managers at the top and skilled (but not independent) labour at the bottom. Our teaching therefore was very left brain oriented, and required you to follow instructions, not to be “creative”.

The future belongs to a different revolution, The future is an Informational Age.  The skills that we as educators need to provide our students may not necessarily be the same as those required earlier. At the same time, how our students learn is also changing.

Marc Prensky is an exciting entity in the area of education in the US. He’s been studying the impact of digital media and technology on learning processes of children.  He has coined a phrase that describes these youngsters well – digital natives. It is a concept that we, the digital “immigrants” need to understand to avoid being further “disconnected” to them than we already are.

We, the digital immigrants were a serious bunch. We had controlled access to and limited sources of information. We did things one thing at a time, were most comfortable with reading text, and took our learning seriously.

The digital native is a curious creature.  And when I describe him to my class, I see my students’ heads bobbing strongly in agreement. He has rapid, and random access to multiple information sources. He enjoys doing many things at the same time, and much prefers audiovisual stuff to text. For him, learning is nearly like a video game – he wants immediate rewards, and does not take the “learning” process that seriously – for him, he will only learn if it is “fun” not if it is “important”.

For us immigrants the web is, at best , a tool. For the natives, it is their oxygen, a basic requirement to exist. We may think highly of ourselves because unlike our parents, we feel free to switch jobs. The digital native goes further – he is on a continual aim to reinvent himself. We may feel that authority comes from higher ups in a hierarchy, or maybe we are unimpressed by the bosses. The digital native is clear – he sees himself as an expert.

And when he needs to turn to his community for assistance, it is not simply among a local group – this native is comfortably connected to people across geographical boundries, and he will get help from wherever he needs it. And will do it in his own time (usually post midnight it seems), and at his own pace (often lightning fast), and heaven forbid you don’t keep up.

The digital natives are coming. And they will triumph, despite us.  If we do not give them what they want, they will get it from somewhere else. It is up to us, the immigrant educators in this new land, to change our pedagogy, or become irrelevant. We as teachers must not be afraid of learning new things. My students helped me build course blogs and participated enthusiastically in them. I made it a point to use a lot of video references in class. We even skyped with Charlie, creator of “Charlie is so cool like” on youtube. If the tools are there, use them!

Admittedly, India’s position in the educational space is different to the US. Kapil Sibal has rightly pointed out the various steps our government must take in the next few years. But while these steps are being taken, it is also important to take stock of how we’re teaching our students now. I have a lot of “digital native” students on my twitter timeline, and it is saddening to hear their anguished tweets from inside a classroom where they feel bored, unimpressed, unengaged. If india ever wants to be seen as a thought leader, rather than merely as a “callcenter” facilitator, it is these students that will take the lead. They are the vanguard of our revolution and their teachers are failing them.

We cannot assume the future to be merely a linear extension of the past. We are approaching what physicists call a “Phase Change”, a shift from one stable state to another. And physics teaches us that as we approach this critical point, we should prepare for increasing turbulence.

It is our task, as teachers, to provide our students with the right tools to navigate within this turbulence. What we have seen in the last decade is merely the tip of the iceberg. The next 30-40 years will be a time of great adjustment as an entire global economy shifts its foundations. The future will belong to those who have the skills to surf this wave of change.

When Ken Robinson speaks, we cant but help listen to him – so listen.

I for one, embrace this change wholeheartedly. I may not be a digital native, I may speak with a distinct online “accent”, but I know that this is the place I want to be.


About Tarun

Joker, smoker, midnight toker. Teacher, writer, general gadabout
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6 Responses to Phase Change – The changing language of education.

  1. Neha says:

    I actually agree with what all you said. We, as students, too are digital immigrants, not natives, I guess! But yeah, each passing year seems like a generation of change. Things are changing so fast that probably the reality in few years will surpass even our imagination of today. But one thing is for sure, the drive to find a way to deal with the future definitely gives brilliant ways to deal with the present. Case in point being the UDE and BoE blogs, as you pointed out. And it’s not only adapting to the technological advances, but also letting the students get a feel of the learning process in a more inclusive way. We know what we learn is what we see, and vice-versa; we know what we are learning is not just bookish (literally!!) but also practical; we know what we learn is real, not some vague concepts that we might never use in our real life!!! And to sum the argument up, I personally appreciate whatever you did for the courses, and can say it quite confidently that those blogs contributed to my learning more than anything else. For, strength of the collective and the wisdom of the crowd cannot be surpassed!

  2. Anvaya says:

    Totally agree with you that at least the Indian education system needs a change, the demands facing kids today are different and with new avenues opening up on the career front (not just engineers, doctors, CAs and MBAs), there is a need to figure out better teaching methods too. However, some schools are still on the traditional pattern. Case in point in my son’s holiday homework for LKG, he goes to a CBSE school. It says he needs to stick pictures of items in a first aid kit, on chart paper. At 3 years, he does not understand what a first aid kit is, nor is he going to administer bandages and ointments on himself/others. It means, I need to make it for him. What does HE learn from it? Absolutely nothing! I don’t know whether they are judging MY ability to use google images and figure out the items, or my efficiency in cutting and sticking!
    Just thought I would share this with you

  3. Annamalai says:

    I think this blog post is targeted at teachers yet speaking entirely in the lingo of students.. And I think thats pretty much the point.. Kudos on that one ! And thanks for featuring our video too.. 🙂

  4. feedkoko says:

    I’ve heard the term “digital natives” before: from a lecturer struggling to implement the ideas you’re putting across here. He’s discovered that a consequence of “diverse technology” is diverse learning styles. He’s putting together an elaborate online system which tries to adapt itself to the student’s ability and learning style.

    Kudos for being foresighted on this one. Hope your visions take us far 🙂

  5. Pingback: What do you expect out of education « Collectivity

  6. Pingback: What should we expect out of education? « Collectivity

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