Education of a Techno-savvy Child: Opportunities and Threats
A. N. Maheshwari
With the developments in science and technology each generation considers itself more technology-savvy than its preceding generation. In support of this statement I will like to point out a few landmark technological developments of the 20th century, which influenced life style substantially and turned out to be turning points in human civilisation. In 1927 Charles Lindberg made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic and opened for mankind a new mode of travel that too by air. Romance of going around the world in eighty days which was a fictional lore in the 19th century was lost when it became possible to go round the globe within 24 hours. The jet age generation thought that it was more techno-savvy than its preceding generation, which travelled by sea for going from one continent to another. In 1969 Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin clambered out of the Lunar Module of their Apollo 11 spacecraft onto the surface of the moon and the possibility of another new mode of travelling that too in space instead of in air opened up for the mankind. We are yet to have a space age generation. The generation of the last quarter of the 20th century thought that it was most scientifically and technologically advanced than its preceding generations, as it used atomic energy instead of thermal or hydroelectricity and microprocessor based devices instead of transistor based consumer electronics. With the developments in microelectronics and satellite based communications, computers entered in our homes and at our work places and computers began to be used by every one with basic ICT literacy. Computers began to be used more for document creation, communication, commerce and governance than for computation.
The world has entered the information age. The information age generation uses e-mail instead of snail-mail, Internet and cell phone for communication instead of landline telephone. Geostationary satellites, instead of terrestrial network of microwave towers or the ionosphere, relay the TV and radio signals. Interestingly, with advancement in technologies each new generation of computers have faster processing speed, are supported with more powerful application software, but are less expensive than the preceding generation of hardware and software which they replace. As a consequence computers are becoming increasingly available to vast segment of world’s population that too at affordable price. In the information age the nature of occupations has drastically changed and the life style of the information generation significantly differs from that of the 20th century generation. In such a context the assertion that the present generation is far more technology-savvy than all the previous generations is accepted without any demur. Parents take pride in acknowledging that their children are far more techno-savvy than them and they expect them to use technology in their lives far more than what they did. They want schools to provide e-learning to their children and the content and the process of education to be made more relevant for coping with the future changes in life style and nature of occupations. The developments in science and technology are rapid and even expert futurologists cannot forecast what technologies will be there in 2010, what to talk of 2030, and what will be the job requirements then. Parents, therefore, want the schooling process for their children to be now geared around generic abilities such as learning how to learn, lifelong learning, problem solving, creative thinking, inter-personal relations and learning to be, which are the attributes of knowledge workers.
In such a context it is not surprising that not only in our country but globally the concept of school as an institution and the nature of schooling are found to be at the crossroads. For taking school education forward from the crossroads and for determining the new direction for the schooling process, particularly, for meeting the especial needs of techno-savvy children, what is required is that parents, teachers, principals, teacher educators, educationists and professionals from different walks of life do brainstorming on education and for considering it holistically. As bad invariably comes along with good, new ICT based opportunities for teaching-learning, ideally suited for child- centred education, are not value neutral and have been perceived by parents and teachers alike as threats to the emotional and mental development of children of impressionable age. Easy access to uncensored online and offline information is viewed with the proverbial concern of placing a sharp edged knife in the hands of a child. A knife in the hands of a surgeon is a surgical instrument for saving life and in the hands of a dehumanised person can become a murder weapon. Parents and teachers are worried about how children will use information readily available in the public domain of the World Wide Web, as it is found to contain more objectionable material than sound educational material. They want safeguards to be provided to their children for protecting them against all that is negative and base. The question to be answered is whether teachers and parents should monitor closely at school and at home what their children do with the computer or can children be enabled with power of self-defence by developing in them voice of conscience through interventions such as programmes for personality development, value-oriented education, so that they are able to resist temptation of falling into traps put up by the adult generation.
Before I proceed further with my understanding of education in the information age and that too with focus on education of a techno-savvy child, I would like to reiterate the cliché that mere availability of technology does not result in learning. A pencil and a piece of paper or a word processor are tools only and mere access to them may not result in creative writing ability. The ability to write a poem or to draw a picture or to solve a problem indicates the quality of mental faculties. A multimedia computer can facilitate a child in drawing a picture using more enriched colours and hues than those that can be created with a paintbrush and handful of colours. But for this to happen the child has to possess artistic talent, creativity and hand-mind co-ordination. For constructing knowledge, for acquiring competencies and abilities, child requires input of learning experiences best suited to his/her learning style, which only a teacher can provide. This is why the role of a teacher in the learning of his/her pupils will always be indispensable, no matter howsoever-advanced learning technologies may become available. Technology can never replace the role of a teacher or that of the curriculum in achieving the learning objectives by the children.
I now turn to the new opportunities for learning based on ICT that have become available to a techno-savvy child, how to use them effectively in arranging child-centred learning, and how to take care of their negative influence on the development of child’s personality. This brings me to the concept of smart education. Smart education is a schooling process based on the belief that each child is capable of learning, which can be achieved by using appropriate technology. The smart education is based on individual learning styles, which may be as diverse as the number of children we have. We have a kaleidoscope of learning styles, as each child possesses its unique learning style. This hypothesis on nature of learning draws its support from the theory of multiple intelligences. According to it each child is endowed with varying capacities for different intelligences such as linguistic or verbal, logical-mathematical, spatial or visual, musical, kinaesthetic, inter-personal, intra-personal etc. Once we accept the concept of multiple intelligences the logical corollary is that each child is a unique learner. So what is required to be done by schools is to arrange learner-centred education. Each child likes to tell her teacher that when I am not able to learn the way you teach, why don’t you teach me the way I like to learn.
The recent developments in information and communication technologies such as the Internet and the multimedia computers have made it possible, at least, in principle, to customise learning experiences best suited to the learning style of each child. Smart education is a paradigm shift from teacher-centric education to learner-centric education, as it recognises the sovereignty of the learner and provides autonomy to the learner. Teacher becomes a navigator to child’s learning. As a navigator, teacher is expected to chart out different learning routes using the information superhighway or other learning resources, but the child, the captain of her ship of learning, will have the final say in the selection of the learning route. It should be realised that even the most advanced computer is merely an electronic device with capacity for storing vast data and processing it at mind boggling speed, but only as per the instructions of programmers. It is devoid of intelligence. Computer cannot carry out any operation other than what it is programmed to perform. In contrast the brain of a child possesses intelligence. It is capable of thinking and of taking independent decisions. A CD-Rom costing about Rs 20 can store 650 megabytes of information. The best illustration of the capacity of storing information on an external device is the Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-Rom. A pair of CD-Rom contains full text of the 36-volume set of the Encyclopaedia and in addition multimedia graphics. So, it would be a colossal misuse of human brain if children were made to limit its use for memorising vast amounts of information or are forced to carry out learning tasks mechanically. Therefore, the challenge before the educational system now is to ensure that the brain of a child is used in developing mental faculties by carrying out tasks involving higher cognitive processes and is not strained in memorising facts or in storing redundant information.
I now come to the changed ambience of schools that offer smart education. Nearly five years ago, I visited a school near Melbourne, which was one of the three navigator schools in the State of Victoria. Before my visit to that school I had not seen computers placed in corridors and in classrooms. In that school there were more than 500 computers connected in LAN and WAN for use of 1500 students. Each teacher had a laptop. In the classrooms of that school children did not sit facing the blackboard and the teacher. They were seated in groups around scattered tables with computers placed on them. Teachers moved from table to table for interacting with the children. Children learnt by carrying out projects individually and in groups. They use online learning resources such as the Internet and offline resources such as multimedia CD-Rom. I was told that in this type of learning environment children developed respect for each other’s abilities and preferred co-operative learning to competing with each other. I asked whether the children of that school exchanged e-mail with each other during the class time or were curious about websites not relevant to their learning. The response was that yes they did exchange e-mail and visited websites not necessarily relevant to their projects. But in a conventional classroom also children whisper, exchange notes and daydream when their attention span wears off. There will always be some distractions that will divert children from their learning tasks. What is needed is to help children in curbing distractions through self-regulation instead of fear of punishment. I will now discuss threats to a techno-savvy child, as I perceive them.
I do not have to point out that children enjoy games, outdoor or indoor. Computers have made available to them millions of games that require quick reflexes and manipulation of keyboard or joystick with deft hand-coordination. In some games children have to take quick decisions while playing. I see nothing wrong if a techno-savvy child is allowed to play computer games. What worries me is that they may end up spending inordinate amount of time in playing games or in watching pornography from the web or from CD-Rom. Pornography sites can be accessed from the Internet by entering a few words and press of a button. Pornography was available to children of all generations, but not so easily accessible as it is now. How did our generation cope with its temptation? Our parents and teachers developed values in us as a protective shield against the onslaught of materials harmful to our physical and emotional development. We spent time in playing sports and games and using our leisure in carrying out hobby activities. The same formula will be found equally effective by the present generation of techno-savvy children. So, in a smart school in addition to using variety of educational technologies for learning, emphasis will be on value-oriented education.
I like to make a distinction between value-oriented education and education about values through a metaphor. Instead of drinking a glass of unsweetened milk followed by eating a spoon of sugar, it is more enjoyable to drink sweetened milk by first dissolving sugar in it. In the same way in education, values to be developed may have to be integrated in all school activities and should not be taught as a separate subject. I am confident that a techno-savvy child with the shield of values will be guided by the voice of the conscience in resisting temptation for accessing harmful information or wasting time in playing computer games. I will like to advise parents and teachers that instead of playing the role of an inspector or that of a computer nanny for monitoring what children do with their computers, they should help them in regulating their behaviour by developing in them the right samskars.