Thirty years ago, being a teacher meant being a beast of burden, lumbering along school corridors loaded with maps, books, typewritten sheets, a cassette recorder and thick picture books. Twenty years ago, if a film had to be shown, one had to check timetables to make sure that no other class was using the audio-visual room at the time one wanted to screen a film. A teacher must have dreamed of the day when she could carry less in her hands and more in her head.
The dream came true when the internet arrived. Informative, entertaining and easy to access, it was instant edutainment. There were speaking dictionaries, interactive maps, quizzes, graded activities for classes, film clips – all just links to click on. However, even as the cyber world began to fascinate, it threatened the halcyon culture of spoon-feeding. Students googled answers faster than the teacher, and the classroom suddenly began to turn into an arena of combat. The teacher’s dream was becoming a nightmare because she could no longer be the sole provider of information. She could no longer have the last word.
Facts vs alt-facts
Any teacher who has not read Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching As A Subversive Activity would do well to make it priority reading and regular re-reading for as long as she is in the profession. In the chapter titled The Medium is the Message, Of Course this incisive, witty book delivers a blow to the jugular as it takes on teacher attitudes that make for many a smirking and shirking student.
Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any case, none of their business. Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated “facts” is the goal of education. The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgement. Feelings are irrelevant in education. There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.
In the ongoing arguments about the internet taking over the classroom, teachers contend that information available online is not necessarily always correct. As a teacher I learnt an invaluable lesson from a 15-year-old student. Examining several mistakes in a school survey which he had painstakingly conducted, he declared sagely, “There can never be an error-free world.”
But inconsistencies of any kind can be used to fuel debates in the classroom and to push research further. Besides, the internet has enough scope for cross-referencing and cross-checking, so no one needs to feel intimidated when confronted with discrepancies.
When I was 14 I thought it would be interesting to write a first person account of Heathcliff, the fascinating central character of Emily Bronte’s classic, Wuthering Heights. I was poorly graded on the answer and told it was incorrect. With typical teenage arrogance, I concluded that my teacher lacked imagination. In later years I wondered why she did not explain the importance of objectivity and how perspective can often distort context. Today, all it takes is a search on the internet to learn the many implications of what is now called “fan fiction”.
Another anxiety concerning the internet seems to be that it provides easy access to inappropriate and undesirable content. One may argue that the world has always been full of inappropriate and undesirable content irrespective of the internet. However, if the teacher is ready to do her homework before she assigns it, she will be able to guide her students to recommended sites. On the other hand, independent discovery is always more exciting for a student and it leads to guided discovery for others in the class. This gives a static classroom a new dynamic. It gives a shy student confidence and teaches a strong student the meaning of sharing. It gives an indifferent student reason to pay more attention. A teacher who utilises the power of the internet may be welcomed by her class as an engaged participant instead of an authority figure.
Just google it
Rather than expecting children to stay off the internet teachers must use search engines like Google to explore educational tools and classroom activities. These can be used for everything from improving diction and pronunciation through speaking dictionaries, viewing stimulating You Tube interviews, finding new topics for debate and discussion in the classroom.
I am no longer a teacher in school but I now teach students one on one. After the recent racist attacks in Charlottesville, US, one of my 14-year-old students and I looked up the beginning and growth of racial hostility in America on YouTube. My personal collection of VHS tapes and DVDs guided our initial search – the history of We Shall Overcome – a gospel song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement, we watched Ruby Bridges, the first coloured child entering a till then segregated school; we watched Rosa Parks being arrested for not giving up her seat to a white passenger; listened to President John F Kennedy’s speech on civil rights.
After all this, my student was assigned independent research. She learned about the lynching of Emmet Till, Little Rock Nine and the Freedom Riders, and made her own notes. In our third class, we read a poem by Valerie Noble, watched Martin Luther King and President Barack Obama, read about Anne Nixon Cooper, the black woman who died at 107 but lived through a century of struggle and discrimination to see a black man in the White House.
My student’s writing assignment for the week is to describe a single day in the life of anyone, adult or child, male or female, black or white during the traumatic years of 1950-1962 in America. I do not think it will be difficult for her. YouTube clips and text pages have been bookmarked for reference, a Google document will help her edit her work as she types, and she will add new words to her Quizlet. When I receive her work via e-mail, I know I shall use Google again to substantiate my comments.
I had once remarked that teachers who did not use the internet to keep themselves abreast of their subject might as well be fossils. In hindsight, I see how offensive and condescending a statement that is, given that vast areas of our country are still struggling with basic economics. At the same time, it makes the case that a teacher in a privileged set-up has no reason not to use the resources at hand and to make her lessons as powerful as possible. The medium is the message, of course.