Higher Education and Technology

25 Jul

The contrast between the private sector and the state sector in Universities is stark when you look at the investments in technology. A large proportion of university classrooms look as they have for decades – large rooms, with seating arranged in traditional rows and columns, lit by a few bulbs and tube lights and a blackboard at the front. Yes, of course, they have been ‘computerised’ and many do have projectors in their classrooms. At least some classrooms. Students, in many of them have access to computers, though often it it is rationed access. Contrast this with the investments of the private sector in their universities who use these amenities to attract students to their campuses. Classroom conditions are better – acoustics, climate control, lighting, net access and of course projectors and microphones.

 

Using technology in education is not just about bringing Mahomet to the mountain, it is also about the mountain moving to come to Mahomet. Both, educators and technology need to move closer to each other to work effectively. Education technology has now, just about, come of age and become accessible in more ways than one. Not only has the cost gone down, both in absolute terms and relative to average income levels, but also technology has become more user friendly.

 

I clearly remember the first computer to be allocated or purchased by our school, that year a Kendriya Vidyalaya. Decades ago. It came in a box, mysterious processes that we did not see had conspired to send this magical box to the school. No instructions. No support systems. No training. Well, at least not before the box arrived. It was a PC. The youngest teacher in the school, the yoga instructor was handed the box – the others too old or ‘experienced’ to deal with these new fangled ideas. He plugged it in. Spent hours figuring out how to connect the keyboard, monitor and ‘box’. Switched it on. A green dot blinked. He pressed a key on the keyboard. The cursor.. well still called a dot/line since nobody knew any more.. moved down. And blinked. I was called to help. Why me? Because I lived on a campus where they had been using a mainframe computer for years, and I had visited the grand rooms (airconditioned) where the mammoth machines were kept. And had handled punch cards (anyone remember those?).

 

We have come a long way from those days. Sugato Mitra’s hole in the wall experiment, years ago, surely offered more than a blinking screen to the slum kids – which enabled their learning. A new device today offers so much more in terms of usability – it has walked a few steps towards the educator. The educators too have moved on from a phobia of computers to grudging acceptance of its usefulness, especially after the internet proved that access and communications were much more effective than earlier methods. Even so, many professors in higher education do little more than email or create their papers and presentations on the computer. Despite having so much at their disposal. Often, even simple tasks like printing out a paper (why print at all??) or sending out an email are delegated to a younger assistant.

 

One of the biggest challenges in India today is helping educators get on to the technology bandwagon. Many use sophisticated smartphones, have access to good technology, are and badgered by vendors offering them customised products and services. Some, indeed many, have their own websites. At the same time it is also true that higher education institutions have been unable to build and use systems that make learning seamless and effortless. Having a website, or offering a static list of information is not really using the potential of technology to its fullest. A step forward is to use it for marketing the institution – both for potential students and as an ambassadorial tool. Some offer learning materials online, including lesson videos. It is time to do that and far more to create a vibrant learning habit. For the mountain to go to Mahomet.

 

Much of this is changing. Slowly but surely. The All India Management Association (AIMA) holds regular webinars hosted from their Delhi offices. As do many of the IIMs and others. The Higher Education Forum (and I am a part of that) interacts online as much as in real life, working to improve the quality of learning and sharing in the sector. IGNOU has been at the cutting edge of technology for decades, using radio and television before the internet arrived. The National Knowledge Network that promises to connect learning hubs across the nation brings hope. And then, one look at government and university websites, and one knows that there might be a while to wait before they actually become effective tools.

 

Education technology is so much more than a single website, projector or app. It is a means of making learning accessible, seamless and integrated. It is a means of enhancing the learning experience and supports the teacher in filling gaps as they emerge. In the age of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), when Universities were forced to look honestly at the role they play, one thing is clear – education technology is the path to widening participation in higher education. And the path to mobility across learning areas, and teaching institutions.

 

Much of our learning happens outside classrooms now. Khan Academy and You Tube are cited as the sites most accessed for learning new concepts or skills. Assignments, lessons and peer learning can happen anywhere as long as one has a connected device. Learning has come full circle – it is again social, as it used to be before schoolrooms were invented. The difference now is that the learning village is global. Students now use mobile phones, if not the more expensive tablets and computers seamlessly in their lives. Recent reports show that social media is the preferred route to sharing learning materials – amongst high school students in India. All the more reason to build on this strength in higher education. The experience with MOOCs has proven that technology is a key partner in learner centric education, and this is where our higher education institutions need to focus their energies.

 

The age of technology in education is less about the means and more about the ends. This is a chance for the learner to step up and design their own learning pathways regardless of traditional institutional constraints. No longer should it matter whether biology is an optional course in the the BSc. offered by one institution or whether ‘applications of mathematics’ is available at the right level. With the aid of the new tools, every device is its own classroom, and every device is a chance for a deep and meaningful connect between the content, the student, the teacher and the institution.

 

 

Meeta Sengupta
10 July 2013, 09:42 AM IST

http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/higher-education-and-technology

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