As someone born in the 1970s, manoeuvring through today’s world of high-tech gadgets can be quite challenging. It seems as though you are spending half your life playing catch-up, trying to figure out how some new device works before another smarter, faster, prettier one appears. At the same time, our children and younger colleagues take to every new innovation like a duck to water. It is no wonder then that many of us over the age of 35, lament over the loss of a simpler time, a time when devices weren’t that smart and children only knew what you taught them. No one enjoys lamenting more about this than those whose main purpose in life is to mould young minds. By this, I mean teachers. As a teacher myself, I must tell you that figuring out how to educate a generation of tech-savvy, easily distracted, smart-alecky, Justin Bieber-loving youth is no mean feat. These days, it is not a job for the faint-hearted.
Going to school in the 1980s, the only “modern” technology used in the classroom was the overhead projector (or OHP). Teachers would sometimes fumble over how to place their transparencies properly on the projector but that was about as exciting as it got. Once a week, we would go to a lab, put on headphones and listen to tapes (remember those?), where people with BBC accents would tell us stories and ask us questions about them. Oh, how we loved those lessons. They were a good break from the usual classroom lessons, where teachers would talk and talk and talk. Oh, and write on the blackboard. It really didn’t matter whether we were listening or not, as long as we were quiet. The idea that students should be more actively engaged in the lesson was unheard of then. When I began teaching in the late 90s, things had changed quite a lot. Lessons became less teacher-centred and more interactive. I saw myself as a facilitator for discussions rather than as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge. But things were still fairly low-tech. Using a laptop to teach was still considered a novelty. In fact, we didn’t even have our own laptops; 3 teachers would share 1 laptop! Imagine that.
So, when the first ICT Masterplan was introduced by the Ministry of Education around that time, many of us were unprepared for the onslaught of IT initiatives that were to come our way. All of a sudden, a third of our curriculum had to include IT-infused lessons. This meant that we had to use IT in some form while teaching specific content or skills. Suddenly, we were forced to prepare PowerPoint presentations and learn how to use tablets. Naturally, there was a lot of complaining.
Aside from the greater amount of time spent preparing lessons and attending IT-training courses, teachers also had to deal with a whole new breed of student. For the first time, many of us were faced with a very odd situation- we had to teach kids who knew more than us. They were tech-savvy and they weren’t afraid to show us up. I recall vividly one occasion in the classroom. I was trying to connect my laptop to the projector to show a PowerPoint presentation I had prepared. I struggled to find the right cable and once I found it, I struggled to plug it into the right connector. Just as I was about to throw in the towel and declare the lesson a failure, a tall, gangly fellow appeared by my side with a big grin on his face. “*Cher, you dunno how to do, ah? Ok, I do for you.” He then proceeded to do all the right things in under 10 seconds and my lesson went ahead as planned, albeit 15 minutes behind schedule. Phew!
I learnt a lesson that day- I had to put my pride aside when it came to classroom technology and ask my students for help. Most teachers are so used to being know-it-alls that we find it hard to expose our ignorance or lack of expertise in anything. I decided then and there that I was going to be thick-skinned, play the damsel in distress if I had to, for the sake of running a smooth lesson. Chances are, my students would know how to fix the problem.
Another challenge I found was that I had to constantly think of ways to get the attention of these digital brats. We teachers had to go from being serious imparters of knowledge to being entertainers, clowns even, just to be heard. This, as you can well imagine, is a tall order for those of us who aren’t really that interesting. It was as if you had to put up a song and dance routine for every lesson you had, complete with party tricks and funny stories. All this because our precious young ones had better things to do on their handphones and laptops than listen to us.
Most of us have found ways to beat the distractions and reclaim what is rightfully ours- the full attention of our students (well, almost). We use visuals of all kinds, play online games, watch YouTube videos, give online research projects, set up online discussion forums and so on. Clearly, whoever who said “Those who can’t do, teach” had got it very wrong. If I say so myself, teachers have been quite successful in making lessons more enriching and enjoyable for their students, thus taking learning to a whole new level.
In spite of this, I still believe that we shouldn’t jump on the technology bandwagon just for the sake of it. I mean, there are times when good old-fashioned methods work just as well, if not better. I find it refreshing to, on occasion, leave my laptop in the staff room and go to class with (gasp!) just a whiteboard marker and the clothes on my back. The students seem to appreciate this change of teaching mode, although I do hear the occasional complaint about my illegible handwriting on the board (“Cher, what’s that word, ah?”).
And there are times when modern-day gadgets get in the way. For example, students these days have the tendency to give presentations while reading their script from their handphones instead of cue cards. Teachers should put their collective feet down on this. I mean, they could be watching the latest episode of American Idol while ostensibly giving a presentation, for all we know! At least with cue cards, the audience knows they can only be looking at their prepared scripts. At the end of the day, it is necessary to be discerning about how and when students use IT. Let them bitch all they want about you when you confiscate their iPhones or gripe when you refuse to accept their research from Wikipedia; one thing hasn’t (and shouldn’t) change- teaching is not about being popular. Once you give in to populist demands, teaching can never be effective.
Teacher-student relationships have evolved too, thanks to technology. My students think nothing of texting me in the middle of the night to find out when a test is or what homework needs to be done for the next day, in spite of my having reminded them in class numerous times. I don’t reply of course, but I have learnt to understand that living in an interconnected world, constraints of time, place and etiquette are irrelevant for them. As a Generation X-er, I don’t share those sentiments. Call me old-fashioned but I believe that lines between teacher and student must be respected. Hard as they might try to blur these lines both online and off, I see no reason why they should be allowed into my personal space. I politely decline their offers of friendship on Facebook. Do they really need to know what I get up to outside of work?
Still, I must admit that it is thanks to my students that I have managed to survive in the confusing world of digital communication. My knowledge of Net Lingo is improving every day because of what I have learnt from them. For the longest time, I believed my students were sending me lots of love (LOL) in their messages. You can imagine my relief when I finally discovered what it actually means!
In short, there is no doubt that the IT revolution has improved the state of teaching and learning today by leaps and bounds. For the most part, I believe teachers have taken the changes in their stride and are doing their best to keep up with the latest advances. Yes, they have had to adjust their old ways and be adventurous enough to try new ways. It is like being a tourist in a foreign land- if you are suspicious of everything around you and refuse to try new things, you would have gained nothing from the experience. You might as well have just stayed home. So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. As a teacher, if you resist this, you might find yourself going the way of the dinosaur. LOL.
* Cher is the commonly used short-form for “teacher”