Fountains of Knowledge

Mar 19 2017 - It was a very intriguing topic. Earlier this month, Don Carlson, an education specialist from Microsoft Singapore visiting Colombo, and I were discussing education into the 21st century when we came to the point of: Will teaching as a vocation, survive this century?

Feizal Samath

Feizal Samath

Will teachers be fossils in the future? Will newer teaching methods mean classrooms without teachers?

No one can be absolutely sure because at the frenzied pace the world is moving, I don’t even know whether our jobs as journalists would be obsolete.

But Don thinks differently. Yes, teachers will no more be, in his own words, ‘fountains of knowledge’ where the student must listen to what they say, every time and all the time.

But teachers would transform to become enablers in a new environment of learning, more on the lines of being a facilitator rather than forcing information into students.

It reminded me of college days when one of our teachers would ask us to write an essay during the 30-minute work period, amble outside, do a nice, lazy jaunt and return just before the bell rings in the hope that we have finished our task. Those days this would be considered a lazy teacher but fast forward years from now and new tools will enable teachers to be as relaxed in the classroom.

Learning, rather than teachers, would be a shared experience with computer and modern-tools savvy students likely to acquire more knowledge than teachers themselves. Much like today’s physicians, who are sometimes given a dose of their own medicine when confronted by patients who know more about medical advances (Internet) than the doctors themselves do.

Technology in classrooms, public and corporate spaces and in science is so advanced that predicting the future should be easy. In 1964 when space fiction writer, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke in a newspaper interview said that with technological advances “it will be possible, in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now (thus 2014), for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London”, no one believed him.

He was spot on. Renowned physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview, believes the days of the human race on Earth are numbered. He has previously warned that robots could wipe out humanity and that leaving Earth is our only hope.

In a new book, ‘How to Make a Spaceship’, the physicist has warned that this planet is becoming a dangerous place because of the threat of war or disease and finding a new home in space would be the only option left. Unlike Sir Arthur’s prediction, Prof. Hawking’s warning cannot be taken lightly.

Back to the conversation with Don and we are discussing personalised teaching which is how the classroom of the future would look like. The fun part for the millennial generation who will rule the world in a couple of years is that with the tools available today, anything is possible. Learning is not laborious. It’s interesting, includes real-life scenarios and the tools make it even more engaging.

The strides that new technology is making in the medical field for example are short of amazing, with cutting open parts of a body for surgery no more necessary with the advent of laser techniques.

Personalised teaching is where each student is pre-assessed to ascertain strengths, weaknesses and whether they have special skills and competencies and then material catering to these needs in a general education framework prepared.

In a competitive world, education is more about outcomes and not structures. It’s not about setting curricula or syllabi or structured learning where the product is all about studying, cramming, doing tests and passing. Education now looks globally at the needs of society, development, governments and economies and is tailor-made to the needs of the workplace.

Out of sync with outcomes-based education? Then we can kiss goodbye to a development paradigm where Sri Lanka moves faster to the next level – developed-country status — with reduced poverty, increased incomes and green development.

In the classroom, creating platforms for personalised teaching is what companies like Microsoft are doing. It makes good business sense to develop technology that would help countries in the middle and lower end of the development pyramid to fast-track the pace of development and also make money in the process. A win-win for all!

Classrooms of the future, according to Don, would involve creating platforms and infrastructure that enable teachers to assess students more effectively — for example, do they have problems in science or mathematics and address these problems individually, immediately and effectively.

The classroom of the future would prepare kids for jobs that are unimaginable now or not even thought of now – maybe driving a space craft for instance – and prepare them for the future with different tools for different competencies.

However, these ‘futuristic thoughts’ come crashing down to Earth when I am interrupted by Kussi Amma Sera who has just woken up after a long afternoon snooze.

“Mahattaya mokada wenne Internet eka crash wunoth? Bunkaloth neda? Paththare kiyanawa pirewall thiyanavanam, virus eka adukaranna puluwan kiyala. Habai Internet crash wunoth mokada wenne?

Much as I am annoyed by the interruption, KAS seemed to have a point. If the worldwide web or Internet crashes, despite all the advances in IT protection, a lot of data will get lost and this could lead to war and disease as Prof. Hawking predicted. Gone will also be the tools for new teaching methods.

Would this be the Armageddon that Earth was reluctant to admit would happen? Not bad for KAS with her kitchen ‘politics’ to come up with a mind-boggling thought.

More, however, on that on another, future day. For the moment ‘personalised teaching methods’, that’s the future and the faster Sri Lanka embraces these techniques the quicker the country will rise up the ladder of development.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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