New media and the lessons it teaches

English: Chris Anderson is the curator of the ...

English: Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference Français : Chris Anderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

         Listening to lectures or classes at school is touted to be the most droll activity imaginable by students all over the planet. It is not uncommon to see children and teenagers being flogged, bribed or advised to attend their classes. Yet it is fascinating to take one cursory glance at facebook and twitter feeds and find them brimming with links to one particular series of talks. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “All links lead to TED”.

        These talks have a humongous audience and with the aforementioned social media tools they often go nothing less than viral. It made me wonder how countless number of my friends, who are students still, willfully listen to these talks which are essentially lectures too. And that too in an age where the ADH (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity) Disorder grimaces menacingly upon our civilization?

        The answer lies in this very fundamental human faculty. The brain. It is arguably the only machine for which we don’t have an easily accessible manual book to tell its working. But research suggests that teenagers to adults have an attention span of forty minutes, which is a lot of minutes by the TED standards! Most of these talks are less than twenty minutes but at the same time assure the listeners that they will get something solid to take back at the end. As against the standard school or college schedules which see any class span less than fifty to sixty minutes as blasphemous. One may argue against this on one of these lines: The time needed for roll calls, the overheads caused by a group of truants and unforeseen visitors, etc. But I can safely tell there wouldn’t be any need for roll calls or dealing with disinterested students if the educational system took this small cue in terms of the time allotted per class.

        Then comes the bittersweet blessing in the form of that learned Physics teacher who loves to teach but often hops on board a train of unconnected information bits related to that one word “Gravity” acquired meticulously over twenty years of decking the back of his name with alphabets. Now I do not have anything against all those veterans with those countless degrees and PhDs. I salute you for your quest to get to the bottom of it all and where would civilization be without doyens like you? But spare the young ones those ten minutes of time and get straight to the point, that gravity, simply put, brings things down. As such there’s much disquiet about the “slumber factor” of many teachers that some students are seriously deliberating on replacing human teachers with robots. It would be a win-win situation if only people understood that crispness of delivery is as important as the content being delivered. And this can potentially prevent a lot of heartache too for there would be less chances of finding a student confusing “gravity” with “envy”. Both have equal potential to bring things down.

        It was quite revelatory to note a sworn fan of the TED talks telling me that she hadn’t listened to this very famous talk by Mallika Sarabhai on feminism! How could she suppose to have not missed any of the talks if she hadn’t listened to this one? Of course, I should have known. Why would an aspiring Miss India even be bothered about things like, ‘Beauty isn’t skin deep’ and ‘I am beautiful because I am a woman’… In one of his TED talks, Ken Robinson reminds us of a sadly forgotten fact- that humans are organic beings and not mechanistic. But that our current systems of education rest on this misconception of the process of learning being an industrial one.

          Policy makers and benefactors involved in the educational framework feel that increasing the number of engineering, medical and management institutions would lead to more number of professionals and hence lead to a better country. But it is important to consider that the mere burgeoning of access to something is never an end to achieving efficiency. It is the method that matters. Clichéd though the thought is, it will help if we go beyond just merely nodding at truth and letting the cause for most of our problems be attributed to amnesia.

           Some people enjoy the process of differentiating a cosine theta by first principles and some are comfortable when they are recognized to be ‘a bunch of Cambridge ladies’ by the Mathematics Professor and put in a Literature class. And some love both like my Cummings quoting born psychologist of a Mathematics professor himself! While it is okay for a child to prefer strawberry flavored ice creams to butterscotch and to top it with pistachio shreds rather than chocolate sprinkles, they naturally dislike the freedom to choose their subjects of interest snatched away from them. (And which is also the simple reason why I felt the burning desire to pen this down albeit before an exam) We need a system where choice overrules force of any kind, be it from the system’s front or the personal front. Take the example of ‘coursera’. Its popularity is purely because of the interest-centric approach. And more importantly anyone who takes a course there seriously does it solely for the knowledge gain for no one gets a degree at the end of it. And this is very important lesson indeed. People will commit themselves to learning if it if it is presented to them in the right format.

            Freedom is the heartbeat of learning, I would say. On a concluding note, I have this to say. There’s much that the new media can inspire in the minds of youngsters explicitly but it would greatly benefit the harbingers of tomorrow’s great future if we cared to learn from the lessons it teaches implicitly gauging by its reach and impact to implement changes constructive to the structure of prevalent systems of teaching.