IT in the classroom: servant or master?

In my first year of teaching I received permission from my head of department to buy a projector and microfilm which one wound, manually, through a spool to project still images, in my case of historical events. I recall my colleagues, for some of whom coloured chalk was a revolutionary classroom aid, being intrigued by this new piece of technology. Indeed, I remember my head of department, whose sense of humour contrasted strikingly with his very limited technical skills, referring to me as a ‘half teacher, half usherette’.

The biggest change in my profession – as in many others – in my working lifetime has been how technology has revolutionised the way we teach. It has without doubt largely been a change for the better. Today, in the many lessons I observe, I am bewildered and impressed, in equal measure, by the IT skills my colleagues (let alone the students) have developed to enhance the quality of learning in their classrooms. And perhaps, as technological change accelerates, the IT revolution, as applied in the classroom, has only just begun. We live in exciting times.

But a part of me counsels caution. My worst fear is that the classroom IT revolution could end up undermining the value of the relationship between student and teacher, destroy the concept of a school as a community and turn students into vessels into which digital information is poured, at the cost of stimulating their curiosity and awareness of the mystery of knowledge. Before I am cast as educational Luddite, let me explain.

Since Socrates taught his students over two thousand years ago, and no doubt before, the teacher has acted as the key by which potential in his or her student has been unlocked. Socrates recognised that learning was best achieved through the teacher asking appropriate questions and coordinating the exchange of ideas. The Socratic method has underpinned the principles of a liberal educational system for centuries. Is the IT revolution in danger of undermining it?

Any attempt to use IT as a substitute for the unique relationship between student and teacher would be ineffective at best, and destructive at worst. If, instead, the student has to interact with a device something very precious is surely lost.

Yet it appears that this is precisely what has become policy in some schools. Indeed, the fastest growing form of school in the United States is the ‘virtual school’ in which the student logs on from home, and the ‘teacher’ (or perhaps more accurately, the ‘facilitator’) appears on screen to give instructions to complete on-line exercises which are submitted into the ether for assessment. Physically, students remain at home, or in the local cafe, as they complete the exercises, largely in isolation from each other.

What compounds my worry about this frightening vision of the future, in which the social and pedagogical relationships developed through personal interaction are replaced by digital exchanges of information, is that it is being driven and shaped not by educationalists but multinational companies, such as Apple, Google and Amplify who have most to gain, in commercial terms, from this development. Yet again the influence of the educationalists and the professionals is in danger of being pushed aside, in this case by the commercial clout of IT companies with the power to hold our students’ brains in their hands.

The irony is that the very qualities that were needed to ignite and power the IT revolution are now in danger of being destroyed by it. The fostering of creativity, the instilling of curiosity, the awareness that learning is a lifelong activity, the willingness to ask oneself difficult questions, the growth of understanding, the role of education to ‘light fires’ in individual minds are these qualities – which have been identified as essential for this century’s successfully functioning economies and societies.

If the unique relationship between teacher and student is to be substituted by communication through a device, there is, in my view, a danger that these educational values will be subordinated to the restrictions of a machine whose primary function is the supply of information to be digested and regurgitated through a form of digital assessment.

As a student of history I am reminded that political revolutions often start off with the best of intentions but develop into dystopias that their founders had no intention of creating. The IT revolution could go the same way if in the classroom we allowed it to become our master, rather than maintaining it as our servant.

Graham Lacey

July 2014