In 1970, Alvin Toffler came out with a best selling book, Future Shock. One of the important points he made in that work was that the world was moving faster than ever. In the previous 100 years, that is to say between 1870 and 1970, more changes took place than in the previous 1,000 years, he said. At that time, several institutions in the US were engaged in research work, initiated by the US government, with an eye to the possibilities of military application, to develop a network of computer networks. From that effort emerged the Internet, which has been changing the world even faster than during the period surveyed by Toffler. Today it is a global institution with which more than two billion of the world’s seven billion people are connected.
Governments are using the network for military and civilian purposes. Ordinary people are using it to gather information, seek entertainment or simply keep in touch with others. The medium has demonstrated its potential as a means of quick communication in different situations. It has been used effectively to locate blood donors in emergencies, to summon rescue workers in times of calamity and to mobilize people to stage political protests. The way it facilitated changes of government in some Arab countries is still fresh in our minds. Barack Obama used it to raise funds for his presidential election campaign and the US administration has been using it in military adventures far from the country’s shores. At the moment ordinary Americans, the voiceless 90%, are using this medium in their campaign against the dominant 10%, who have been fattening themselves at the cost of the rest of America and the world.
One area where it is now creating ripples, which may grow into huge waves, is higher education.
Shortly after Toffler’s Future Shock appeared, came another book which attracted wide attention: Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich. A priest who worked among deprived and disadvantaged people, he called for the abolition of the school system, arguing the masses can never get educated through it. He saw the educational system prevailing in the US, the Soviet Union and other advanced countries as a byproduct of Industrialization. It worked like a factory. The school, he pointed out, functioned as a machine which takes in children of various kinds and produce identical products. His main objection to the school system was that it acts as a sieve. It keeps rejecting people at various levels, allowing only a small number to move up to the top. Such a system cannot be relied upon to educate the masses.
After analyzing the process of acquisition of knowledge, Illich concluded that the process depended upon three elements: one, knowledge imparted by the teacher, who is someone who knows more than him; two, peer group discussion which helps clarify ideas; and, three, use of teaching aides. Accordingly, he envisaged a system under which a knowledgeable person, a guru, makes himself available on a specified day and time to instruct those interested in learning from him. Periodically the pupils get together to discuss what they were learning. Also, opportunities are provided for them to have access to teaching aids. Such a system will enable anyone with the aptitude to acquire knowledge in any subject of interest to him, he argued.
Sound as Illich’s idea may be, translating it into practice was not easy. Governments were too committed to the school system to wreck it. Practical considerations prevented gurus from coming forward to take on disciples. And no one built a public teaching aid facility. Internet has made it possible to overcome some of these problems. At all levels of education, it is now being used by the formal institutions of learning. Schools and colleges are still there but they can now think of breaking out of traditional constraints and universalize access to education. Small beginnings in this regard are taking place in the advanced countries, notably the US, especially in the field of higher education.
The great advantage new media offers is its vast potential for interaction. Some US academic institutions have recognized that a change in the basic vehicle used for learning, from archetypical courses, lectures and textbooks to interactive electronically portable media can be the seed for positive change in the educational system. They also feel that new media learning materials can help enhance their contribution to society by improving learning efficiency and expanding the impact of higher education. Both the quantity and quality of learning can increase.
The current “course” model of learning is exemplified by isolated teachers and groups of students. New media has provided universities and colleges with the opportunity to design a better educational experience. To understand how this can be done, let us take a look at the different components of university education. In the first place, it must impart knowledge; Secondly, it must equip students to think critically. Thirdly, it must provide an environment that helps the student to realize his/her full potential.
New media can be used in the campus as well as in off-campus education. One important aspect of the university system is the bonding experience that it gives young people. It is not as though off-campus education denies opportunity to develop such experience. In fact, new media is a great promoter of bonding, cutting across differences of age, gender, culture etc.
The traditional concept of the campus university denies higher education to most young people. Unfortunately, few countries consider providing the masses with higher education and advanced training a pressing issue. Some educationists have acknowledged that a large number of young people joining the ranks of the unemployed (should we say, the unemployable?) and the unconnected poses a threat to stability in a global society. They recognize the urgent need to provide mass training for employability and mass education to inspire the human spirit. New media’s role becomes important in this context.
In the US, where work in this area has been going on for some time, there have also been some studies that evaluate the impact of new media. In one research project, Professor David Wallace and Philip Mutooni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a “Web lecture” on industrial design comparable to a traditional lecture covering the same material. Professor Wallace invested 500 person-hours to prepare the material that students were expected to “cover” in one hour. He used slides, voice clips, captions, video clips, and text as required. Half the students used the Web-based presentation and the other half attended a very well-prepared, demonstration-rich lecture. As judged by a group of outside experts, the Web lecture group built better models than the group on the traditional path. The Web lecture students used the Web lecture repeatedly as reference as they applied the techniques they were taught. They did so even though they had to go to a computer and log on to review the material.
In another study, Wallace and another researcher presented a new group of students with the results of the first study and told them that all students would be expected to use the Web lecture. Half the students were told they should review the material before a classroom discussion of the techniques, and the other half were told to review the material before coming to a lab session in which they would be expected to use the techniques. In this experiment, the students expecting to demonstrate their skill through actual performance were extremely diligent in reviewing the material, while the other group was very lax.
These studies have shown that well-illustrated materials are extremely effective as learning aids. Said one professor involved in the studies, "The best lecture I have ever given would be no competition for a professionally produced new media version covering the same material, especially if that material were always instantaneously available to the learner in the style she or he preferred."
Communication with others and with self is at the core of the education system. New media offers an effective vehicle for both types of communication and may, therefore, allow improvements in a broad spectrum of learning activities.
Some colleges in US have already moved away from the traditional model. These include institutions that impart training in subjects as varied as engineering and journalism.
According to new media advocates, an advantage it provides is that both teachers and students can reach out to more experienced and culturally diverse colleagues than are available in the conventional campus. Also, new media educational material allows continuous improvement of the education process and growth of quality. There is also immense scope to improve relationships between institutions and their alumni in very productive and innovative ways.
December 15, 2011
Keynote address delivered at session on New Media, held as part of the three-day national seminar on Role of Media in Higher Education organized by Kannur University from December 13 to 15