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Present, tense: Future classrooms

by Radha Rao last modified Apr 02, 2011 02:11 PM
An article by Nishant Shah in the December issue of Teacher Plus - the magazine for the contemporary teacher.

In the world of education, the emergence of Wikipedia – an online, user generated, knowledge production referencing system – has drawn strong battle lines. The divide is fairly well drawn between those who swear by Wikipedia and those who swear at it. On the one hand are the students and teachers (more students than teachers) who look upon the democratic modes of knowledge production, the easy access to information, and the multiple perspectives that get embedded in the global system of producing knowledge, as one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of teaching and research in the world. On the other hand are the teachers and students (more teachers than students) who grow green in the face, pointing out the errors and problems within Wikipedia, often layering their objections with much more complex problems of plagiarism, lack of research ethics and absence of rigour.

Especially in classrooms, where students often bring in information retrieved from Wikipedia to cope and engage with their curricula, there seems to be a strained sense of tension where the students are increasingly depending upon Wikipedia (or other such user generated knowledge production spaces) for their first introductions to different knowledges, and the teachers, used to the sacredness of books and library based research, feel a sense of despair at the click-copy-paste cultures that the students bring to the classrooms. This tension between the students and the teachers, and the concern over authenticity and accuracy, is symptomatic of a much larger changing relationship between students and teachers within academia in emerging information societies.

While it is possible to, almost infinitely, perpetuate these debates, there is a certain transformative moment which is being lost in the cacophony that emerges from both the sides trying to prove their points, and often delving into pointless, albeit intelligent, chatter. It is this moment that I am interested in articulating, because it captures, for me, a change in the learning-teaching environments in classrooms that is not very clearly articulated in the Wikipedia (or at a much larger level, Internet) and education debates.

The classroom, across cultures and geographies has been marked by a romantic imagination of being a hallowed space of elevated learning and knowledge. While this is indeed true, it is necessary to place the classroom in another more pragmatic context of Knowledge production industries and services. While there are often certain intangible and affective bonds of faith between the teacher and the students, it is necessary to remind ourselves that the classroom is essentially a site of knowledge industries, where certain information, knowledge and skills are transferred from the teacher – who serves as the access point to relevant data – to the students who need to be trained and taught into becoming possessors of knowledge.

And it is this particular relationship that the Internet technologies are changing – this hitherto accepted role of the teacher as the bearer of knowledge and the student as a recipient of the same. I want to look at three particular ways in which Wikipedia and other similar spaces have challenged our understanding of the classroom and the teacher-student relationship in the traditional classrooms.

Wikipedia, which is at the centre of the debates, is actually more demonstrative of this changing knowledge structure because of its contours as well as the larger aesthetics and politics it embodies. In the world of Wikipedia, there are no hierarchies of knowledge dependent upon personal credentials or antecedents. All contributors, are, instead, sorted on the basis of their skill for research, writing, and providing evidence. More often than not, an article on Wikipedia is a collaborative effort which plays on the strengths of many different collaborators. Each contributor is not expected to be a proficient scholar with all the required skills. Instead, different contributors take on different roles and help in producing collaborative knowledge. Such a system of knowledge production challenges the dominant understanding of knowledge production and contribution, especially in the school and university set-ups, which are contingent upon individual genius and comprehensive skills.

 Wikipedia

A space like Wikipedia thus, produces not only a level field of learning, collaborating and sharing knowledge, which is often at logger-heads with the classrooms as we know them, it also leads to a new flow of knowledge. In traditional classroom conditions, the teacher is envisioned as an expert and the flow of information is meant to be one-way, imitating a broadcast model that earlier technologies like print and cinema have embraced. With Wikipedia, there is a shift from education to learning. Everybody on Wikipedia is imagined to be a valuable person who pools his/her skills into a common database, from which knowledge is now produced and perfected. This dismantling of the teacher figure, the placing of the teacher in a condition of learning rather than teaching is the source of much anxiety that internet technologies bring forth. The recognition that the experiences, the skills, and the information that the students have are equally, if not more valuable, in the process of knowledge production and dissemination, is a significant shift in our understanding of the classroom.

The last point that I want to touch upon is the way in which the accepted role of curricula is challenged with the emergence of such easy access to different knowledge systems. For younger users of technology, who are being exposed to alternative voices, politics of dissent and a wider horizon of theory and practice, the prescribed curriculum becomes often restrictive and sometimes redundant. Because information is now easily available, the premium is on knowledge – abilities to analyze, sift, research and thinking through questions – thus changing the role of teachers, especially in schools. Many teachers are often faced with situations where the students have more information at their finger tips than is in the text-book or indeed, is available to the teacher around a particular area. In such instances, new forms of coping with curriculum, novel ways of understanding classroom pedagogies, and creative ways of incorporating the students’ experiences and information in the teaching practices need to be developed.

There is no denying the fact that the emergence of internet technologies are leading to different crises in the classrooms. However, instead of formulating it in binaries – virtual classroom versus physical classroom, Wikipedia versus Encyclopaedia Britannica, Information versus Knowledge, etc. – it is more fruitful to examine the ways in which these technologies are helping us revisit the classroom as one of the most crucial sites of the knowledge industries, and questioning many concepts and ideas that we had taken for granted in our existing education and teaching systems.

The author is the Director – Research at The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. He is currently working with the Networked Higher Education Initiative on a project on technology and education on networked campuses in India. He can be reached at [email protected]

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