14 September 2009

Computers in the Classroom

“In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your side,
Your legs got nothing to do,
Some machine’s doing that for you.”

So sang Denny Zager and Rick Evans in their 1969 hit song “In the Year 2525”.

As one who was born in the middle of the past century, I guess, late ‘60s bring nostalgic memories to people who belong to my generation: I was a teenager doing my Physics major freshman year at a local college. In the afternoons, we used to have lab projects. Those of us who completed the assigned experiments early, used to return home earlier than other classmates. As soon as I returned home, I would listen to programs such as “Date with the Disc” on BBC World Service or “Studio 1” on VOA. [In the mornings, VOA Breakfast Show was my regular favorite; I never used to miss Saturday morning shows as they were hosted completely by college students]. Whenever I used to go out of town during holidays, I used to carry my short wave radio without fail. Short wave receivers, manual typewriters and bicycles were an integral part of our lives. But, we never allowed these machines to `rule’ our lives.

Well, today the situation is very different. Information and communications technology has changed so rapidly that our lives are increasingly governed by automation. Many of us have become completely dependent on machines such as mobile phones, laptops and datacards. [If we don’t keep a mobile phone in our pocket, we feel as if we are `physically’ handicapped].

Today, there is no service industry in which computers are not used. Within K-12 scenario, increasing number of schools use computers in different ways. At one end of a continuum, there are low budget schools that use computers only to teach computer science related subjects whereas at the other end, there are affluent schools that use computers by exploiting their full potential (Broadband Internet etc). This article attempts to throw some light on how best computers can be used even in very low budget schools.

I was a physics teacher in a high school (2nd oldest) in Botswana, Southern Africa in the late ‘80s. Each department in the school had one or two BBC Microcomputers. (Internet was yet to get functional at a global level). That was a time when there was no animation software such as Flash. Still, we could create simple animations by using BASIC programming. We could use computers to take readings of physical quantities such as velocity during experiments, by interfacing. As audiovisual coordinator of the science department, I had the pleasure of collecting resources such as 16mm films and videotapes for use in classrooms, from the British Council Library in Gaborone. Although the Library was nearly 65 km from my residence, the journey would seldom be tiresome, thanks to my Toyota Corolla, nice road (as shown in the photograph below) that connected my town with the capital city, and far less people who violated road rules, than in my own country, India.

Thanks to computer technology of today. Things have become much simpler particularly since the PC revolution.  Students’ work can be corrected and feedback given, by using simple word processor packages like Word 2000. (I have used options such as “Track changes” very effectively in my work with students and colleagues). But such programs should be used only when students have already mastered spelling and grammar in the traditional manner. Otherwise, they will depend entirely on PC’s spell check and grammar, which is not as perfect as a good dictionary and a grammar book.

Presentation software packages such as MS PowerPoint, Open Office Impress or Apple Keynote can be immensely useful in developing lessons. With appropriate add-ons such as Windows Media Player, CVDs and DVDs can be used without any technical problems. It is also possible to download animation sequences from the Net and use them in the classroom, of course without violating any copyright laws. [In fact computers without Internet connection can be used almost as effectively in our classrooms as those with Net].

One main problem that many schools face is the assessment of oral skills of children. In some of the schools where I worked, I had the pleasure of training teachers to use MS Office “Sound recorder” to sort this problem out. The program enables not only to edit but also change the speed of flow of the file. This program is particularly useful in closely monitoring speech outputs of children so that remedial action can be taken.

Spreadsheets such as Excel can be immensely useful in Maths, Scince and other subjects where students need to interpret graphs. But when it comes to plotting graphs, paper and pencil are the best resources, for obvious reasons.

Although there are many more advantages of using computers in school systems, because they save a lot of time that can be used for other productive activities, no computer (or no machine for that matter) can teach children by itself. Hence, within classrooms, computers must never be used as alternative to activity based methods of teaching learning. There cannot be any classroom in which there is no human teacher, as after all, only he or she can empathize, understand and effectively interact with (human) students.  We should not aim for virtual classrooms in our real world.

Let us hope that machines are used to an extent that is sensibly adequate and not too much as Denny Zager and Rick Evans had visualised, though sarcastically, 40 years back.

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About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a retired K-12 Education Management Professional. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.