Alan Vaz


Will technology revolutionise the way we teach? Alan Vaz investigates.

Much of daily life nowadays has transitioned into the electronic world, but some industries, like teaching, are still seemingly stuck in the past. We’ve all been in situations where the lecturer doesn’t realise autoplay is on, or where pressing a hyperlink seems to be out of the technological grasp of our teachers. So, why haven’t we moved on yet? And what exactly is holding advancements in teaching technology back?

Well, it’s not actually all that bad, in spite of the occasional hiccup from lecturers. We can access all our slides on Moodle no matter where we are in the world or what we’re doing (not that you’d want to see your biology slides whilst on holiday, of course). This has been taken a step further too, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), where anyone can sign up and learn a topic that interests them. In fact, it seems that this is where teaching is heading in the future – a completely delocalised learning environment where the university “campus” is really just your own computer. This, however, is not actually a new development — the Open University has been offering university courses to people from their own homes since 1969. Many lectures are already recorded so that you don’t have to physically be there, tutoring can be offered via Skype, and many of our tests are marked by a machine. Advancements in AI may mean that in a generation’s time students might not even need a lecturer, replaced by a machine that could, through advancements in machine learning, deliver much more helpful responses to questions than a human ever could. Another use for AI is in improving computer marking: no more losing a mark for missing out a letter, but also no more offering personalised teaching to students who don’t respond to the normal method. Just be sure to stick to your deadlines to avoid any Skynet-type situations. 

Technology doesn’t have to just replace our teachers, it can also work with them to enhance our learning experience, and we already benefit from this. Using software to enable us to anonymously ask questions during lectures can greatly enhance the learning environment if properly used. It also makes lectures much more interesting, since we’re no longer only being talked to in a voice so monotonous voice even a double espresso couldn’t keep you awake on a Monday morning. Simple tasks such as scanning attendance rather than writing down names saves a huge amount of time each lecture, and live quiz applications like Kahoot can make the learning experience much more fun and add an extra dimension to the lecture. The use of technology helps to break barriers for students with disabilities and those who find the classic style of teaching difficult — for example, students with dyslexia can benefit from audio recordings, and a child who has difficulty holding a pen can type their work instead. The benefits of technology in teaching have also been recognised by Glasgow City Council: over 50,000 school students in Glasgow are to be given free iPads to help with their education. These are only some of the ways we can use technology to benefit our learning, so what’s holding us back from these methods being put into practice?

At the moment there are plenty of barriers to stop us. Those “free” iPads are of course free to the students, but not to the council — the cost is over £300m. This amount is peanuts compared to the cost of the infrastructure required to get an internet connection with a high enough bandwidth. According to Ofcom, there are at least 500 schools in areas of England which struggle with a slow connection, and 100 of those have an average download speed of just 1-2Mbps. Definitely not ideal for those who want to watch Netflix during class. To fix this, schools often install Fibre To The Premises (FTTP), which is more consistent, faster, and offers a guaranteed speed — but it goes without saying that the up-front cost of such a system is not feasible to schools that are already in a pinch. Other necessary upgrades such as the compliance of IT systems with GDPR add extra, hidden costs. 

Another issue is the question of whether younger school students are really ready for an influx of electronics in their daily lives. In the year ending March 2018, seven percent of students said that they had experienced cyber bullying. What’s more interesting is that this figure has not significantly changed over the five previous years, showing that figures are not rising in proportion to the ever-increasing amount of young people with mobile devices. To a certain degree, then, efforts to fight cyberbullying have been successful. Other threats posed by increased exposure to electronics are the views portrayed on social media, which have a larger impact on younger people. 

The question that needs to be asked before we jump into a new age of teaching is this: is technology more detrimental to students than helpful? Perhaps the reason why teaching has not yet moved on to more advanced technologies is that the system we have currently is actually what is best, and we shouldn’t force any changes onto such an important part of young people’s lives.

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