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Teaching in the Age of Digital

  • Published at 12:27 am March 1st, 2018
Teaching in the Age of Digital
The idea of university teaching is that you impart knowledge based on a curriculum to emerging adults so that they are better prepared for employment, entrepreneurship, or higher education, and can also contribute productively and ethically to society. The way it is done in our country, or for that matter, any country, is through a lecture-based process we academics fashionably call “pedagogy,” which, incidentally, is Greek for “art or science of teaching children.” There is a whole debate on why adult learning or “andragogy” ought to be different and less lecture-based and more participatory and experiential. But that is not the point of this piece (although andragogy is particularly suited to online learning). The point of this piece is that Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, as they are called, are gaining in popularity, and what we as academics can do about it. While globally famous MOOCs such as edX and Coursera may not have found a meaningful market in Bangladesh, yet, there is no doubt about the potential of locally produced MOOCs as evidenced by the growth of the 10 Minute School.
Online learning also has a unique way of ensuring instant feedback, which statistics show is gratifying for learners and can also help sustain interest
The fact is that we are a nation that has more mobile phones than sanitary toilets (let alone bank accounts or university degrees) and the seventh largest population globally in an area the size of Michigan. This will render telecommunications and the internet progressively cheaper and adoption of technologies a surefire way of righting a lot of wrongs, whether it be via inclusive education or inclusive finance. So, I often ask myself this question: What can we, as academics, do differently (or better), to prepare for the inevitable popularization of MOOCs? Do we start with a simple integration of short online courses into our semester-long courses, sort of like using MOOCs as modern-day textbooks? Do we use existing online social platforms like Facebook and encourage course-based groups, assigning class reps as group administrators, and encourage active content sharing by students and online group discussion (since students spend so much time online anyway)? Can we conduct a certain portion of our office-hours live, whether through Facebook or Skype? Or do we try to capture approaches to online learning that render it successful and integrate them in our classroom lectures, for example, elements of participatory learning, video-based learning, instant feedback, and open-book testing? I have experienced online courses myself, recently, when I took a certificate course on Digital Finance offered by the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. In my experience, I found it particularly useful that lectures are not only conversations between experts on the topic of the week, but they are uploaded and available anytime the learner wants to access them. I started to imagine the immense efficiencies I would achieve if I could record important segments of my lecture and upload them on a platform. This is not to make faculty members redundant and it will not, since, there will always be a premium to the human interaction in learning. But think of the possibilities of enhanced learning we could afford students if they could refer and re-refer to important sections of our lectures. I have found that online learning also has a unique way of ensuring instant feedback, which statistics show is gratifying for learners and can also help sustain interest. In MOOCs, you take quizzes online and you know immediately how well or poorly you have done. While this is not a feature we can easily incorporate into our mid-terms or final exams, I think it helps immensely if one is able to return graded assignments as quickly as possible, and in some cases, during the group presentation portion of your course (if you have one!), announce the grades on the same day. Last, but not least, “cheating in the age of digital” has also become considerably sophisticated, for lack of a better word. I hear of instances when students will have their own group on Facebook Messenger through which they will share Googled answers. So, all it takes is for one student to go un-noticed while he or she is using a mobile phone. This is a difficult challenge of course and one we struggle with at a macro or sectoral level. A short-term solution I try to resort to, partially inspired by MOOCs, is that I try to set questions in such a manner, that even if students had their textbook or Google open in front of them, they would still have to think on their feet to arrive at answers. In sum, I try to make the questions as analytical and subjective as possible. This is easier for post-graduate courses, but it is an approach that is worth considering and continuously refining.   Sajid Amit is Director, CES & EMBA, ULAB. He is an alumnus of Dartmouth College and Columbia University.