Monday, November 7, 2011

Does technology impede learning - 1

When I was a little boy, I had the chance to go to a traditional mantra class. Like Bal Vihar classes organized by the Chinmaya mission or Carnatic music classes, the teaching was purely oral. Our Guruji explicitly prohibited the use of books - as he said it impeded the learning - which placed a lot of emphasis of intonations and pronunciations and rhythm. He was able to resist it so far - books were available very easily and so the books made inroads into our class. And he was right - the books did impede the learning for some (the older ones who could read Devanagri). That was temporarily though. Later on, they got used to using the books when they had a doubt or some such. And for me it proved useful when I wanted to pick up the threads of the mantra where I had left it off. If I did not have to access to a book, that learning would have been lost forever.

Why I say this is because I am sure when books first made their appearance, people reliant on traditional methods must have cried hoarse saying that the "new" technology will "impede" learning.

One more example. While growing up, my mother often told me about the "mental sums" that they were encouraged to do while in school. She opined that the lack of mental maths was making our understanding of maths that much difficult. And that we did too much of "statement sums" with "Step marking". Tough to say if it did or did not, but my road in maths was not easy. Many years later, I did get over the fear of maths and became quite comfortable with it. I mean, it is like not liking a vegetable - karela of example. I would never order a main dish of karela, but if it is there as part of the course, I might try it out. Ditto maths. I would never have majored in maths, but was able to sail through engineering with a generous use of calculators.

Moving to to calculators. My dad learnt engineering using slide rules and log tables. I had the power of a scientific calculator while I studied. The next generation would probably have a computer (or more likely, a cellphone) handy.

It is arguable that each of these technological advancements - writing, calculators etc. slowed down the progress of learning. Just that I dont agree. Each technical advancement makes us able to rise to better challenges.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it."

This is my thought for those who think that the internet or Google is making us stupid. We could have argued the same on libraries or books or anything else that we have advanced over the years!

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