Ben was nervous. It was bedtime already and he had not completed his English homework yet. The storm in the afternoon had caused the electricity lines to be snapped and there was no Wi-Fi, no way to find sample essays on the internet. His teacher would be furious. The topic of the essay: An evening on a Beach.

His sister, Chloe, was nervous too. She had typed down all her class notes on the laptop. She had a test the next day and the laptop’s battery was dead. She recalled laughing at her friend Laura because she preferred writing her notes in a notebook and highlighting them with different colored pens. “What a waste of time” – she had thought back then. Now, she wasn’t so sure.

Ben and Chloe are not alone in their dependence on technology to help them sail through their daily activities. 90% of students responded affirmatively when asked whether they use help from the internet to write a creative essay. It defeats the very definition of creativity as something original and imaginative, but students today rarely understand what ‘imagination’ truly means.

When and how did we reach this stage? Why have students become unequivocally and irretrievably shackled to machines? What can be the consequences of such servitude? Most importantly, how is it going to affect their future?

Technology for Education – A Boon or Bane?

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With easy access to technology and equipment at ever-cheaper rates, the idea of a modern classroom changed enormously at the beginning of the 21st century. Blackboards were swapped with whiteboards and markers, projectors and screens were installed, laptops and tablets with eBooks were allowed as replacements for textbooks. This was topped up by websites and software making work submission and assessment corrections a virtual cakewalk. While students found technology ‘cool’ and ‘modern’, educators found them ‘engaging’ and ‘helpful’. There was no looking back.

While there is no denying the benefits of technology, excessive reliance on them has proven detrimental to the cognitive development of impressionable minds. When students read about a young girl, lost in the jungle and looking for her grandmother’s cottage, they form visions of the girl, the forest, the dangers, the cottage and will very often place themselves in the girl’s shoes. This enhances their imagination and creativity, and in turn, help them to appreciate the nuances of writing as a craft. The same story, when seen on a screen in thirty minutes, allows for no imagination; only taking in the plot and recalling the events. The teacher’s job might have been reduced by half but she has damaged the children irrevocably.

Technology cannot be a replacement for human touch. While schools are investing in the production of robots who will take away the teacher’s load, artificial intelligence cannot provide the much-needed emotional spine to a class. Teachers do not teach a subject; they teach a child. They know the pulse of each child; how they react, how they think, what will trigger them off, what will soothe them down. Children grow up as secure, confident individuals only if they have had reassuring, comforting relationships in their adolescence. The more they spend time with machines, the more insensitive they become to the beating of a human heart.

Education in times of COVID-19

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The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has been an eye-opener with regard to the reach and impact of technology in the lives of students. As schools after schools were shut down amidst fears of the virus, educators found themselves in a dark tunnel – how do they conduct classes? How do they take assessments? How do they interact with children?

Video conferencing tools and apps came to dominate the conversation and soon schools shifted to teaching online. When the presence of a common physical space was taken away, the real problems with technology began to be perceived. Despite their best efforts, students across the globe in every country said that they much rather preferred face-to-face interaction with their teachers to truly comprehend concepts. Old-school, right?

Educators and researchers had known this always. It just took a health hazard of global proportions to explain it to students, parents and administrators that the integration of technology into classrooms is not going to necessarily prepare the children better for a tech-dependent world outside.

Each year, a test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is taken by 15-year-olds all across the globe. Test scores showed that students in Korea and Shanghai had high math scores, but only used technology “moderately” while in a school setting. Furthermore, the PISA showed that countries that used technology to teach saw a drop in their reading scores. Attention-span of children bombarded with technology were far lesser compared to children who read books.

Researchers from Princeton University found that students who handwrite notes do better than students who type notes. The researchers suggest that the physical process of writing helps students because it forces them to slow down and summarize their writing. While writing a pen-paper exam, a student is forced to pay attention to his handwriting, spellings, punctuation and grammar to make meaning of what he/she is trying to say. When writing on Word processors or online, these problems are taken care of automatically. While this may sound convenient to students, they are missing out on learning extremely essential skills of communication.

There is no return path from the maze of social media apps and video games. Almost nothing will make children give up on them. Augmenting the time they spend in front of screens with school and college work is only adding up to the physical harm caused to their eyesight and posture. Forcing children to work without computers might seem harsh but will be beneficial in the long run. It will foster their creativity and will teach them basic ethics regarding plagiarism. Appreciation of the original content is absolutely necessary to encourage students to ditch the machines and rely on themselves for answers.

To conclude, an anecdote about the scientist George Dantzig should suffice. After entering his Statistics class quite late, he found two problems written on the board and assumed that they were meant for homework. He went home, solved them and submitted his work. Dantzig was awarded a doctorate for solving two famous unsolved problems of the world, which is what the teacher had been discussing in class. Had he searched the internet to look for the answers, he would have known immediately.

Technology, therefore, is a good tool when used in moderation but the moment it becomes a master, the student becomes a cripple, unable to walk two steps without it.

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