Science under the internet

Some years ago, a couple of girls studying in class 10 approached me wanting to do a project in science. They were very excited about the internet and wanted the project to be a way of studying it. We had some discussions, and an idea from a colleague led to a very interesting project. The students used the traceroute program, a critical component of the TCP/IP protocol (which is the backbone of the internet), to find the circumference of the earth. What is trivial to look up on the internet, becomes a joyful scientific exploration when we look under the net. The idea was to send a packet around the earth and use traceroute to track the path, and from arrival times at various nodes, estimate the circumference of the earth. With another colleague helping them with the calculations, the students did an excellent project, enjoying learning about speed of light in optical fibre, among other things.

We love stories with morals and this one offers several, such as, technologybased explorations in science and scientific explorations of technology can all be very rewarding and enjoyable, and there is more to internet than Google. We hear a great deal of talk extolling technology-based teaching/learning, and on the other, strident critiques of technology use in classrooms. Both these sides tend to equate technology with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and this restricts us to a narrow vision indeed.

Rather interestingly, while policy documents and governments always refer to ‘S&T’, such coupling of science and technology is natural to policy but remains alien to the school classroom.

Indeed, if there is one domain that calls for new curricular action in school, it is that of technology.

As the third decade of the twenty-first century approaches, our schools still largely ignore technology as an object of curricular engagement. The current school curriculum considers science education to be central, but technology is largely peripheral within it. Other disciplines of study, such as social studies, hardly discuss the role of technology in shaping modern society, let alone critique that role. At the tertiary level, technological studies are termed ‘professional’ and separated from science. This works well for the large industrialized modes of production, with all technology creation patented and owned by big industry, and the general educated public being merely consumers of technology. Unfortunately, in the poorer countries, this has led to the import of technology in the main, and citizens’ ability to innovate confined to the few.

On the other hand, there is an increasing perception that twenty-first century modes of production will allow for small industries created by groups of individuals to innovate without exclusive technological training. The East Asian and western European countries have tried to integrate technology education into school science education, and the study of technology in relation to society is also given curricular stature in these systems. In Sweden, for instance, every high school has a workshop that includes a foundry and carpentry, and science laboratories are integrated with the workshop. The Chinese school system is currently transforming itself to such a model.

The science classroom is the best place to introduce technology to students. This cannot be achieved by ‘lessons’ on X-technology or Y-technology, to be learnt as information items and memorized. In fact, along with a factual and conceptual understanding of natural phenomena, students also need a fluency in working with the material world in a way that builds on experimentation, observation, prediction and critical inquiry. Technology is best learnt by doing, by active engagement with material and energy conversion. Working with metal, wood and soil is essential for building a relationship with nature that is purposeful and wise. This needs the active and simultaneous engagement of the mind, the heart and the hands. Articulating the goals of science education to include active hands-on engagement with the material world implies according primacy to wood and metal, to leaves and stones, to life forms and crystals—not by seeing them as pictures (or worse, reading their descriptions) in books but touching, feeling and working with them. This is essential for developing an integrated feel for science and technology.

Coupled with experimentation, an emphasis on quantification is a characteristic of science. Measuring, estimating, approximating, calculating and model building are everyday processes for any form of science, and these again are habits to be inculcated in the learning child, not only for sharpening her own abilities but also towards building a society that can critically engage with issues of technology use and its impact on the environment. Students need to perceive the rootedness of technology in science, as also the technological potential embedded in science. They need to understand and internalise the fact that technology is the conversion of material and energy in different forms by work, and that this is based on sound scientific principles. Such emphasis in science classrooms could offer an important direction for the future of our children.

Apart from hands-on experience, science pedagogy itself needs to actively make connections with technology. For instance, we rarely teach Pascal’s law by pointing out that this is indeed the principle that literally enables huge trucks to be held up on mere rubber tyres pumped with air. The sheer wonder of air holding up a heavy truck is important for the learning child, and further, the tremendous opening up of possibilities in the mind is critical for planting the seeds of technological innovation. Similarly, biodegradation is a phenomenon to be understood, but it is also important to see the possibilities of composting in technological terms. This is a connection mostly missing in our science curriculum, and a careful reworking can make science learning not only immensely enjoyable to children, but also useful to them and to society.

Technomania and ICT

I am well aware that the foregoing discussion takes on an idiosyncratic stance, ignoring the major and very relevant debate on the use of ICT in classrooms. Recent discussions on the ‘Draft New Education Policy’ or the ‘TechVision 2035’ document of the Government of India centre on the use of ICT ‘in meeting the need for universalization of quality education in India’. Proponents of ICT talk of how it can help overcome the serious problem of lack of ‘quality teachers’ by providing direct access to ‘presentations of high quality’ by experts via video and other modes. They also say that ICT would make classes more interesting and offer easy access to information (lessening need for memorisation). It is also true that children take to using ICT very easily.

On the other hand, the dangers of the internet, especially for children, cannot be overemphasized; the recent disasters such as with the Blue Whale game underline such dangers. Another criticism is about the seductive nature of technology, again especially for the young ones, getting them hooked to fast moving images that deter sober reflection. The television has amply demonstrated how passive it can render children, and it is not a stretch to see similar pitfalls in ‘educational technology’ as well.

There is some truth in all these propositions, but both sides tend to equate technology use with ICT, and we need to carefully examine underlying assumptions. In a justified backlash against (a seemingly evident) technomania in government policy, we cannot take a unitary position against technology use in classrooms, either. ICT does have a disruptive power that needs to be harnessed. We are all acutely aware of the tyranny of the textbook in our schools. ICT offers highly flexible modes of navigating educational material, through the use of hyperlinks and multiple windows. Thus, it can break into the linear structure of our textbooks. It can also tremendously help in localizing and even personalizing content, which is most welcome in a scenario where textbooks and curricula can create a false uniformity. The combination of these two—flexible navigation and personalized content—opens doors to new ways of learning. Consider a child interested in light, exploring art and photography on one side and physics on the other. Such breaking down of compartments is natural in ICT-enhanced education, and is of tremendous value in situations where a teacher is unable to do this.

Once we start envisioning the possibilities, we can see that ICT not only has the potential to enrich our education but indeed can also provide a tool for educational objectives that we cannot accomplish without it. As an instance of the latter, consider the question—how would the world look and behave if the acceleration on earth due to gravity were just a tiny bit less? It is hard to imagine such a thing, much harder to quantify what we imagine. A computer simulation can achieve this very well, can make us think, and indeed lead us to more related questions and open-ended exploration. In a mathematics class, we could not only graph a cubic polynomial, but also pull the curve down, predict how the quadratic coefficient would change, and verify it. Try doing it on paper! Consider zooming into topographic maps in geography. Consider visits to museums in another continent.

All these glories of ICT should always be viewed with healthy suspicion. The dangers of unsafe use of the internet are far too real and immediate to be ignored. We also need to be very wary of the seductive nature of ICT, especially when it is translated to mean instant access to fast-moving images, whether for entertainment or for education. While visualisation of abstractions is a meaningful educational challenge, instant packaged mobile visuals can disengage thought and abstraction, which can harm learning not only at that instant, but for future as well, by causing a craving for such quick answers, making it harder to think. Hands-on, minds-off is a real and present danger in ICT use and the classroom cannot provide room for it.

When we break the identification of educational technology with ICT, we can raise the quality of debate. Every time someone speaks of ICT and mentions how children take easily to such technology, how their fouryear olds are able to operate smartphones when they couldn’t, it is worth remembering that for lakhs of Indian children, working with wood and soil comes naturally too. They have always been good at handling any technology with their nimble fingers, not only ICT. It is the education system that has never taken this ability seriously (until ICT came along).

The questions we need to ask

When we consider the use of technology for educational purposes, there are many questions to ask. How does/can technology help and enhance our educational purposes and experiences? How can the education system contribute to the development of such technology? How do we ensure that these educational purposes are indeed being accomplished? While there are no easy answers to these questions, we do need an articulation of some guiding principles, and the following propositions need intensive discussion:

  • We need to evaluate technology use in the classroom without equating it with the use ICT use, while being wary of the dangers inherent in the use of ICT.
  • We need to see students as constructors of knowledge and technology, and not merely consumers of the potential offered by technology.
  • Working with nature and materials is essential in education (especially science education), and this means innovative incorporation of other forms of technology than ICT.
  • Technology can play a significant role in engaging students in learning, and this needs to be understood and used carefully.

Mathematician and educator WW Sawyer wrote, “Do things, make things, notice things, arrange things, and only then reason about things.” Ways of thinking are shaped by ways of doing in the material world. Therefore, understanding of technology and a healthy attitude to it are fundamental to modern life. A wider perspective is sorely needed in the debates surrounding technology in classrooms.

* Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article appeared in ‘Voices of Teachers and Teacher Educators’, NCERT, VI: 2 (February 2018).