A teacher since 1976, I have seen major changes in classroom technologies and the emergence of alternative sources of information such as electronic media and the Internet. Students’ attitudes towards learning, their ability to concentrate and their social awareness have all changed quite noticeably. Their ambitions and values have also changed. They rarely question the voice of authority. They hardly seem interested in anything that does not concern them directly. I retired from teaching at a time when classrooms are designed as spaces without a live teacher. Instead, a projected image of a teacher from a distant place may become more and more common. Books and PowerPoint slides can be found on student laptops. Curriculum content places less emphasis on concepts and ideas, and more on information and empirical evidence. The skills acquired have become much more oriented towards quantitative and empirical techniques and their applications.
A major distinction between the late 20th century and early 21st century classroom is the growing importance of visual aids in learning over printed words. Video clips, television, animated PowerPoint slides, and photographs are used much more than the printed word and written text. The books are hardly read by the new generation of students. Whatever books are available, most of them are in electronic form. That’s not to say that visual content has never been used before: the books had elaborate pictures and technical diagrams. They were accepted learning aids. However, the foundation was the printed word. Technology has made visual content much more sophisticated and user-friendly, making learning engaging and easy. Visual aids supported by audio inputs can easily claim superiority over the printed word from the perspective of the learner. Most students find things easier to remember when exposed to audiovisual media.
Yet, many education experts point out that something important is lost in over-reliance on visuals. The dominant technique of visual culture is forged around fragmented images and the immediacy of information. Fast cameras and precise editing tools create an instant appeal to emotions, while discouraging critical thinking. Pictures are presented at high fire speed and usually lack a particular unit, such as in talk shows or TV news. The whole becomes a spectacle and the image becomes reality and therefore truth. In such a medium, the over-dramatization of intense emotions of anger, grief, hatred or love becomes part of the objective understanding of reality. We tend to believe that the camera saw everything exactly as it happened. Seeing a fictional video clip and seeing a report become indistinguishable. However, in the easy appeal of the visual lies its complicated danger.
Visual media are becoming an important force in the act of cultural and social reproduction. Students, when strongly influenced by audiovisual aids, fail to see things in the larger context of social reality. They find it increasingly difficult to connect seemingly unrelated things. Suppose in a class on economic development two sets of audio-visuals are used, one depicting rich and modern urban lifestyles, and the other showing rural poverty and misery. The uninitiated students would immediately identify the first set of audio-visuals as what constitutes the good life, without being able to connect with rural poverty, why it exists, and what could be done to reduce or eradicate the human deprivations that are represented graphically in the second audio-visual series. When you consider the two-way communication that modern social media like Facebook, email, or WhatsApp have, things get more complex. What is perceived is a multi-layered impression of “facts” which are finely mixed with lies, inaccuracies and exaggerations.
Print media, on the other hand, has its own imperfections. However, reading print requires attention and concentration that visual culture does not. One can stop, reflect and go back while reading a text, thus creating a space for critical reflection. You have to approach reading with intention. Reading the written word allows a more rigorous appreciation of the validity of the argument or the veracity of the facts. The visual medium does not have the tactile qualities of the printed medium. Reading also requires certain intellectual skills that audiovisual content does not. This is precisely why there is unnecessary debate about a director’s loyalty to a book when making a movie. It is unnecessary precisely because the experiences are different. When I saw for the first time Doctor Zhivago the movie, I barely remembered the book I had read a few months before watching the movie. Visual images are strong. When I tried to read again Doctor Zhivago after watching the movie, I couldn’t. The visual images kept interrupting my flow of thought.
Coming to the economy of the two alternative mediums of transmission of knowledge and information, the production of the print is less expensive and more accessible. The visual medium is controlled by large corporations, and they have hegemony over the mass culture that they help to create and propagate. Corporate interests may find it difficult to democratize their control over radio, television and film. The enormous popularity of television and the Internet creates a space for widespread influence. This control and influence requires technological skills and the right people to innovate and refine ways of manipulating thought.
It is here that we come back to the modern classroom of audiovisual aids and the relative importance of techniques on concepts and critical thinking. Bright students with great intelligence quickly acquire the techniques and their applications. We saw in my generation’s lifetime the absurd race for engineering degrees and the eclipse of the liberal arts and social sciences with the possible exception of mainstream economics. The decline of print and the rise of the visual have made great careers for people with a penchant for mastering techniques. It has been said that visual mass culture has industrialized our minds and colonized the sphere of leisure. They create new algorithms that penetrate deeper into our private spaces; our preferences, our fears and anxieties, our vulnerabilities and our ambitions. Ultimately, Google and Amazon will know more about ourselves than we do. Therefore, in the modern classroom of the world’s best institutions, corporate dominance to influence culture and consumerism recurs. The teacher and the printing technology are on the way out. This is the age of the advent of the one-dimensional techno-managerial assistant.
I will end with some recent experiences that I have had as a teacher. At one of the leading business schools in the country, as a visiting professor, I had declared an interview rule on the first day of class that smart phones should not be used when I was teaching. It did not work. I lost. So, after about two weeks, I announced that those who wanted to use their smartphones and deliberately insult me could go and sit in a specified corner of the classroom. In a class of about 70 students, about 20 students stood up and moved to the specified corner. In another case, in another class, after a debate on the effectiveness of non-violence as a political tool, I called for a vote to reveal the students’ true beliefs. There was a unanimous vote of hands against non-violence. I was confused and shocked. I wonder if the two distinct answers in two quite different contexts were in fact rooted in the same culture and the same ideology.
The author is a former professor of economics, IIM Calcutta