What the Russian-born American writer Isaac Asimov imagined would happen in 2155 seems to have become a reality more than a century earlier. In his 1951 story, 'The Fun They Had', mechanical teachers taught children in their own homes. COVID-19 advanced Asimov's 22nd Century world, in which children hated 'schools' and their mechanical teachers, to early 21st century.
Jaya Nagarajan, the principal of Hari Sri Vidya Nidhi School, Thrissur, referred to the Asimov story as a warning. The possibilities of augmented reality and virtual reality were immense but Jaya said that online classes were taking their toll on children.
"Today, the online classes are taking a toll on our children. We have a section of children who are distracted, depressed and cranky, leaving their parents deeply worried," Jaya said, while taking part in the discussion on the 'Immersive Classroom: Experiences with AR/VR & New Age Technology' at Techspectations Educate Digital Summit held on Saturday.
Asimov's story is about the nostalgia felt by two children for an ancient world unknown to them. Their school was the room next to their bedroom, like now in our pandemic times. There was no sitting together and shouting and sharing and collective games. Their teacher was a mechanical being superior to human beings but distant. Their printed words were on a television screen; a book with printed static words was a novelty for them.
Here is how the story ends: "Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the good old days. She was thinking about the fun they had."
Jaya acknowledged that online education was here to say but advocated a mix of both forms of education. "We can go off and on, we can adopt a judicious mix of offline and online education," she said, and added: "We need children in school. There can be no substitute for touch, especially in the case of small children."
Aditi Chatterjee, the director of Silver Hills Higher Secondary School, Kozhikode, too spoke of the importance of artificial intelligence but warned against the exclusion of natural intelligence. "We do need virtual reality to simulate and enhance learning experiences but we also need to think beyond augmented reality and VR to natural intelligence and preserve it," she said.
Aditi spoke of “comprehehnsive engagement”. “When it comes to AI, all the data is binary. What does not fall in the groove is out of technology,” she said. In other words, there are emotional lessons that even the most advanced machine learning could teach.
Aditi said that the breadth of information was vast when it comes to AI. “But what about the depth of the information,” she asked. “How many of our children have plumbed the depths that will make him competent to deal with life,” she said.
Ajith Jacob, the principal of Thee Choice School, said that AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) were not the panacea. "They are only tools we can rely upon to make real life connections," he said.
Ajith also wanted children from rural and poor backgrounds to secure easy access to technology. Underprivileged areas should be brought up to speed with technology. “We should not be looking at creating smart cities alone, we should be making smart villages, too. It is important to invest heavily in rural schools,” he said.
Teresa Jacobs, the executive director of the Learning wing of the International Skill Development Corporation (ISDC), however, said that online education was not a passing phase but "the way ahead".
She had a word of assurance for teachers like Jaya and Aditi. "On the one hand, we have overworked teachers in the online classroom doing hours of teaching and throwing a bit of assessment but on the other, there are ever growing innovative solutions to tackle issues teachers even knew did exist," Teresa said.
She also said that she was overwhelmed by the ingenuity with which human beings had adapted to the new normal. She said it was high time teachers delved into immersive technology than end up as “mere talking heads”.
Manojkumar Nagasampige, the director of Online Education, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, said VR could enhance learning experience than diminish it. He said that student mistakes dwindled considerably after they were asked to go through virtual labs before entering offline labs. “When we provide first hand experience before we get them into labs, I believe the kind of confidence they gain in handling those skills will immensely increase,” Manojkumar said.
Perhaps, the children in Asimov's story were not told interesting stories by 'mechanical teachers'. Reason why they longed for the old kind of schools “where the kids might have loved it”.