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How do you see or wish to see the future classroom? What will be the role of a teacher?

13 May 2014

We are glad to have two blog posts of our Natural Language Processing researcher and entrepreneur Myriam Munezero. These posts are cross-posted from her personal blog.

I was glad to have gotten an opportunity to attend the Oppi festival last weekend, thanks to the Unipid and etlakes projects. The Oppi festival is a not-for-profit festival focusing on education. It was laid back which made it easy to network and talk with people. It was inspiring to be in such an environment, with people coming form different countries, from the public and private sectors, from companies and from academia, all there to share, learn, and most of all make a change.

It was also interesting for me because I was at a talk the Thursday before the festival about emerging trends and areas of innovation in Africa and 'education' was one of the most mentioned area that needed disruption, and had opportunities for that. So I was with open ears at the Oppi festival.

There were many lessons and reflections from this festival that I had to break it down into two posts. This is the first one and the other one is titled: How can education systems produce graduates who meet the market needs?

A common theme, although not a new one, that came across from many of the talks in the festival was that the traditional classroom as we know it or used to know it, was no longer needed or that it no longer worked in the same way. When talking of the traditional classroom, what is being depicted is the teacher standing in front of the students and giving information, in their own engaging way, and the students taking it in. In this view the teacher has the central role.

Why was this a common theme? Mostly because of the rise and spread of technology. Access to information and educational content is now much easier and more available. This allows the learning process to occur and continue beyond the classroom, and can happen at any time and everywhere. It was also a common theme because, the traditional classrooms are producing graduates who are not meeting the needs of the job market and thus unemployable. There is a growing need for classrooms to move from the passive to active learning.

The traditional classroom worked at some point because the teacher was usually the person who was the expert or at least most knowledgeable and the classroom was a source for students of getting that information and discussing it. But nowadays, with internet access, the students have access to various sources of information, access to books that were not as easily accessible, access other knowledgeable people as well. Thus the teacher is no longer the primary source of information. In some settings, you will even find students who know more than the teacher, especially when it comes to using technology.

Thus the classrooms need a shift that puts the student as the central role in the classroom and in the whole learning process. There is a need for the classroom to put the focus on the student as the person in charge of their own learning - more Student Centered Learning.

Sugata Mitra, winner of 2013 TED prize was one of the speakers at Oppi sharing with us his vision of a future classroom. Sugata Mitra is probably best known for his work on the computer in a hole experiments in India (listen to his TED talk). With those experiments he found that children in remote areas when left with a technology long enough will eventually learn to use it with no prior background knowledge. Thus he says, in the right engaging environment, students are able to self-organize and learn on the own, they are able to self-instruct themselves and each other. Based on his findings, he said the role of the teacher should be more like that of a friend and the classroom more of an engaging and collaborative environment.

This brought up a lot of questions from the audience, especially from those who were teachers. The redefined role has lots of implications for teachers. It is not that the role is less important, just different, perhaps even more challenging. As a friend the teacher is tasked with encouraging, listening, interacting, creating engaging environments and groups, exploring with students the ways in which to use the information they've acquired, and how to make the students truly internalize this information. And good teachers have been doing this already. But what happens when you have classrooms of 50, 100 students, how can you be a friend to all?

Sugata Mitra also pointed out another change in the classroom. That nowadays, more than ever, teachers need to explain the purpose of why students should learn something (Relevance-Oriented Learning). Gone are the days where the teacher says, 'today I will teach you something, trust me you will need this in the future'. Students nowadays need a reason to do something. So the teacher has to find ways to connect information to the situations that are of interest or relevant to the student. As a teacher you do not have to do all the work, you can encourage students to investigate and find out where in their lives they will need certain concepts. This kind of interactive method highlights the importance of putting students in charge of their own learning. Students will not learn unless they are willing to learn.

It is impossible to discuss future classrooms without discussing the role that technology plays in learning. However this is a discussion for another time. One thing though that came through many of the talks was that technology should empower the teacher and students, but it does not replace the community engagement among peers and teachers which is important to the learning process. This can be seen from the high drop out rates in MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) environments or students not finishing the courses at all. Somehow, for learning, there is still a need for physical engagement, and interactive environments.

I find this commercial funny - just shows technology can't replace everything :)

The festival outlined many challenges, especially as there is no one model that fits all. Each institution or country is different and they have to find a way that works for them. A good analogy given in one of the talks at the festival was that the problem in the education systems should be approached as an obesity and not a polio problem. Thus not just finding one cure and administer it to all cases, but consider each case individually.

For me, I would like to see current and future classrooms as rich engaging learning communities, where students do not just consume information, but internalize it, learn to apply it, learn by doing, learn by interacting with each other, classrooms and communities that are empowered with technology.

How do you wish to see the future classroom or role of a teacher in your respective country or institution?

Myriam Munezero

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