In an exclusive interview to the Website of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), Dr. Zouchen Zhang, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor, Ontario (Canada) argued that with the introduction of information technology, time has come for more learner-centered approaches in education. During the interview — conducted on the sidelines of the ECSSR’s 3rd Annual Education Conference entitled: “Information Technology and the Future of Education in the United Arab Emirates” — Dr. Zouchen Zhang emphasized that one should not merely teach with the aid of technological devices but technology should be integrated it into the system of learning itself, which will bring about an enhanced and more rewarding experience for students and teachers alike. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Experts who support technology-backed education are always confronted with the question on how to formulate and standardize a system of education that is based on a rapidly changing technology. How would you respond to this issue?
A: Well, I think it is hard to standardize such a system. Instead, it is probably more practical for people to change their attitude or perception of teaching and learning. Earlier, people were more concerned about teaching. However, the time has come for more learner-centered approaches to be accepted by people. In fact, educators should pay more attention to pedagogies of inquiry-based learning, which means that instead of putting knowledge into the brains of the students, students should feel more motivated to learn.
In this sense, I guess, people need to redefine the term ‘learning’. Some people think that we should use technology to enhance learning, and so they hesitate to dub technology as a means or a tool, but prefer to call its use as that of an ‘enhancer’. However, some teachers continue to use technology as a tool, they develop a power point presentation for every class, which is just a digitalized highlighter of the text. Therefore, we should not use the approach of teaching with technology, but should try to integrate technology into the system.
I agree with some recent authors that suggest that by using technology in teaching and learning, children learn the skills required to master the technology itself. So I would like to suggest that we should try to integrate ICT into teaching, wherever we can and whenever we can, so that students in the process of learning through technologies learn the technology too.
Q: Some people have doubts whether technology helps in the learning process, especially at the foundational levels of education. In fact, most teachers and lecturers do not encourage students to bring technological devices in classrooms. What is your view?
A: Usually in schools, teachers do not allow students to bring in laptops. Even sometimes in colleges laptops are not allowed. However, I encourage all my students to bring in their technological devices. The thing is that you should encourage students to use technology as part of their learning process. However, we sometimes find teachers employing ICT in classes, but they still consider laptops and I-Pads as a distraction or disturbance in the learning process. In my view the problem is that teachers do not know how to integrate these devices into the learning process.
Some people say that teachers cannot integrate information technology because they are not properly trained. I partially agree with that. However, to me the other reason is their attitude. Teachers usually teach the way they were taught. So they think that as I was not taught in this way when I was in college why I should teach differently. But they forget that maybe at that time the technology did not exist. So, I think what is important is for teachers to have a lifelong learning approach. They should keep learning as they teach. If they have the right attitude to learn, whether they are new teachers or experienced, then they will keep developing their skills. So that if they have to learn something new they can even learn from their students, especially when it comes to information technology. You see, nowadays the young generation students are ‘digital natives’ and we teachers are known as ‘digital immigrants’.
The traditional perception is that teachers know everything. So if you don’t know something that students know you look stupid. That is not the right attitude to have. I think it would be useful that if you don’t know something that students know you learn from them, especially when it comes to information technology. Nowadays, teachers should be more like ‘facilitators’. There are many educationists these days who promote social constructivism. This means that students learn more from the social environment, which implies we learn more from each other, instead of students learning only from teachers.
Q: But this would require a complete change in the style of education, the curricula etc. Wouldn’t it?
A: This can be done in a gradual manner. The attitude should be that we become part of a community of learners and we learn from each other. If you have this approach then when you start teaching you would know what to do.
Q: The question here is that will the educational administration, society and parents accept this interactive system of learning in place of the conventional, didactic and instruction based teaching process?
A: If you treat this form of education in a revolutionary way then it is possible that educational institutions and parents may not accept it. However, if you introduce such a process gradually, then this system could become more acceptable. I mean in the long run if parents see their children develop through such a system, they will not worry too much. The other thing is that even though such techniques look new, they are not so and have been in practice since ages.
Q: However, the record of ICT-based education is not highly remarkable. There is criticism that ICT promises a lot but delivers little and the results produced by good schools, even which employ conventional methods of instruction, remains quite effective?
A: Talking about that, there are a lot of people nowadays who are advocates of online learning. However, after a few days people realize that pure online learning is not as effective as is claimed and so some people take to blended learning —partly online and partly conventional learning. A few years ago, I taught a purely online course and afterwards I did some interviews with my students who said that their online learning was fine, but they would have liked to have some classroom meetings especially in the beginning of the class, when they did not know each other. They thought that if they would have met and seen each other at the outset they would have felt more comfortable. In fact, sometimes informal communication helps in the learning process.