Increasing student engagement in classrooms

Prof Subrata Chakraborty, former Dean and Director in- Charge, IIM Lucknow on how we can harness the potential of the digital age while minimising its downsides

It’s a common belief that a nation’s future is made in its classrooms. However, over the last couple of decades the issue of student engagement in academics in general, and classrooms in particular has become a cause for concern. Reality is, majority of the classroom discourses are unable to attract sufficient student engagement, and the phenomenon spans across the entire spectrum of education—high school to postgraduate education.

More than a decade ago a study conducted by the students of Indian Institute of Management (Lucknow) came up with the finding that, over the years, students’ inclination to learn through formal classroom interactions has been steadily declining. The situation only seems to have worsened. So, what’s causing this decline? Is there a problem with the students, the teachers or the system? What has gone wrong with a system that had seemed to work so far and had kept students enthralled in classrooms?

A comprehensive answer can only be found through painstaking research. The purpose here is not to find an answer, but to create awareness and a willingness to look into some of the probable causes. Some broad suggestions have been offered towards the end of this note with the hope that the academic community will engage itself seriously on this issue, and come up with effective solutions to reverse the trend. The following paragraphs provide brief accounts of how students think, what teachers do, and the way institutions respond, in the present times.

How students think

The students of today are certainly as intelligent as those of the previous era, and are also as eager to learn. However, there are considerable differences in the way they think and act. Indoctrination to the digital world from childhood brings a difference in their thought processes and preferred action modes. What are the changes the digital world has brought in them?

Firstly, cellphones, computers, and iPods have become a common feature, if not central, in many of our households. Children, as young as 5 years, spend fair amount of time fiddling with some or the other of these gadgets. This has resulted in significant shifts in attitude and behaviour, as thinking seems to get framed by the tool one chooses to use.

Secondly, because we are increasingly turning to digital networks to stay connected, a culture of rapid response has developed. With the pressure of being available at all times, one is left with little time to think about what one is doing. The result is atomised thinking, where one’s ability to concentrate is substantially chipped away. Multi-tasking has become a way of life. Last, and perhaps most importantly, ‘when a piece of information can be recalled at the click of a mouse, why bother to learn?’ seems to be the growing psyche. Admittedly, these three differences are not exhaustive, but they do indicate the nature of challenges.

What teachers do

Teachers recognise that today’s breed of students are different. However, as they themselves belong to a different era, they are not quite able to come up with a satisfactory method to deal with the situation. Some have taken to digital media to impart learning, using tools like Google hangout to be in touch with students.

However, most of such interventions are knee-jerk reactions rather than well thought out strategies. There are plenty of answers doing the rounds, but very few good questions are being asked. The current obsession is with ‘whether something can be done’; not, ‘whether it should be done.’

Studies have supported that reading on a computer screen is fast and is suited to foraging of facts; whereas, reading on paper is better suited for understanding an overall argument or a concept.

However, how to bring back the students to physical books remains a million dollar question as the trigger for that primarily came from engaging classrooms.

How institutions respond

The number of students enrolled with the formal system increased manifold during the last decade of the previous century and the upsurge continued until about eight years back; before a declining trend began to show up in certain professional streams, subsequently spreading elsewhere.

During the growth phase institutions got busy with handling the increased numbers, assuming that ‘if they always do what they always did, they will always get what they always got,’ change being the only constant. In this process education got increasingly commodified, causing further disenchantment among the present generation of students. Phraseologies such as “classroom deliberations are of little value”, which were earlier heard occasionally at the tertiary level of education, have now made their way into the vocabularies of school children.

Many institutions, obsessed with the goal of maintaining uniformity, have willy-nilly created a situation where acquisition of knowledge is seen as a mechanistic process, resulting in a factorylike environment in the classrooms. What is being overlooked is that knowledge acquisition happens at the conjuncture of inner readiness and outer guidance. Classrooms used to be the place to create that inner readiness in the past, but not any more.

The key question, therefore, is: How can we harness the potential of the digital age while minimising its downsides? As mentioned earlier, there are no easy answers. The only way is to get back to the drawing board and re-examine the learning system.

How we can make a difference

To be able to deal with the cultural revolution of the digital age we need to guide it to a reasonable destination. To do this, the learning system needs to be studied from two points of view: inside view (those of students, teachers, administrators, proprietors) and the outside view (those relating to performance, speed, cost, maintenance).

The Focus needs to be on enabling anybody, anywhere, to learn whatever she/he wants to know and learn rapidly and simply about any subject, at any depth, at the lowest possible cost. For that, if a virtual classroom is the way to go, so be it. Learning modules should be simple, accessible and attractive for the students. Contents could be atomised and modularised while being interrelated and well ordered. Students should also be permitted to experiment with the learning material and apply it as soon as they learn it in the same environment.

Also, learning should no longer impose a particular environment on the learner. Instead, the content and its representation including the style of learning need to be designed keeping in view the learner’s state of mind. These suggestions could appear formidable. Some may even call these absurd or impractical. But do we have an effective alternative approach? If not, then we need to put all our academic might to retune our systems recalling what Einstein said, “We live in a world of problems which can no longer be solved by the level of thinking that created them.

Author’s BIO

Prof Subrata Chakraborty is former Dean and Director in- Charge of Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. He is also the former Director, Jaipuria Institute of Management, Lucknow. He has taught at NITIE Mumbai, Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management, S P Jain institute of Management Research, Indian Statistical Institute, VJTI. He was a member of the Board of Governors of IIM Lucknow, and of National Institute of Health and Family Welfare, New Delhi

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