Beguiled by the world wide web

In the context of discussions on the changing role of education confronted by the apparently inexhaustible resources now available on the world wide web, I wish to pinpoint in no uncertain terms where the Web fails in the classroom, to remove the increasing delusion that it could be a panacea for all educational ills.

By Ananda Lal
  • Published 11.04.18

In the context of discussions on the changing role of education confronted by the apparently inexhaustible resources now available on the world wide web, I wish to pinpoint in no uncertain terms where the Web fails in the classroom, to remove the increasing delusion that it could be a panacea for all educational ills.

A report in a well-known paper said that in a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not. The hypothesis was that because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer's words flowed right to the students' typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material to keep up with the lecture. While the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries, the handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture.

Although we need not accept these results as the gospel truth, we should keep an open mind as to the possible negative consequences of internet-enabled device use by students during a lecture. The point is that today's gadgets are supposed to be educative and may have the sanction of the teacher, but they could end up taking us away from the subject taught.

The online availability and access of all material needed for teaching is one of the biggest popular myths. In literature, for example, only five per cent of all material ever printed has been digitized. This figure will grow exponentially in the next decade but, even so, it will remain quite small, nowhere near a percentage that can make anyone claim that most of humanity's print culture is accessible for all to consult.

It can be argued that Google Books has digitized 25 million titles. But the majority of these can only be seen in preview or snippet form, and only those out of copyright are free to access - by definition applying to old titles. Recent books and research are protected by law, unless we buy them to download. But how many Indians can afford the exchange rate? Thus, although theoretically we can compare multiple versions of the same text online - which we can indeed do with Shakespeare or Tagore - in practice, we cannot apply that to most authors born in the 20th century. We must still buy their books or use libraries.

Yet, visits to libraries have become unfashionable. We can blame Indian libraries for this reluctance as well, but that is another topic. In the latter part of my career, I could not convince most of my students to walk across the corridor to our departmental library, let alone stroll down the campus to our central library. They want their texts and resources in soft copy, though most of these have not jumped into that medium. Literature students rely on secondary critical sources for their exams. Only some of it is available online. To me, an important task for the teacher is to prove the value of the unavailable material to our classes.

Then again, what languages are we looking at? Surely we cannot believe that because many books in European languages have entered online domains, all the significant literature ever produced across the globe is just a mouse-click away? If we reside in India, we can state categorically that the presence of Indian literature online is more of an absence. That imbalance does not appear to be ending any time soon. And, because Indians have philosophically resisted accumulating materialistic possessions, many Indian books simply do not exist in any collection anywhere. I say this from my several years' quest of trying to locate Is This Called Civilization?, a translation of Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Ekei ki Bale Sabhyata, published in Calcutta in 1871, which seems not to have survived in even a single copy anywhere in the world.

Instructive on the perils of the ongoing process of uploading texts is the experience of Carl Malamud, who runs the NGO named Public Resource and makes documents available from the Internet Archive in San Francisco. He uploaded nearly five lakh volumes from the Digital Library of India maintained by the government of India. The DLI had told him they were out of copyright, but he noticed that some were not. He reportedly removed 127. But then a well-connected Russian began creating a fuss: his father's books were there, and he wanted them out. "The government panicked," said Malamud, "and removed the DLI website from the Net."

The government next asked Malamud to take down his whole archive. He stalled: "I ramped it down to about 2,00,000 books, 1923 and back." Even though he has increased the holdings now to nearly four lakh, those of us who visit and are grateful for what it has, are also acutely aware of the terrible errors in metadata and OCR (optical character recognition) in many of its scanned texts. We must wait for facsimile scans of these otherwise inaccessible documents.

Apart from books, we can now view performances that we could not before - for which we must be thankful. But these 'cold', two-dimensional videos can never be substitutes for 'warm', three-dimensional live art, the essence of theatre, dance and music, not for nothing defined as intangible cultural heritage by Unesco. Young and impressionable students must never be misguided into accepting recordings, or even streamed real-time events, as the real thing, which comes alive only in the presence of an audience in the same place as the live artist.

Perish the thought that the Cloud will magically open its portals to all literatures in the near future, though we must never cease to wish for the impossible, like for man's violence on man to end soon. And for any cynics who think that I got my examples from e-newspapers online, I didn't. I read them in two national dailies, in their hard-copy editions whose broadsheets I find more edifying to skim through, literally thinking laterally, rather than surfing from link to link to infinity.