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Classroom technology: The primacy of audio-visual media destroys critical thinking

Students influenced by audio-visual aids find it increasingly difficult to connect seemingly unrelated things

  • Published 11.10.19, 1:45 AM
  • Updated 11.10.19, 1:45 AM
  • 5 mins read
The visual media become an important force in the act of cultural and social reproduction (iStock)

Having been a teacher since 1976, I have seen major changes in classroom technologies and the emergence of alternative sources of information like the electronic media and the internet. The attitude of students towards learning, their concentration spans, and their social awareness have all changed quite perceptibly. Their ambitions and their values have transformed too. They seldom question the voice of authority. They hardly seem to be interested in anything that does not directly concern them. I retired from teaching at a time when classrooms are being conceived of as spaces without a live teacher. Instead, a projected image of a teacher from a faraway place may become more and more common. The books and PowerPoint slides are on the laptops of students. The contents of curricula put less emphasis on concepts and ideas, and more on information and empirical evidence. The skill sets imparted have become much more oriented towards quantitative, empirical techniques and their applications.

One major distinction between the classroom of the late 20th century and the early 21st century is the growing importance of visual aids in learning compared to printed words. Video clips, television, animated PowerPoint slides and photographs are used much more than the printed word and the written text. Books are hardly read by the new generation of students. Whatever books are available are mostly in electronic form. This is not to argue that visual content was never used before: books had pictures and elaborate technical diagrams. They were accepted learning aids. However, the foundation was the printed word. Technology has made visual content much more sophisticated and user-friendly, making learning attractive and easy. Visual aids supported by audio inputs can easily claim superiority over the printed word from the point of view of the learner. Most students find it easier to remember things when exposed to audio-visual media.

Yet, many experts on education point out that something important is lost in the over-dependence on visuals. The dominant technique of the visual culture is forged around fragmented images and an immediacy of information. Fast cameras and sharp editing tools create an instant appeal to the emotions, while discouraging critical reflection. Images are presented at rapid-fire velocity and they usually lack a particular unity, such as in talk shows or newscasts. The whole thing becomes a spectacle and the image becomes the reality and hence, the truth. In such a medium the over-dramatization of intense emotions of anger, sorrow, hatred or love becomes part of the objective understanding of reality. We tend to believe that the camera has witnessed everything exactly the way it happened. Seeing a fictional visual clip, and seeing a news story, become indistinguishable. However, in the easy appeal of the visual lies its complicated danger.

The visual media become an important force in the act of cultural and social reproduction. Students, when heavily influenced by audio-visual aids, fail to see things in the wider context of social reality. They find it increasingly difficult to connect seemingly unrelated things. Suppose in a class on economic development two sets of audio-visuals are used, one depicting modern urban wealthy lifestyles, and the other showing rural poverty and squalor. The uninitiated students would immediately identify the first set of audio-visuals as what constitutes the good life, without being able to connect to rural poverty, why it exists, and what could be done to reduce or eradicate human deprivations that are graphically depicted in the second set of audio-visuals. When we consider two-way communication that modern social media like Facebook, the e-mail or WhatsApp possess, matters become more complex. What is perceived is a multi-layered impression of ‘facts’ that are finely blended with lies, inaccuracies and exaggerations.

The print medium on the other hand has its own imperfections. However, reading print demands an attentiveness and concentration that visual culture does not. One can stop, reflect, and go back when reading a text, thereby creating a space for critical thinking. One has to approach reading with intentionality. Reading the written word allows us to assess more rigorously the validity of the argument or the veracity of the facts. The visual medium lacks the tactile qualities of the print medium. Reading also demands certain intellectual skills that audio-visual content does not. This is precisely the reason why there is a pointless debate about how true a director is being to a book when making a film out of it. It is pointless precisely because the experiences are different. When I first saw Doctor Zhivago the film, I hardly recollected the book that I had read a few months prior to watching the film. Visual images are strong. When I tried to re-read Doctor Zhivago after watching the film, I could not. The visual images kept interrupting my flow of thought.

Coming to the economics of the two alternative mediums of imparting knowledge and information, production of the printed word is cheaper and more accessible. The visual medium is controlled by large corporates, and they have hegemony over the mass culture they help create and propagate. The corporate interests may find it hard to democratize the control they have over radio, television and film. The enormous popularity of television and the internet creates a space for widespread influence. This control and influence needs technological skills and the right people to innovate and hone the modes of manipulating thought.

This is where we return to the modern classroom of audio-visual aids and the relative importance of techniques over concepts and critical thinking. The bright students with high intelligence quickly pick up techniques and their applications. We have seen in my generation’s lifetime the absurd race for engineering degrees, and the eclipse of the liberal arts and the social sciences barring perhaps mainstream economics. The decline of the print medium and the rise of the visual have made great careers for people with a penchant for mastering techniques. It has been said that visual mass culture has industrialized our minds and colonized the sphere of leisure. They create new algorithms that enter deeper into our private spaces; our preferences, our fears and anxieties, our vulnerabilities, and our ambitions. Ultimately the likes of Google and Amazon will know more about ourselves than we do. Hence, in the modern classroom of the best institutions of the world, the domination of corporations in influencing culture and consumerism gets reproduced. The teacher and the print technology are on their way out. It is the age of the advent of the one-dimensional technological-managerial wizard.

I will end with a couple of recent experiences I had as a teacher. In one of the leading business schools of the country, as visiting faculty, I had declared a housekeeping rule on the first day of class that smart phones were not to be used when I was teaching. It did not work. I lost out. So after about a couple of weeks I announced that those who wished to use their smart phones and deliberately insult me, could go and sit in a specified corner of the classroom. In a class of about 70 students, around 20 students got up and moved to the specified corner. In another instance, in a different class, after a debate on the effectiveness of non-violence as a political tool, I asked for a vote to reveal the students’ true beliefs. There was a unanimous show of hands against non-violence. I was disturbed and shocked. I wonder whether the two distinct responses in two quite different contexts, were actually rooted in the same culture and ideology. 

The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta

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