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The fun we had

Asian woman student video conference e-learning with teacher on computer in IT room at university. E-learning ,online ,education concept.

Asian woman student video conference e-learning with teacher on computer in IT room at university. E-learning ,online ,education concept.  

It’s hoped that a school will not become so efficient as Asimov had imagined it to be

“All the kids from the whole neighbourhood came, laughing and shouting in the school yard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of day.” Isaac Asimov’s futuristic short story The Fun They Had so describes a school of our times.

In the story set on May 17, 2155, a girl named Mergie stumbles on an old book. Habituated to e-books, she considers the old dusty book a waste of paper. In her world, students do not gather in a building to be taught by human teachers. Mechanical teachers with dials and buttons instruct them, suited to the specific requirements of each student.

“A man can’t know as much as a teacher,” Mergie says surprised at the old-fashioned teaching-learning process. However, at the end of the story, she imagines the fun her great grandparents would have had in the schools of their times.

I never imagined that such a situation would come, at least in my lifetime. But the outbreak of COVID-19 has convinced me that Asimov was right in his futuristic imagination, but perhaps a bit late in situating Mergie in the Anthropocene.

When I joined the teaching profession, I relished the thought of spending my entire life in academic institutions with a timetable and exams every semester and keeping on learning till my last breath. Teachers, students, assignments, end-terms would fill my life. All changed utterly with COVID-19. With no predictable date in sight when we can venture out, I too started exploring ways to be in touch with my students through digital platforms. But in the back of my mind, I am afraid that my students will get too accustomed to them like Mergie.

Signposts

Once a sizeable number of video lectures, study materials and virtual laboratories are arranged, a day might come when teaching departments may be abandoned altogether like telegram or lighthouses. The term “distance learning” may be changed to “learning at home”. This may solve various problems at the surface level — fewer student protests and less burden on the exchequer for the upkeep of schools and colleges. It will also solve the issue of space crunch for academic buildings, hostels, canteens and playgrounds.

However, in the process of throwing the bathwater, we could think a while before throwing the baby too. An institution of learning is not just a place for teaching a prescribed syllabus. It’s a place where people fight, laugh and argue, sit next to each other, fall in love, ruminate on an absurd drama, dream of changing the world and get existential crises in a lonely tea stall. Yet, somehow, students leave the campus having learned something between two yawns in a boring lecture or in the night before the end-term. They learn much more than what could be printed on an A4 certificate or summed up in bullet points on a phony curriculum vitae. It’s a democratic place of human connect. In an age where very few institutions have universal currency, a university provides space to everyone. I could only hope that we do not become so efficient as in Asimov’s story, but knowing the growth of science, I could only sigh thinking of “the fun we had”.

umesh.mla@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 2:24:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-fun-we-had/article31709115.ece

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