Aurora Magazine

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A Cold and Unforgiving Master

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Jawwad Ahmed Farid concludes that technology without the human touch is both limited and flawed.

In its 1999 version, The Matrix defined the perfect technology-assisted learning environment: plug in, upload and learn languages, programming, Jujutsu or how to fly a military helicopter within seconds. When we first saw this cult classic, we knew it was science fiction. The same goes for Star Wars in 1977, Short Circuit in the eighties and more recently Inception and Interstellar – dreams visualised on the big screen; dreams we hoped to see come true one day in commercial applications.

Technology-assisted learning is a dream significantly older than technology itself. Pick up any piece of science fiction (recent or older) and you will find a reference. Neal Stephenson introduced two key concepts in Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (2005). Snow Crash is woven around adventures in the metaverse, “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space”. The Diamond Age is about a young girl and her handheld digital book of learning.

As teachers, instructors and students, this promise captured our imagination. Learning without human contact and without significant investment and time commitments. We could do anything, be anyone, be anywhere. For 40 years we explored, tested, invested and rolled out several iterations of these dreams. Perhaps the most successful of all social learning experiments is YouTube. A billion users a month, billions of hours watched every day. It may not all be educational content, yet, from debugging a computer error to acing the SAT, from figuring out how to cook a four-star meal to servicing, selling, or buying a car, from four-year-old nephews to 84-year-old grandparents, everyone finds something to learn on YouTube.

In 2008, Salman Khan and the Khan Academy showed us how to use asynchronous distributed learning assessment and testing. Before Khan and YouTube, in 2001 we had MIT Open Courseware (OCW) and before that, we had computer-based training and testing (CBT) in the early nineties. It has been a long road.

The last 18 months gave us the chance to run a global experiment with billions of students around the world. Covid-19 made us put everything we learnt in four decades to work in schools, colleges and universities. Zoom, Teams, Hangout and Skype became our metaverse. In other words, online learning became the norm, rather than the exception. And it did the job.

Students who could afford a phone and were fortunate enough to have access to the internet as well as schools that could deploy technology coped; those who did not have these options, suffered. Exams were delayed, we ran into mental issues and symptoms triggered by excessive screen time and the absence of social contact. If you were a special needs child, you were locked out of your support network. No amount of technology could replace what you lost that year.

One year later, we, the teachers, are not sure if the learning outcomes through remote learning were as effective as they are using traditional methods. I may give them a C minus, but it was the best we could do. It was the only option we had. That too, because technology came to our rescue. Just like in the movies.

A surprising and unexpected outcome, however, has been the backlash. I have been a teacher for 26 years. In the summer of 2021, I refused to teach online remotely with technology or even in hybrid mode. I did not think any student in their right mind would show up for a live classroom in the middle of a third Covid-19 wave. Yet, they did. Pre Covid-19, I would use projectors, stylus, tablets, online polls and as much technology as I could in class. It broke the monotony of my voice and gave my students (and myself) the chance to play with our shiny toys. Post Covid-19, I leave my laptop at home and use the whiteboard in the classroom. I am not the only one. As a teacher, an instructor, a student and a founder, I don’t think digital is the future.

Yet, I also don’t think digital has no future.

Beyond technology and the tools we use, good content, the intent to teach and the intent to learn are the elements that control learning outcomes. The first two have no meaning without the other three. We have seen this first hand since March 2020.

Good teachers figured out quickly how to push student engagement higher in remote classrooms. They introduced supplementary material, experiments, delivery innovation to help improve comprehension and retention. Some slowed down the pace, some picked it up. We used movies, YouTube clips, real-time social experiments, online treasure hunts and games to help our students forget the tragedy that was unfolding all around them.

It worked sometimes.

The metaverse is a cold, unforgiving master, devoid of personal touch and none of us – teachers or students – ever want to go back to it again. Even if you held a gun to our heads. I would not wish it on my worst enemy.

What does this mean for all the remote learning, e-education, technology-assisted skill development start-ups, teams and ideas? What about the promise and bright future they represent? If you are serious about answering this question, I would recommend a quick look at Class Clowns (2016). Jonathon A. Knee’s book takes an in-depth look at 20 years of broken promises in the e-education world. While The Matrix showed us the world as it should be, Class Clowns shows us the world as it is, and was.

And yet, despite all the above, I think digital has a future. We learnt more in one year about human comprehension, about our ability to teach, about using the right dosage of technology, than we did in four decades. Covid-19 did more for teaching innovation in delivery formats, student engagement, online assessment and asynchronous learning in 12 months than any amount of deployed capital could. Now it is time to put those lessons to work.

As long as we understand the limitations of technology and that the metaverse is nothing without human contact, we can put technology to good use. My daughter still uses Khan Academy to work through difficult chemistry concepts. Her siblings use YouTube to crack animation projects. I use MIT OCW to learn the concepts I need to master at work. More teachers are using independent remote cohorts to bring students together from across the world. From writing and to philosophy to financial modelling and 3D world building (creating a new universe) and rigging (used by animators to control the movements of their characters), if you want to learn from leading instructors, all you need to do is search.

Technology did its job in 2020 and 2021 – but so did Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). MRE may address the nutritional requirements of the human body, but they are not something you would want to serve your guests at home. They don’t come close to the rich mix of flavours and aromas of a freshly roasted lamb leg or a charcoal-grilled chicken tikka. The same holds for remote education.

Without the human touch, without the engagement between students and teachers, without that connection, technology is a bland, tasteless, colourless landscape. It may have colour in The Matrix, but it has no flavour in real life. Teams who learn this lesson, who build their engines around the needs and demands of human beings, will do well. Teams that don’t, will not.

There is one thing that I do know for sure. The next time I watch The Matrix, I am not going to be as awed by the promise of instant learning. I have had a taste of that world. I have seen the future and I am not sure if I want any part of it.

Jawwad Ahmed Farid is a serial founder who has taught as an adjunct professor for 26 years. He runs, an e-education business that teaches computational finance and financial modelling online.