With over 35 years of experience in teaching, researching and guiding PhD scholars in Panjab University, Professor Pushpinder Syal is highly respected in the domains of Literature and Linguistics. She has an MA and a PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster University, and brings to her classroom and writings, a wealth of knowledge and critical insights, especially in the fields of pedagogy, critical literacy and stylistics. In this conversation with Professor Iqbal Judge, she discusses the challenges and opportunities that a Computer and Internet technology-enabled classroom throws up for teachers and learners.
IJ: The Internet has opened up a fascinating world of new genres of writing, for example, hyper-fiction. What are your views about it?
PS: The hyper-text offers these choices of links to readers, who have the feeling of interacting with the text, in a way making up their own story as they go along. But that is very much the case in other kinds of reading also, except that over there the reader does not feel that he / she is doing that explicitly; nor is it explicitly encoded in the text as such. In reading a traditional novel, the reader is in fact doing the same things, is following the text in continuity, and at the same time carrying on a simultaneous process in his / her own mind, except that the reader does not in a meta-activity kind of thing, think about what she / he is doing.
IJ: There is a mental conversation going on with the text, “what is this about”, and there is a physical engagement also, because you make a choice and click a particular link.
PS: Yes, re-reading, backtracking, or taking divergent paths. Geoffrey Leech in Style and Fiction talks about the “garden path phenomena”, which makes you think that “Oh … this is what the writer is saying”, but actually they’re leading to something else, in their very structure. So there are hundreds of such micro-decisions that the reader is making all along and I would guess that the people who make these hyper-texts are probably stylisticians in this way. They have latched on to what readers do while engaging with a text, and capitalized on that by offering the reader these choices and I suppose it has an advantage in this, that readers do become more conscious.
But when it comes to more complex things, to writing, that is the preservation of memory of a particular ethos or a historical period, where the aim is preservation of memory, now THAT kind of activity, I don’t think anything can replace that extended, discursive writing because it so subjective, so personal, and evoking an entire culture, a way of life, so I feel that these two types of writing inhabit different spheres.
IJ: Do you think these writings would be more in the detective fiction genre? Some of the texts / passages are also quite brief, the links as well, sometimes just a few sentences.
PS: Yes, I suppose so. It probably does lend itself to this kind of mystery or whodunit kind of structure.
IJ: Would they be useful in pedagogy?
PS: Sure; because it’s not just stories, it’s also following a train of thought, a lot of logical thinking, theorizing, making predictions. For example, “Do you think it happens this way? Can it happen this way or that way?” You give the choices to the learner, and the learner can explore those choices further to their possible limits. My feeling is that there is tremendous potential, something that learners would surely enjoy, and perhaps it would be better than doing a pen and paper sort of exercise, a kind of heuristic system where you’re problem-solving as you go along, in a very explicit manner. There could also be links in this system, where you could be asked to talk to your friend about a certain topic or issue and with that kind of outreach, it could become even more interactive, open out to even more discussions with others, making the learners feel that they are actually “doing” something.
IJ: Something like in our traditional post-reading activity, a different take-off point? Prediction or evaluative exercises, project-work, reading beyond the textbook?
PS: Yes, exactly! In the hyper-text, you have even more possibilities: it could be ongoing, the text could keep changing all the time, and the exercises could be inbuilt.
It’s also a question of different registers. Some of the registers are a greater mix of speech and writing. In text messaging for example, all kinds of abbreviations, emoticons, etc., are allowed; it’s a cross between speech and writing, trying to overcome the shortcomings of each mode, since the technology is now available for doing so.
IJ: That brings me to the problem which teachers are often plagued by, that text messaging is ruining students’ language, writing skills, that they seem to be writing, but it’s actually not writing.
PS: Yes sure, because it is actually NOT writing but a mix of speech and writing and of course it’s popular, that’s why the fear that it will replace other modes! But it’s not going to destroy other registers; they are co-existing and will continue to co-exist; the registers are expanding all the time.
If one’s writing ability is only limited to text messaging, then that would probably be a limitation in your education, in the way you’re going to get knowledge and convey knowledge, because you couldn’t stretch it very far, where you need to contribute to a discussion in a sustained way, and need much more ability than just the ability to send across messages.
IJ: So it would be important to make student aware of different registers and styles, especially as teachers now are worried, “Oh now they’re only using emoticons, they don’t have the vocabulary to express what they feel, because the emoticon does it for them.”
PS: In the classroom it could be quite a lot of fun to translate from one register into another. Give them a long-winded structure and say, shorten it to an emoticon.
IJ: Or the other way round. “What adjectives would best express the given emoticon? Or, given a very terse, enigmatic kind of text message: “Expand it”, to see if they get the same message out of it.
PS: But again we’ve got to remember that any activity will be taken up if it is seen as meaningful, and in a context. If we just give them a text message to expand into a paragraph, it would quickly seem to be too much of a dull academic exercise, so the same problem remains: how do we contextualize some of these activities, how do we make them meaningful? Let’s go back again to our hyper-fiction: if at a particular point, a particular message had to be conveyed, then, ‘what option would you choose’, or something like that; activities built into a larger story- telling framework. Educational frameworks do need to have something extra in them, a value addition: there is a VAT in pedagogy as well! … Something that is NOT in the framework of our experience, which we do need to know.
IJ: The latest buzz word is the flipped classroom. I wonder if that isn’t just old wine in new bottles. Is it just because we’re thinking of the attraction of the Internet, that students will have read the text, because it’s online or because there’s a video attached to it?
PS: Not necessarily, because there are hundreds of other fascinating things happening online as well, to distract them from their tasks. So I think the basic question is: where does the teacher’s input really lie? If they have read the text, the teacher may raise some issues, and then give an assignment or ask the students to do an activity and so on. Now THAT is an issue for the teacher, because I’ve often found that however much I might want to throw the thing open, even if they’ve read and come (first of all that itself is a tall order, because even if it is a poem to read online, it still is a reading task, so you are assuming a certain level of proficiency in English); you find yourself imposing a particular perspective, and the students get a cue from that, and they realize what direction to go in, so willy-nilly the teacher is giving a direction, giving some input.
IJ: And needs to, perhaps.
PS: And needs to, yes. So what kind of ability does it demand of the teacher? What kind of subjectivity does the teacher bring to the class? The teacher may be opinionated, or biased; a lot depends on how clever and successful she / he is in making the students produce a particular kind of response. So are we clear about what kind of input we need to give to the students? Or is it that in a technology-driven classroom, the teacher is just an instructor, directing the students—go to this link, find this and that, and the students keep busy, clicking links, downloading, etc., though that might be useful also, because for many people in societies that are new to technology, finding access to information through the jungle of information available can be very off-putting. So perhaps one of the roles of the teacher would be to navigate through the masses of information, point out places of interest, which could be tapped as you move along, but that means the teacher has to be very very updated in terms of both technology and knowledge.
IJ: For grammar, I think the exercises on the Net are much more interactive, and very self-motivating because you submit your answer, you immediately get to know what is the right answer, or where and why you were wrong. It also saves the teacher the bother of repetitively checking numerous such assignments.
PS: Sure, but that’s not your physical classroom and that’s like self-learning; there the teacher is the facilitator. There would also be a lot of teachers who make the program that is going to auto-correct the exercises, etc., someone working behind the scenes, and increasingly we find many of our linguistically proficient students getting placements in software companies as content writers for these programs.
Even in our tech-enabled classroom, where the learners are busy working at their tasks, they may have questions, want more exercises or clarifications of doubts, so that’s where the teacher might have to intervene, go back to the explanatory mode, even go back to the blackboard to illustrate certain concepts, explain a structure that many of the students have not been able to get right, so the teacher would have to be on the ready, to anticipate problems, have examples, explanations, etc., because no software can be complete in that respect. I suspect that one of the reasons for resistance to the technology-enabled classroom is that it’s going to be a challenge in terms of the technology itself, in understanding how the program works.
IJ: If they are going to make the program themselves.
PS: To a great extent they will have to, because no program can ever fit all sizes. A lot of it will have to be localized; there is very little material that can be standardized to such an extent that everyone everywhere can use it. It’s not just a question of culture–specific content or something like that, it’s a question of more specific questions that some learners would be asking, and we can’t always anticipate them. So the challenge is huge. The teacher needs to have quite a bit of computer literacy to use the web tools available; also collaboration with makers of programs, so that teachers can guide them to critically monitor the ideology that underlies the programs; not just being the end-receivers of that technology, but creating that kind of technology.
We also have to consider how equally tech becomes available to all, and not just available to the privileged. It becomes an extension of the print culture then, where it created an elite that could afford books.
IJ: What about mobile phone apps, online dictionaries, or learning apps, such as “Hello English”? Do you think they are empowering the learner?
PS: Sure, but look at what it presupposes—motivation; and that again remains one of the fundamental questions! Whether it is the flipped classroom or the mobile app, the fundamental human questions remain the same: “What am I as a teacher going to give?” And for the learner, “What motivates me to learn? Shall I open this app and learn those five words of the day or not?’”
We say that the big motivation in English is jobs, but is everything job-oriented, or is it something the person wants to be, some quality of life that the learner is looking for? We have the experience of the call centres, where ultimately people were not happy, so these are broader human questions: Does the person simply operate language as a machine, or use it as a self-enhancing medium? There’s a crucial difference between simply operating a technology and knowing that there is a particular kind of ideology operating behind the program as well, being able to come to that critical point of understanding, which is important both for the teacher and the learner.
IJ: Ma’am, I’m sure your inputs have given us teachers and learners, and readers of FORTELL much to reflect on. Thank you so much!