Friday, March 24, 2023 | Ramadan 1, 1444 H
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A madness we can change

It hasn’t been a dramatic realisation, but one that has gradually emerged from the experiences of a lifetime, and the observations of a uniquely equipped generation, trying to make sense of having stuff, and not being able to use it. In education, there must be change, or we will become hostages to the past.

I recall, when I was at school, only being allowed to use pencils until my third year. Then we were allowed to use fountain pens. Remember them, once a sign of education and knowledge, but in reality, they were horrible things to reload and malfunctioned leaving unsightly ink stains on you, your desk, your books, and your clothing. Now... this was despite the ballpoint pen being invented a hundred years earlier and Lazlo Biro, yes that was his name, patenting his pen a full twenty years before my school days. Marcel Bic, he of the Bic pen empire, had become an almost obscenely wealthy man on the back of his advertising slogan, “Writes the first Time. Every time!” Yet, it was sacrilege to use a ballpoint, biro, or Bic pen in school.... How bizarre!

I reflect upon this today as I’m preparing students for some of the most meaningful tests and examinations of their academic lives, and they are not permitted to use computers, or laptops, and I don’t understand why not. Because, when any of us are typing anything today, even the best of us make mistakes, and with our keyboards, we can fix those mistakes in a second, unlike me as a kid, who would need to cross out and redo something. God forbid, if we wanted to restructure a long answer, and essay, or some poetry. Yet, in our exams today, we make our young people use the tools of a half a century ago, when we have the capability to embrace the technology that is the norm, today.

I for one, and I’m certain so many readers would agree that they could never go back to writing essays or a thesis by hand, there is just so much more flexibility in a keyboard, and even to the extent of restructuring academic papers, news reports, magazine articles. How many of those do you ever think are presented as they are written? I, personally, take a significant amount of time ‘moving’ text around, on a page, as I see greater effectiveness, more impact, or sometimes, more humor, in a different order.

Also, there’s the matter of spelling. MS Word can correct spelling... but the students can’t have that can they? Yet we do, we need that auto correct. Occasionally too, we need a wee grammatical nudge, and Word can do that too... and do these priceless assets make what we write any less valid? Not at all! What about too, a thesaurus, there are all the online ones we can access when we have a ‘brain block,’ and can’t think of a word. But I keep my trusty Collins version close by, for as Roget (1852) declared, it is always handy, “to find the word, or words, by which an idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”

I have heard those who cry loudest, “We can’t trust them. They will copy paste and learn nothing!” However, that is to ignore the development of plagiarism checkers. The software is so good today, so effective at finding similar content, that we must dismiss some identified ‘copying’ as merely being incorrectly referenced, or not being contextual to the topic. I have no doubt whatsoever, that even a modest ‘think-tank,’ could come up with a way to make the new technology work in exams, however, as in most progressive debates, it is maybe only the ‘will’ that is elusive.

I do genuinely believe that for some reason, we have got into an educational rut, and that more than ever, ‘the system,’ is turning our clocks back for no clear reason. So, I guess then, we must ask ourselves... Is it a matter of a lack of trust, or of losing control? I would shudder to think so, but the fact we have not moved forward, is just madness!

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