x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

First school assignment: prove a teacher is better than an iPhone

Teaching in the iPhone era means being less a custodian of knowledge, and more a motivator of how to use it.

Friday's sermon emphasised the importance of education in Islam, a theme perfectly timed to coincide with the start of the UAE's academic year.

"Are they equal, those who know and those who do not know?" This was the rhetorical question articulated by the imam, quoting part of a well-known Quranic verse. He went on to emphasise the importance of seeking knowledge, and advised parents to explain to their children the virtues of learning.

Much has changed since I went to school. My early education took place in a time when people still visited high-street banks to inquire about their balances. A time when - if their finances were healthy - they might visit the travel agent on the same high street and book a holiday. Returning from the holiday with a strange rash, they would listen intently to the local doctor, the only accessible source of reliable medical information.

Yes - when I went to school, society was characterised by very clear information asymmetries: the experts knew, and we didn't; more importantly, the experts had access to information, and we did not. Society was delineated between the information haves and the have-nots.

But in a few short decades, the world has changed radically. The great information age has arrived, allowing us, in many cases, to free ourselves from the central authority of expertise.

Who uses a high-street travel agent to book flights, who needs a bank clerk to monitor financial transactions, and how many patients with chronic health conditions know as much about their prognoses as their general medical practitioners?

The world has changed, and as we return for another term at Zayed University, I question my role as educator, as an "expert" in the field of psychology. Once, an educator's central role was as a repository of information that could authoritatively and didactically be imparted to information-starved students.

Now, however, anything I can tell students about, let's say, Jean Piaget's view of cognitive development, can also be instantly accessed online via video, audio or text. Furthermore, the information might be presented more authoritatively, engagingly and accessibly than I could ever manage.

So, am I soon be replaced by a smartphone application featuring an interactive talking head that delivers content penned by the world's academic elite? Is this the death of the everyday live educator?

I would answer, emphatically, no. However, what is glaringly apparent is that the role and core skills of the educator have to change to meet this radically transformed social context.

Less important is the role as a custodian and conduit of information; increasingly, the skills required are to motivate, facilitate and validate.

The motivational aspect ensures students actually want to learn, and know why they want to learn. A skilful motivator communicates why a course is important, with reasons going beyond "passing exams" and "employment".

As a facilitator, an educator needs to encourage students to think for themselves, sketching the outlines of the big picture while allowing them to fill in the details for themselves. The method should be Socratic, gently questioning a student's ideas to foster critical thinking.

Today's educators, like their ancient counterparts, also play an important role of validating a student's work. Having already walked the path, so to speak, they know when a student has "arrived".

The validation role extends to academic honesty as well. Information technology is a massive aid to cheaters, making face-to-face validation more relevant than ever. The oral exam - commonly used in medicine, where the consequences of cheating could prove fatal - is increasingly important to ensure academic integrity.

As the new term begins at Zayed University, I will be trying to do all of these things for my students. The information might be only two clicks away, but there is so much more to education than just data.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @jaytee156