How tech can 'disrupt' our classrooms

How tech can 'disrupt' our classrooms

A new learning space employing technology as a tool for teaching at Bangkok University's Rangsit campus. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)
A new learning space employing technology as a tool for teaching at Bangkok University's Rangsit campus. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)

Thailand's higher education of today consists of five overwhelming rounds of the Thai University Central Admissions System (TCAS) and 200,000 vacant seats in universities nationwide. This is clearly a shocking oversupply.

In the past 10 years, faculty members have heard of speculations, warnings and threats against their job security. Then we started to see our colleagues at work made redundant. And we kept hoping we could dodge that.

The truth is the future is grim. We are facing a serious population decline. Schools, colleges and universities are on the verge of being shut down. Demand has sunk and supply cannot remain unchanged. We probably can't afford a quick fix to increase Thailand's population soon. Jobs at public and private universities, alike, are evidently in peril.

Public discourse by experts in higher education in Thailand informs academics to leave their comfort zone to survive. But where is this holy-grail growth zone everyone is talking about? What does it look like?

The growth zone is something along the lines of providing the education that acts like a bridge or transition between discipline and the real world, underpinning knowledge that is then applied in practice.

Come again?

It's the education that makes sense. It's not in any of the books that we recited intensively during our PhD times. It's not what your whole department planned to do three years ago on a retreat at a Hua Hin resort.

The comfort zone will not work anymore. It will get your profession disrupted in a heartbeat.

Some Thai universities have initiated e-learning platforms for anybody, at any age group, to enrol in courses and, perhaps in the future, to collect the credits earned towards a degree. But this article will just focus on what is feasible for academic staff when they genuinely want to become innovative and make themselves indispensable.

The very first step is for us academics to survive is to take a look at main movements that have significant influences on mankind. What are they?

  • Environment
  • Peace
  • Health and well-being
  • Food
  • Human rights

The list goes on…

Have a random browse through some recent academic position websites advertising postdoc positions and you'll see the bigger picture of what global players expect out of academics. They are, for example, investigating changes in species communities due to human land use and community complexity (University of Helsinki, Finland), virtual student mobility (University of Twente, Netherlands), labour market participation among people with complex service needs (Oslomet, Norway), children and a smart sustainable city (University of Stavanger, Norway) and vocabularies and ontologies in agronomy & biodiversity (LIRMM, France).

What do these postdoc positions tell us?

Right after graduation, a PhD holder is expected to undertake a project where they can gain skills and experience, impress the socks out of the department and hope to get employed there. These job posts can show us one recurring truth. If you plan to be an academic in the modern world, this is how specific your skillset should be. Specific yet interdisciplinary, and most crucially, relevant to the real world.

Whatever field and discipline you are in, the education you provide must allow for investigation through the range of topics relevant to those matters in hand. And the matters can be changed over time.

You will not take control of the learning any longer. Who will then? No one and everyone. You co-construct it with your students. If you are a language teacher, you know that students of the 21st century need hands-on education. It means not in the least simplistic. Be it English, Portuguese or Chinese, you want to conduct your classes in ways that you can address the issue of food waste, for example. Knowledge of the language becomes the tool of learning content. Language teaching should, in turn, focus on thoughts, ideas and relevance rather than the language structure.

What should modern curricula look like?

Chulalongkorn University has launched a few newly improved degree programmes. Quite an admirable bold move, in fact. Their programme in language and Information Technologies integrates AI into linguistics, turning library science into something beyond plainly collection and management of books and texts. Across the world in Scandinavia, Southern Denmark University takes library science as culture studies, media and media history, and web design, naturally. Both have their own merits. Both fit in the modern world quite well.

These two programmes will produce graduates that are market-ready. No doubt about that.

Being interdisciplinary is being versatile.

National University of Singapore (NUS) has a whole institute -- the Institute for Application of Learning Science and Educational Technology or ALSET -- devoted to matching researchers from social, biological, physical, and computational sciences to be more versatile.

Bite-sized attempts have been made here and there in Thailand. King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) offers a controversial elective course of statistics-based Thai astrological forecasting. Chulalongkorn University integrates linguistics into marketing and branding. Thammasat University has an ongoing research project detecting depression (psychology) using discourse analysis (applied linguistics).

Looks like we're right on track.

It's common knowledge that youngsters these days learn about everything and anything off the internet. To avoid it is unnatural. An undergrad of mine admitted to me once that her favourite Youtubers were her best English teachers. Touche!

Disruption alert!

To be honest, university students are highly likely to have wider knowledge of the world on a particular topic than their teachers. We have gone from a pedagogical concern with how to control and centre learning, to something of an obsession with technology.

Many teachers think being tech-savvy is to slap in tools like Padlet, Facebook, Kahoot, etc. Online learning, to many, merely means digitising all their teaching material from their usual lectures on cloud. This is a common mistake. Do not do that just for the sake of the annual Thai Qualifications Framework reports.

Use technology because it helps you address, once again, the matters in hand more effectively. You don't want to mimic those Youtubers out of jealousy. Notice how, in the popular Youtube clips, information is segmented and knowledge is transferred. Apply the very same manner to your teaching. Everyone knows of Professor Walter Lewin of MIT who asks his students to trust in physics using a wrecking ball. Then you know what I'm talking about.

With the evaluation becoming more and more intense, getting published left, right and centre will not solve the very core problem of Thai higher education. Sure enough it will keep you on the job, but not for very long. Find your own wrecking ball and have fun co-constructing knowledge in the place we call a classroom.


Pattamawan Jimarkon Zilli is an assistant professor at the Department of English and Linguistics, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University.


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