What's wrong with virtual classrooms for Kerala's college students: Sir, Net is absent

“Net connectivity is limited to a few islands here. It shows up some times. I usually wait till midnight to download the video lectures from our college," says Amina from Chetlat Island in Lakshadweep. She is a BA Malayalam student at a reputed arts college in Ernakulam district.

Amina's predicament is not restricted to the students of Lakshadweep. It is a concern echoed by majority of the college-going students in Kerala.

With colleges in Kerala starting classes on June 1 through a hitherto untested medium – virtual classrooms – concerns loom large on the future of higher education in the state.

A circular issued by the Higher Education Department on May 25 has instructed colleges across Kerala to conduct online classes for students from 8.30am to 1.30pm every day from June 1. Students have also been asked to engage in other massive open online course (MOOC) classes post noon.

NIC Vidyo Platform, Zoom, Google Classroom, Google meet, Microsoft Team, Webix are a few of the applications recommended in the circular.

"Only 75 per cent of our second semester has been completed. Preparing for our semester examinations with the limited notes sent across by considerate friends is a tough challenge, especially for descriptive papers in literature," Amina told Onmanorama.

The Wifi connectivity at Chetlat is average at best. “Wifi facility is available at a neighbour's home. But it is frequently disrupted. And staying at their place everyday for five hours is not a viable option,” says Amina.

Internet cafes, libraries with Wifi facility offer no relief either, she adds.

Like many of her classmates back in Kerala, Amina understands the constraints faced during these difficult times and the need to adapt to the highly evolving higher education sector. But her desire to learn is not enough for her to sail through these times.

Onmanorama conducted a survey in Amina's classroom of undergraduate students to decode the issues faced by them during the online lecture.

Out of the 46 students contacted by Onmanorama, 8.3 per cent did not possess a laptop or smart phone and 17.4 per cent had no internet access at home. Among the total students, 34.8 per cent said they do not have a data pack that can last them for the entire five-hour duration.

While 50 per cent of the students contacted had an average monthly family income of 10,000, 30.4 per cent had an income in the range Rs 10,000 to Rs 25,000.

A similar survey conducted by the University of Hyderabad also yielded similar results. Frequent power shortage and net connectivity are the major problems reported by students here.

Device, connectivity, economy

For Kerala, which is considered to be one step ahead of other states in embracing 'Digital India', this seems to be the logical next step, one might say.

But the success of online classes is based on three factors – availability of smartphone/laptop for five college hours every day, availability of uninterrupted network for five hours, and the financial ability of students and in certain cases, teachers to afford the first two.

Even if one of these assumptions fail to hold water, the whole idea comes tumbling down creating a rift called 'digital divide'.

When net connectivity in the state has proven to be a major issue to even techies opting to work-from-home, it is a distant reality for students from small towns.

“Only 40 per cent of my classmates were able to join the virtual classroom during the lockdown. And most of them flitted in and out of the classroom due to connectivity issues. I usually attend online classes from a rubber plantation nearby as this is the only place I can get uninterrupted network,” Amina's classmate Jishnu tells Onmanorama.

Jishnu hails from Perumbavoor in Kerala's Ernakulam district. His father is a daily-wage labourer.

Most of these applications take ages to download and are not compatible on many of our phones, he adds. Circulating recorded videos of the lectures and solving doubts through platforms like Google Classroom is considered a more viable option by many students. While 38.3 per cent prefer online teaching through interactive platforms like Zoom and Google classroom, 34 per cent prefer recorded lectures which can be downloaded on the basis of net connectivity.

"Online classrooms can never replace real classrooms. Many of our doubts remain unaddressed during the video sessions due to net connectivity problems and audio clarity issue," another BA Malayalam student Atul says.

"The home environment is mostly not best suited for attending a virtual classroom session. Family members are often actively engaging in their own activities in the same room," he adds.

In fact, lack of private space is an important issue for students from smaller households.

Atul's classmate Amrutha has a different concern altogether. My sister is the only one with a smartphone in our family. She is also a degree student. When online classes begin, this will pose a problem.

"I am also worried about the compulsory attendance during Zoom classes,” Amrutha says.

Data concerns

Students confirmed that live streaming a video for one hour takes at least 400 MB to 700 MB. This implies that a 5-hour-live-streaming of the classroom would require at least 2 to 3.5GB per day, an impossible thing to ask from the common student. Even if one has the data pack to support the lessons, speed of mobile data is abysmal in most cases.

The option of telecasting lessons through the Victer's channel is the recommended mode of learning for school students. While this seems like an acceptable move for limited syllabi curriculum in schools, it is not viable for college students, primarily due to their diverse coursework and vast syllabus.

In this context, colleges will need to consider other options like recorded lectures and Youtube streaming for students. Sticking to a strict timetable or schedule may not be pragmatic in the present scenario.

Vast syllabus

Meanwhile, universities need to reconsider a revision of syllabus while executing this pedagogic style.

Trying to teach students the vast extensive syllabus through online platforms will not yield the desired results. It will merely leave the students disoriented and disgruntled with the education system.

The fact that virtual classrooms are far more impersonal than real classrooms with regular interaction between the teacher and students will also affect their comprehension abilities.

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