“I am thoroughly enjoying my online teaching,” said Anil about his History lessons for the Class 11 and 12 students.
“I prepare well, make my power points with essential text and lots of pictures from Google. My students enjoy it. They even raise questions. The submission, correction, and returning of the assignments are also so convenient. Thanks to track-changes and comments, everything is so neat and orderly. Reading my handwriting was a challenge for some students.”
“But what would you do if you had to teach Chemistry?” I queried. “Would it be the same? What happens to practical classes – test-tubes, salts, acids – how would you handle those on Zoom?”
“And what about the dance and drama classes?” I retorted.
“Ah yes, we have to think through this carefully to move from online teaching to online education,” he said thoughtfully.
The COVID-19 crisis has created another pandemic – the proliferation of different strains of online sessions and a spate of webinars on practically any subject you can think about. The academic community is buzzing with activity in its new WFH (work from home) avatar. The lockdown seems no dampener to their creativity or spirits.
In the interest of public health and the need to ‘restart’ education, we as a society are confronted with some hard questions, regarding the choices we must make in keeping school enrolment, skill development, and higher education from faltering. The rapid and widespread use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in every realm today, has made its utilisation the preferred choice during the global health emergency we confront. Going the online way is even being touted as the natural road to the future of education – in its broadest sense.
But is this vision valid across the whole learning community? The teachers and the taught? The providers and the recipients, so to speak. What might be the limitations and short-comings of blindly adopting online teaching?
Context of the providers
Let’s start with the provider - teachers. Here we include all those in school and college and all the other academic and research institutions – striving to perform their duties in this new physically distanced, yet seemingly face-to-face virtual reality.
Many teachers are very handicapped when it comes to using the new technologies and interfaces. Typing on a laptop using a qwerty keyboard can be daunting if you have been a pen-pusher most of your life. It can be a struggle to write a page on a Word document when compared to the ease of using chalk or felt pen on a black or whiteboard.
For those who have graduated from the Biblical method (‘seek and ye shall find’!) to touch-typing on the keyboard there is another extreme. This is most evident in the Power-Point presentations which display 500 words on one slide in 10-point Times Roman font. Some teachers and most academics arrogantly give a go-by to the fact that there are some ‘rules’ and ‘norms’ in using these new formats.
Next comes the recording and online presentations where the teacher’s demeanour is on display. If these are not undertaken with professional oversight, and institutional support, there are the obvious errors of the position of the webcam, the volume of the audio, and so on.
Then there are the embarrassing facial grimaces and lack of eye contact which get magnified and remain etched in the minds of the viewers much more than when similar actions are exhibited face-to-face. After all, very few teachers had to pass screen tests during their job interviews.
So, the point is that teachers – at all levels – need to learn about the technology and etiquette of online teaching. They must be willing to attend demonstration sessions and realise that being an online teacher requires some of the talents of a TV star to be effective.
Presentation notwithstanding, teachers also need more importantly to make more efforts and examine the large body of research already available about online teaching. The big takeaway lesson is that teachers need to be innovative and use tools that will build class periods differently and thus create more engagement with the ‘remote’ student.
Such efforts need to be viewed by teachers as investments, because health emergencies and disasters will continue to be with us even when, hopefully, they will not take the global pandemic proportions of COVID-19.
More importantly, teachers also need to be conscientiously aware that the mere delivery of classes online does not absolve them from the moral obligation they have to students who are the future citizenry of our country. The physical distance of online teaching should not become the instrument or the alibi for teachers emotionally and socially distancing themselves from the sacred responsibilities of shaping the minds of the youth of our country in becoming creative cauldrons of curiosity and compassion and not mere repositories of bytes of data and information – however profound those may be.
Realities of the recipients
And now let’s come to the recipients – the students. Their reality is more complex. This is where many more vexing issues are prevalent.
One basic divide is between the privileged minority of students who are from well-off backgrounds in the urban areas and those who form the vast majority and are from more disadvantaged contexts in the rural areas.
This basic socio-economic and cultural divide is what creates the ‘digital divide’ in terms of availability and access to the technology needed to participate in online learning.
Interestingly India is at once the second-largest Internet-connected market and also the most untapped market with over 900 million yet to have physical access to the Internet.
The students who fall in the latter category stand to the greatest disadvantage with the switch to online learning.
Even when physical access to the Internet can be provided, the issue of possession of devices to personalise the access – like smartphones, laptops, etc – throws up the question of lack of funds to purchase them.
Even when the gadget provision can be solved by government freebies, donations, and so forth, the next concern is of the recurring costs of data cards. The 3-D triumvirate of the digital divide, access to devices, and the cost of data (Divide, Device, Data) continue as barriers to access online classes - from the primary school to the post-graduate level all over our country.
For the student, there are other deprivations and divides which online classes will create, particularly at the school level to start with.
If all learning in school goes online, where do children get the capabilities which can be acquired only from collective physical social interactions like games, group activities like music, dance, and drama?
The single child of the upper-middle class IT couple as well as children from larger families in urban and rural areas will all experience social isolation with its differential consequences, affecting not only the individual but future society as a whole. And what about the noon-meal – so vital for the vast majority of children in government schools?
At the higher levels of education, the loss of the personality-creating functions of dialogue, debates and differences – all integral part of face-to-face group learning – will create a society of introvert, atomised individuals who do not know to face the world.
Physical classrooms are the realms where youth learn to deal with forms of discrimination, anxieties of various kinds like stage fright, dealing with colleagues of the opposite sex, and also imbibe emotions and attitudes such as empathy, compassion, solidarity, love – very little of which can be communicated online.
Youth who transit into society without such attributes will be merely robotised individuals and become easy grist to the opportunist and devious machinations of an older generation and their societal structure.
Steamed, no spices
Online teaching can certainly be a great medium and method to gather information, sourcing from the amazing cloud repositories at the touch of a key. It can bring the whole world to our doorstep.
This can lead to copious consumption – albeit with the attendant inequalities resulting from the divides mentioned above.
However, this blind enthusiasm and faith in online teaching - not merely as a stop-gap in this time of crisis, but as the apt solution to our country’s education deficit - is overrated. This is true at both the school and higher education levels.
Online teaching can surely provide a quickly steamed product, but it will be devoid of the essential spices of life and living, so essential to holistic education which is so vital for the future of our country.
(The author, a teacher from the chalk and blackboard age, is with Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)