Should we get back to class?

Should we get back to class?

Enforced remote learning cannot be the solution, because not all is well with online teaching

As the COVID-19 outbreak brings the world to a standstill, close to 170 countries in the world have shut down schools and educational institutes to keep their children safe. But life must go on, curricula need to be covered and grades must be completed – so that threads of normalcy can be picked up as smoothly as possible whenever nations hit the “Resume” button. Hence, as most breadwinners are logging in to work from home, children in the family are attending online classes hurriedly set up by their respective educational institutions.

Data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reveals that the lockdown has forced over 1.5 billion school children all over the globe to attend online classes – of which 70 million are in the US alone. In India, just counting the higher education institutions would account for more than 37 million enrolled students across the country; the number of schoolchildren would naturally be much higher. Overall, the education sector in India is worth $180 billion. No wonder there is a frenzy to jump on the online bandwagon. And rightly too, since the need of the hour is to stay safe and break the chain of contagion.

The situation has necessitated a change in outlook for all stakeholders in education – institutions, teachers, students and parents alike. While institutions that had a pre-existing online system in place did not encounter much hiccups. That figure, however, would not be very high, and the majority of the institutes are now wooing front-line technology majors like TCS, AWS and Coursera to implement a learning platform for them in the least possible time. And for lesser institutes and most schools across the country, mobile-based apps for video calls are the only alternative.

In fact, online teaching in India has been around for quite some time. Top institutions had long been dispensing virtual learning in many forms. The pandemic and the resultant lockdown have, however, thrust a new reality upon us – and every player in the education sector must adapt to survive, or simply perish. Even the Indian government is calling upon its citizens to offer ideas for bettering the nation’s virtual learning infrastructure. And vendors in off-the-shelf online learning products – like BYJU’s and Khan Academy – are much in demand.

While, it is good to see our children get back into the learning mode after a period of uncertainty, will the current system be effective enough? Although everyone is trying their best to improvise – right from the teacher unaccustomed to online teaching, to the father whose laptop or the mother whose mobile the child may be using to access the classes – frustration seems to be setting in. Even if we ignore the basic premise that not every family can provide for the gadgets and connectivity such sessions demand, those who can and are tech savvy enough are grumbling. And the reasons are many.

Infrastructure has its limits in a not-so-developed country and although data prices at India might be low, connectivity speeds are low too. And conferencing apps like Zoom can never be a reliable solution. While defiant students are turning on distracting virtual backgrounds,some delinquent type have gone to the extreme of running pre-recording videos to prove their presence without attending the sessions.

For lower grades, online teaching can be a deterrent and students would need to be constantly aided by grown-ups through the sessions. This, in turn, is proving to be a huge distraction for the teachers, often cramping their teaching style. Additionally, it might not be within the capabilities of all parents to effectively interpret the lessons being sent by the teachers and re-purpose them to suit their ward.

And distractions abound at home – family, food, pets, doorbells, television, space crunch…the list can be endless.

So, are we looking at a bleak scenario where students lack engagement, technology is patchy, connectivity is poor, teachers are not adequately equipped to deliver online courses, curriculum is not tailored to suit online delivery? Sounds alarming indeed. But what went wrong?

It’s basically the approach, experts say. What is happening right now in most of the cases is not proper online education, but merely remote delivery of traditional instructor-led training. As a result, we are reaping the worst of both the worlds. While proper instructional designing – the backbone of online learning – is missing, the lacunae and boredom of traditional classroom teaching is getting magnified through monotonous, one-way video delivery.

Learner engagement is the key to true online learning. For that to happen effectively,online courses customise the content by:

  • adding appropriate incorporating interactivity
  • organising content in easy-to-assimilate chunks
  • designing assessments that are measurable
  • encouraging problem-solving through innovative thinking
  • packaging the entire offering in a self-paced and easy-to-navigate user interface.

None of this can be expected in the current quick-fix video-call based classes.

And even after all the mentioned effort, online courses have a forgettable track-record of dropouts – even in nations far superior in terms of technological infrastructure. A lot of research has been conducted and is still undertaken to redress this situation. But the trend has shown not much improvement. It is generally agreed by all that online courses are undertaken merely to fulfill some institutional or organizational requirement, and everyone tends to rush through them to complete the mandate.As a result, motivation levels are low, there is no connect with the teacher and no group interaction to refine one’s understanding through peer discussions. Without any external influence whatsoever, only someone with a high degree of self-control and personal routine can be expected to follow a regular schedule for online courses.

That last point might not be too relevant to the current Indian context, because right now most institutions are focusing on completing their regular classroom activities through remote teaching so that students do not lose precious a session-time. Hence, attendance is mostly not the major issue. But effectiveness certainly is. Almost 90% of the teachers has no prior exposure to online teaching. This is resulting into poor teacher-student connect and lack of communication.

The prime disadvantage for the students is turning out to be absence of teacher-student eye contact. Face-to-face interactions are invaluable in the teaching process because while students can grasp concepts better through a teacher’s body language, the teacher, in turn, receives immediate feedback from the students’ expression whether the teaching is hitting the target. This is irreplaceable – and is crucial for some technology-oriented subjects.

Even for theory-based subjects, remote teaching can prove troubled. Such modes of learning prevent critical thinking – because they mostly follow a pre-determined route map. The instructor follows the learning plan and the students turn into mere onlookers as the class begins with Topic A and ends in Topic “n” – with the instructor delivering a long monologue. When this is done face-to-face, a student can at least raise a hand to interrupt and seek clarification. On a remote medium, the first impulse might be: “Who bothers?” And that is dangerous.

Finally, there is the grave concern of cyber security and data reliability. The International Telecommunication Union has already expressed its reservations on online safety. They are afraid that most students (and we must not rule out teachers too, because they are mostly new to such tools) are unaware of false information, phishing activities and malware. In India, cyber law specialists think clear legislations need to be formed soon to address such issues. There has already been several occasions when unidentified hackers have forced into online classes and to circulate smut. A Pune university of repute had recently encountered such a nuisance while – with the hacker posting adult content – first-year classes were on progress online.

Hard times require hard measures – and we all agree that the times, currently, are hard. However, while a lot of celebration and cheer is going around regarding classes being resumed online amidst the pandemic, let us not forget the perspective. For the sake of effective education, this must remain a stopgap measure to fend-off the emergency at hand. After the storm passes over, let this not be the norm. Not only will that hinder true learning, it will negatively impact the students in a big way. The students want to “attend” classes, meet teachers and fellow-students in person, visit the library, rouse the college canteen, run around the campus, soak in the tropical sun and the monsoon wind, and make the most of the best years of their lives.

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