Gayathri*, a 55-year-old Associate Professor of microbiology at Christ University, stares puzzled at the 21-inch laptop her daughter had gifted her two years ago. Backache continues to ail her even as she consciously corrects her posture to sit straight on an ordinary plastic chair. Gayathri said that although the college trained her, and her colleagues helped her handle virtual communication tools, she could not put together appropriate tools for remote classes amidst COVID-19.
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Working out of her apartment in JP Nagar, Gayathri said, “Although I enjoy interacting with my students after a long gap, it gets tiresome to sit caged in a chair without much scope for body language and to talk at a web camera all the time. I have three batches of 15-30 students each, every day. The app distracts me with one prompt or the other. It clearly doesn’t feel like class anymore.”
It’s not just the case with Gayathri. When I asked some college faculty to share their experiences with virtual classes, a large number said these were monotonous and boring. But with the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s green signal for college exams by September end, teachers have no option but to finish the syllabus as per schedule.
Colleges train teachers, use different tools
Faculty from colleges like Christ, Mount Carmel, St Joseph’s, and Azim Premji University say they are already using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous modes for remote classes. Synchronous mode involves live interactions where the teacher delivers a lecture, talks to students, analyses videos, texts, and so on. In the asynchronous mode, the teacher gives students assignments which they follow up on after class. Most institutions have limited the time for virtual classes between 9 am and 12 pm.
Colleges like St Joseph’s have invested in training their faculty to adapt to virtual sessions. Dr Prabhakar, HOD at the Environmental Science Department there, said, “Our faculty underwent a training programme for 10 days. The college trained us to create and edit videos, podcasts; and familiarised us with the entire spectrum of online communication. They also trained us to evaluate assignments and share feedback with students.”
Though “there’s ‘delivery of content’ from an academic point of view”, Dr Prabhakar said the virtual set-up deprived students of classroom interaction, co-curricular learning (learning with classmates as part of team work) and incidental learning (learning from mistakes/improvising through application of mind). “Hopefully this is a stopgap arrangement. Delivery of the content is just one aspect of education, but for the holistic development of students, classroom learning is essential,” he said.
Dr Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, says the lockdown had caught them off-guard, and the aim was to ensure that students didn’t lose out on academics. “We quickly used our existing online skills to host classes online. We told students to use their laptop, mobile to connect with the sessions,” she said.
To break the monotony of monologous lectures, APU faculty share videos, pictures and documentaries. “The focus was on improving learning abilities rather than scoring and evaluation,” Harini said. APU has reduced the duration of classes, and is hoping to engage with smaller batches of students so that interaction is possible. Harini said the university is redesigning the syllabus for the virtual classroom, so that the upcoming academic semester would be smoother.
Online classes just can’t be interactive, say teachers
At the college level, teaching modules involve long hours of discussion and deliberation which clearly is impossible in the online platform, according to teachers. Vinod*, a faculty in the humanities stream at Christ University, said, “First, it’s a false assumption that online classes are interactive, when most of the students are compelled to switch off the microphone and camera (to save bandwidth) when the lecturer speaks. So the format of the classes is largely one-sided.”
He adds, “Right now, most teachers are taking classes for finishing the syllabus or for the sake of student attendance or giving assignments. The enthusiasm for teaching is clearly lost.”
Teachers are also concerned about not being able to monitor student’s response to classes, or even verify if they are online or not. Some said they are unable to verify students’ claims of internet disruption, and are unable to monitor chat boxes for non-academic exchanges.
The digital divide among students in terms of access to devices and internet connectivity is also a major concern. Dr Harini of APU said, “First, we did away with regular attendance since it was pointless given the circumstances. Second, we pre-recorded sessions – so that students can access and download the lecture whenever the internet was available to them.”
Students missing out on practicals
In disciplines where practical classes are important, online education just seems unable to fill the gap. Dr Hossiney Nabil Jalall, Assistant Professor (Civil Engineering) at Christ University, said, “Videos are supplementary. But only by conducting experiments themselves can students understand concepts. Performing laboratory experiments is also a qualifier for the student’s respective papers. We are awaiting the government’s guidelines on the matter,” he said, adding that not being able to gauge students’ reactions or level of understanding was more of a concern for practical classes.
Professor Simon Varghese, Principal at the National School of Journalism (NSoJ), said they were unable to teach students animation, photo editing and video editing softwares since the students wouldn’t be able to afford these. Students also aren’t able to undertake studio production without access to the studio and recording devices. So for now, NSoJ is holding only theory classes.
What could change?
Teachers agreed that online sessions can be managed for smaller groups through interactions and by having students make presentations. But for larger groups above 20, written quizzes and feedback using Google Forms or other apps need to be resorted to, they said. Professor Simon said, “To keep students interested in virtual classes, institutions must consider subscribing to engaging virtual content. To conduct online assessments without interruption, they must explore if there are Internet Service Providers providing professional, consistent service.”
Dr Helen Kennedy of Mount Carmel College said that faculty must acknowledge that students too are new to the online interface, and hence must be given time to adjust and be encouraged to interact. “Both teachers and students are on a similar learning curve when it comes to remote classes. Students have been very empathetic, given the smaller window for acclimatisation, and are aiding the faculty in conducting classes smoothly,” she said.
Dr Kennedy Andrew Thomas, Associate Professor and Director at the Centre for Education Beyond Curriculum, Christ University, said nothing could replace face-to-face classroom sessions, and that technology can only be an enabler.
He proposed a hybrid-model of education that combines both classroom and virtual learning. “Else, only those with access to high bandwidth will be able to receive education. It will create a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. Policy makers, educational institutions must invest in research and development for turning education into a celebration where everyone can equitably, independently gain knowledge and critical thinking,” he said.
*Name, age, gender changed