COVID-19 and Online Teaching-Learning Process in India
Anonymous | Aug 03, 2020
Prof. Ramakrishna Biswal (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology, Rourkela) pens down his honest opinion about the current plight of online teaching in India during the pandemic.
COVID-19 or novel Coronavirus is a household name across the globe now. The generation that is alive today has at least witnessed the enviable and unprecedented popularity of the virus and other terms associated with the disease like- lockdown, shutdown, containment, isolation, sanitization, physical and social distance, quarantine, and the like. They have made a mark for themselves in the future history discourses and dictionaries. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the name of the disease is COVID-19, or coronavirus disease and the name of the virus is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus2 or SARS-CoV-2. It's no wonder to see viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, and other micro-organisms in and around us. Most of them live in and on our bodies, are harmless and even helpful. However, under certain conditions, some organisms may cause disease, and, in extreme cases, some may cause death. Such an identified coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has created a worldwide pandemic of respiratory illness, called COVID-19. With a highly dynamic nature of the infection, varying number of cases in different regions of the world, preventive and restrictive guidelines by the governments around the globe, the public at large and professionals, in particular, are in a perpetual confused state leading to psychological adjustment issues.
This pandemic has disrupted human lives and livelihood. With no sure cure available in hand, the only effective method available to us is to prevent its spread through behavioural change methods like movement restrictions of the public to avoid large gatherings. Stay at home, work from home- governments around the world adopted the means of locking down and shutting down the cities and states. At times stringent measures like declaring small pockets of highly infected areas as containment zones to contain the spread of infection are the new regular now. The first-ever global event of the current century is an incredible event by any standard for the ever-connected and mobile citizens of the world. Governments, businesses, organizations, and industries have all been affected due to COVID-19. Education is no exception too.
Like other settings, the formal educational set-up has a physical building or structure in a particular locality with a postal address where people come to learn and teach. There are specific sets of people coming to schools, colleges, and universities daily to learn and teach. Though, virtual classrooms are not new concepts now; the current pandemic has forced the entire education system to adopt online teaching-learning mode until we are out of danger from the corona pandemic. Not only teachers and students but people around the globe from other sectors also have adapted to this new normal of working from home. Some years back, work from home was considered a privilege by some IT company employees, or some select employees in the IT sector are entitled to this benefit. Now, we are all having the freedom of working from home. The question is- are we prepared to enjoy the shift with ease and work as per our convenience? Are we happy because we got the much-needed family time or are we feeling bored and exhausted because of too much work? There would be mixed reactions to these questions from the stakeholders.
There are various levels in our education system like the preschool, primary, secondary, higher secondary, and higher education. Apart from that, we have professional, vocational and special education too. One method of Teaching through virtual mediums is not suitable for all. Are our teachers trained enough to make the online classes enjoyable and adaptive for the students? When preschool children get WhatsApp videos of their teachers early in the morning through their parents' mobile phones, how the parents manage their kids back at home? Whether the teaching-learning process becomes an enjoyable activity for them or raises their blood pressure every morning? Many families are struggling every day with the growing demand for personal space and individual gadgets for each member of the family. Concept learning is fundamental to preschool and primary schools. The teacher's input and parental involvement must be much more than the student's participation. Hence, the design of the syllabus to teach effectively must sync with the objectives to achieve. The secondary and higher secondary level of education emphasizes logical thinking, critical analysis, hence more problem-solving assignments has to be given with guided instructions by the teachers. Students in higher education must be self-motivated and require less classroom learning and more practice-oriented exercises. Analytical thinking and problem-solving skills of the student are essential at this stage and they can be judged through a variety of dynamic assignments.
The effect of the current pandemic on students and teachers, education now and in the future warrant, our attention as a significantly large student population is homebound these days. Meaningful and useful use of time is the biggest challenge for the people in general and students in particular. Students need hand-holding, guidance, training, counselling from an adult in fulfilling the objectives of completing a formal education and who could be the best person than a teacher to make this happen. However, the perspectives of teachers and students in an online mode of learning do not sync well for various reasons.
Reason 1: Lack of Face to Face Interaction
A physical classroom allows seeing each other, exchanging ideas instantly or discussing doubts then and there itself. One of the most significant advantages of a physical classroom is eye-contact. From the eye contact, the teacher knows whether students could follow the instructions in the class and accordingly she/he modifies the style of explanation and expression. We communicate more non-verbally than verbally. Many children in the class don't ask questions fearing to be judged by others. Face to face interactions in the classroom is a boon for them. Through online courses, both the teacher and the student lose the opportunity to understand the viewpoint of each other. This would result in disinterest in studies and poor performance in the examination. Not everyone takes failure equally. Highly resilient students may somehow sustain the pressure of competition. Some others may not digest the defeat and succumb to the trouble of not being able to get a stable and seamless internet connection or find answers to their queries instantly. We have seen many news reports of such incidents recently during this lockdown period.
Reason 2: Lack of Required Gadgets or tools to Participate
Online classes are only possible with the required gadgets like desktop, laptop, tab, smartphone though their functionalities vary based on the particular purpose of use. Ensuring uninterrupted internet in the remotest areas (students or teachers can't change their place of residence for better internet connectivity often) at a lower price (still many low-income families struggle to meet their daily needs, and corona has severely affected their lives and livelihoods) is the biggest challenge for online education. Lack of these basics would exclude many students from participation. Similarly, some teachers are also trapped in remote places post lockdown where they don't have the gadgets or internet connectivity except phone or at best a smartphone which may not be an active medium of Teaching. It's okay for certain discussions but taking a full-length daily class of 40-60 minutes is out of the question. To take courses through online mode, teachers also need some bare minimum facilities. There is no data available on whether teachers across the country have the equipment to teach online or not. Before lockdown, big educational-residential campuses have advised students to vacate their hostels immediately as a preventive measure to control the spread of infection. Many of the students might have left their study materials, laptops, and other kinds of stuff in their respective hostels in a hurry thinking the situation would improve soon and they would be back to the campus. However, we observe a spike in the number of corona cases across the country even today. Both students and teachers are thus under stress as the arrangement of an online mode are not set optimally to function.
Reason 3: Ill Effects of Increased Screen Time Exposure.
Educational institutes follow a specific time-table to teach. There is more than one period per day. For example, if there are eight periods per day and each period spanning for about 50 minutes, there would be a total class hour of 6.667 hours every day. Besides, they would spend some 5 to 6 hours for self-study and other activities. Being exposed to the screen for more than 11 to 12 hours per day is certainly not a healthy habit. Moreover, it is going to happen all of a sudden and sitting for long hours in front of the digital devices increases the risk of developing many lifestyle diseases which would affect their performance and productivity in the long-run. Sooner than later, the hospital visits with various complaints like eye strain, computer vision syndrome, and postural problems are likely to increase for many with a substantial increase in screen time.
Reason 4: Cases of Virtual Cheating
There are instances of virtual cheating while attending an online class. Many webinars are being conducted during the pandemic. Some are free, and some others are paid. More often people join them for a mere certificate. As of now, we don't have any robust mechanism to control this behaviour. The whole purpose of disseminating information is then lost in this process. It would seem like a mechanical exercise without any concrete result or effective learning.
Reason 5: The Spontaneity of Teaching Compromised
Unlike movies, classroom exercises are more spontaneous and creative which can't be edited as professionally as a film to bring about the best part of the entire activity. In the absence of a proficient team of digital media editors who understand the nuances of the teaching-learning process, the post-production of classroom videos is going to be a big headache for all the stakeholders. There would be massive video generation every day. To edit one-hour video content, an editor might need more than four to five hours of hard work to make it ready for uploading in the public domains. If we want less of editing, the charm of teaching would be lost, and the whole exercise would become monotonous and boring.
Further, if we are serious about quality teaching and quality content, we must orient our community in a direction that would bring name and fame to any academic institute in the long run. There is a dearth of good teachers in many governments as well as private run institutions. Students in those institutes would be able to reap the benefit of this exercise and this can be a significant contribution towards national development.
Reason 6: Lack of Required Infrastructure at Home
Work from home is an excellent idea. Writing research proposals, books, project proposals, reviewing articles, preparing class presentations and notes for future use, reading, handing out online assignments and checking them can be done with ease as they don't affect other members of the family actively. The designs of many Indian houses do not have dedicated and enough separate rooms where teaching-learning can happen without any disturbance. Children have to adjust their study time with other members of the family. Further, there could be the presence of the old and disabled family members, small children and patients in some homes may not afford to cooperate for a long online study schedule at home. Students can't go to other places to study as there are movement restrictions; even relatives are not allowing any guests during this time. Such situations put some learners and teachers in a disadvantaged position.
Reason 7: Students and Teachers with Special Needs
All individuals are unique. While assessing, we try to measure each one of them based on our limited understanding of what merit is. Often we judge people following a deficiency model wherein we look for what is absent in the individual instead of what present. Finding positive traits in people is an arduous task but it's easy to pinpoint the weakness in others flawlessly. This deficiency led assessment has sidelined many otherwise creative and talented individuals from the race and the current pandemic has made their lives even more challenging to cope with. Teachers in the advanced age having other lifestyle-related diseases or disabilities, persons with some form of disabilities (as per the guidelines of RPwD, 2016) need special care and guidance in completing their assignments in an online environment for which we might not be yet prepared.
There is no doubt that information technology has revolutionized our lives in recent decades. However, are we able to meet the demands that outweigh our limited resources? The current pandemic has taught us that we have not done enough in our scientific and technological advancements to meet such demands. To make virtual classes successful and productive, we need requisite gadgets like the computer, tablet, desktop with all required programs, a broadband internet connection and most importantly- an uninterrupted power supply. We are yet to achieve the second goal of zero hunger as set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2030). Expecting the gadgets with seamless internet connectivity in the remotest areas seems quite impractical, at least for now. If education is not accessible and inclusive, the whole purpose of education is lost.
Lastly, every system has loopholes. The objective is not to provide a full-proof system immediately that seems more comfortable saying than doing. The efforts must be in place to reduce the leakages to the maximum extent and that has to be done on a war footing basis. We have a reactive system that needs to be changed to an active and proactive system. We need intention and honest actions to achieve this objective. Some people want to cheat the system by making stories of inaccessible internet, broken laptops just to enjoy the break. What can be done about that? Taking an online class may not be the best idea where the virtual teacher might not be able to know whether his/her virtual student is attending the course or just logged in to the system and sleeping. Instead, the syllabus along with the suggested reading materials with the links, already available videos, and assignments can be posted beforehand for students to learn and later on come for discussion classes with their questions on a mutually decided time. Online courses, unless and until excellent editing facilities are in place, uploading them in a public platform is never a good practice. Hence, taking decisions hastily without thinking and planning may put the entire effort of all in vain.
There are many other glitches of the online teaching-learning process, which is beyond the scope of discussion here. However, for the lack of better alternative, at present online education is the way to go except if we try turning to teach through television and radio! This does not, however, mean we don't have a solution to keep our teachers and students engaged meaningfully and effectively. A general solution may not be available instantly to all the issues described here. Organizations and institutions must look into their specific needs, challenges, opportunities and accordingly bring the best out of the situation that is healthy and productive in the long run for all the stakeholders.