What Challenges Do Online Classes Pose?

With the pandemic forcing the teaching and learning process to migrate to the online mode, the education system has faced an upheaval like never before. This has posed several challenges to teachers and students in India. V. Madhurima and Gurumurthy Kasinathan discuss the challenges and possible solutions in a conversation moderated by Shubashree Desikan. Edited excerpts:

What are the key issues that teachers and students face? Are there solutions to these issues?

V. Madhurima: For most teachers, shifting to online classes was rather sudden. With that move came a plethora of problems for which, for the most part, they had to find solutions by themselves. Ram Ramaswamy, Professor at IIT Delhi, mooted the idea of building a discussion forum for online teaching, which we have done. This acts as a virtual platform for teachers across India to interact and discuss specific issues. We conduct panel discussions and we have daily interactions through channels like Slack and Telegram. We conducted an anonymized pan-India survey among teachers. The respondents were primarily college teachers teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses, but we did have some school teachers.

The first point to come up was the lack of appropriate devices such as graphics tablets and webcams for conducting classes online. The second was the lack of adequate Internet bandwidth. The third was the fact that [you had to] basically bring your own device and software, which meant that in order to ensure that the quality of education that they were imparting was consistent, the teachers had to invest their own personal money to create that ambience through online teaching. Also, the lack of copyrighted material that could be easily dispersed to all the students [came up as an issue].

Gurumurthy Kasinathan: Infrastructure such as computer or Internet is expensive, and even a mobile phone costs ₹10,000 to ₹15,000. If you’re talking about a solution for 1.6 million schools across the country, you are talking about something that is unaffordable. So, what we must understand is that it might work for only a very small percentage of elite institutions and communities. Research says this is around 10% or less. If the country believes that online education is the way forward, then 90% of the children are not a part of it. If education is a fundamental right, then the right to devices is included in that. On the one hand, we can’t rely on [online education] at this point in time. On the other, we must double up our efforts at making sure that it’s accessible to all.

What problems do students face?

V. Madhurima: I agree that only about 10% of the students are able to access education on a larger screen [laptop]. Nearly 70% of the students are typically attending classes on their mobile phones. It’s nearly impossible for them to stay attentive. Also, if, for example, the screen should break, they cannot even afford to mend it since family incomes have gone down. The mental stress that they’re undergoing because of this is very high. The tendency to drift off is high. And this is something that affects teaching on both sides — the students drift off, and the lack of audio-visual feedback from the students is problematic for the teacher. The home environment is not always conducive for students to learn — either because it’s very noisy or because it is sensitive: not all students can switch on their video, even if they have the bandwidth, as the domestic circumstances might not be something that they want to show.

There are also some advantages. Shy students, those who wouldn’t respond in the classroom, are responding much better through non-verbal communication such as through chat.

Gurumurthy Kasinathan: If we think that education is a fundamental right, public provision is necessary. In this aspect, Kerala is a trailblazer, and other States can follow. Provisioning of hardware and connectivity are both very critical. But when it comes to school education, the common system predominantly caters to the marginalized groups and the poor in society. It is absolutely essential that we have to look beyond online education. At IT for Change, we are also trying to persuade governments that some limited opening [of schools] has to be there. If you can unlock shopping malls and temples, and allow celebrations of festivals and weddings, but are completely closing down schools...

I think the school system will need a hybrid solution. Online education cannot replicate the chalk-and-talk methodologies that teachers follow. Innovation in pedagogy is key. The innovations required now have already been discussed in the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. They emphasized a change of pedagogy even before the pandemic, which is to make learning more meaningful for the children, engage them in the process of learning, give them ideas which they can apply to real life, and not let the classroom become completely cut off from reality.

How does digital education impact women and girls?

Gurumurthy Kasinathan: We are now changing our gaze from online education to digital education, which is a much broader canvas. In the last 15 years, we have worked with rural women from Dalit and other marginalized groups. We find that digital technologies can be greatly empowering, because one of the key things that they need is an empowering space. Empowerment happens when they come together and work together for a common interest. We started a community radio program recently. We can actually have committed programs because the connectivity requirements of those are fewer compared to online programs.

On the other hand, the digital space can be very dangerous. Our research shows that cybercrimes in terms of trolling, hate speech, cyberstalking and deceiving women are becoming extremely common. Public infrastructure in terms of regulatory frameworks is going to be absolutely essential in making sure that women feel safe to participate on social media. We are very far away from creating safe online spaces for women.

V. Madhurima: I agree completely. Though the fact that education can be done through mobile phones has been beneficial for many women, it is essential that we create a safe space. In homes where digital resources are scarce, girls are getting the short end of the stick. If a parent has to make a choice between giving the mobile phone to a son or a daughter, they seem to prefer giving it to the son. Also, for many women, hostels have been a safe haven from their sometimes violent homes. With the abrupt shutting down of colleges, they have lost that safety. The third thing that I’m seeing is that a few but not insignificant number of girls, especially from rural areas, since they are at home, are now being asked to get married and have children because teaching and learning is online. And I would add that in addition to women, I think the needs of the differently-abled also have to be thought about. That’s something that has not been really been given enough attention.

How do you make online education interesting?

V. Madhurima: I think I would replace the word ‘interesting’ with ‘effective’ to start with because ‘interesting’ is three or four steps down the lane. How do we effectively communicate? The first thing is to have a multi-channel communication: in addition to having a video conference call, typically, it’s good to have WhatsApp or a second means kept open, so that if a student does not have bandwidth, he or she can still participate without feeling left out of the class. The second is a multi-modal dispersal of learning material. We have to give them audios and videos and written texts, so that they can download it at a later stage. We need to necessarily balance between a synchronous and asynchronous class. The online class should not be more than, say, 30-40 minutes. You must give back material to the students so that they actually feel that they’re sitting down and learning, but that hand-holding has to happen. From being in control of the class, the teacher’s role has to go to being a facilitator for the transfer of knowledge.

Teachers also need to have a lot of flexibility and empathy. They have to remember that the students are going through a lot to attend these classes. And I feel that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the students. If they say that they can’t attend classes for some reason, believe them.

Many of us can learn from theater when it comes to communicating over a smaller screen. Small tips like dressing well go a long way. Speak loudly, articulate clearly. Voice modulation is something that none of us have learned. A monotonous voice can kill a colossal 20 minutes.

Speaking of colossal issues, there is the challenge of online assessment. How do you tackle that?

Gurumurthy Kasinathan: Portfolio assessment is one of the best ways of assessing students because when students are creating something based on their learning and understanding, it will give you a good sense of where their learning levels are. Whether it’s school or college, we encourage them to make things. Another important thing that we’ve been doing is teacher training. We teach a software that converts our computer to a graphing calculator, called GeoGebra. It works across school and colleges.

V. Madhurima: Before that, there are some points that have been raised that I want to re-emphasise. One is change in pedagogy, which is crucial. Also, training needs to be imparted both to teachers and students on how to handle an online platform. An online platform necessarily requires the students to be adult learners. So, training to be an adult learner is something that we have to impart to them. This also requires a change in syllabus — toning it down rather than focusing on completing it — and this is something we really need to pay attention to and as soon as possible.

Online assessment is typically skill-based. So, it lends itself very easily to science subjects where you can have multiple choice questions or ask students to solve a problem and feed in a number. But online assessment for the humanities and social sciences, especially at the secondary and tertiary education levels, become very, very difficult. I don’t think we have a solution to this problem.

Online assessment is conducive for formative assessment — when you’re checking whether the student has understood or not, it is okay. They are not conducive for sumative as much as they are for formative assessment, which means we need to have a policy change where if we are going to be on online mode, we need to give more marks for continuous formative assessment. Also, how do you assess lab-based courses and fieldwork-based courses? I don’t think we have an answer to any of these questions.

Online education has had a differentiated impact across educational levels and institutes, and between various student communities. We see that students are handling the situation with maturity and keeping up with their learning. If anybody had a doubt about how dedicated Indian teachers are, I think this is the time to look around. You will realize that they are there for the cause of teaching.

This interview was originally published in The Hindu.

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