We need to remember that the online mode was never designed as a permanent solution. It is not okay to normalize online mode, and our experiences of teaching during the lockdown should invite us to think about the limitation of online as a mode to teach.
I write this short essay sitting in my office at IISER Bhopal after finishing my online lecture on the history of Science and Technology Studies (STS). Most of the students who opted for this course come from physics. It is an optional course and therefore I have only a few students. I have joined IISER Bhopal recently, when Delhi was about to witness the worst kind of deaths due to COVID 19. There was a lockdown in Bhopal and I had to stay in the visitors’ house without much human contact. After a few weeks of joining IISER, I started getting news on the deaths of friends, and people I knew in Delhi. There were days I cried thinking of those who died, and wanted to speak to people who would understand the situation. I cried, and sometimes made an effort to laugh, so that we can ‘move on’!
This background of my shifting to a new place, and loss of people and friends take me back to the place I worked for the last six years. I taught in the Sociology Department of Jesus and Mary College (JMC), University of Delhi from 2015 to 2021. The teaching load is crazily high in the Colleges of the University of Delhi, and one is always anxious about research and writing. Weekends and vacations were spent writing papers, book chapters, and book reviews. Then COVID 19 came and the house became the classroom. Yes, literally! Initially, we thought that the online classes were an arrangement for a few weeks, and we would be back to our classrooms soon to teach in person and interact with the bright young minds. That never happened!
From March 2020 I have been teaching, like everyone else, through various online platforms; Google Meet, Zoom and attending webinars through various other platforms. I start teaching at 10.30 am most of the days, and finish my lectures around 4.30 pm. It was not easy as the distinction between home and office vanished! One needs to cook early in the morning, so that classes can happen without any disturbance. My niece was staying with me as well since she couldn’t go home due to the lockdown in Delhi. She is doing her B.Sc Chemistry (Hons) at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and I saw her struggling with her online classes in the beginning. She was in the second year of graduation when they started the online classes, and now in her third year of graduation and very soon she will be graduating from Delhi University without being able to spend time in the college!
I had to teach three batches of students in the college. I was tired most of the time, and students were more tired as they had to attend continuous classes from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm most of the days. They were excited about ideas as I was teaching a course on social stratification. Students made sure that the pandemic didn’t affect their ambition, and they made sure that they attend almost all the classes and engaged with the concepts and ideas. They discussed racism, inequality, caste discrimination, patriarchy! Suddenly I hear students talking about their everyday life. Almost all my students admitted that they found it difficult to stay at home as they were expected to do household chores. I must admit here that these are students who are relatively privileged and come mostly from urban middle class backgrounds. However, I did have students from the North East and Ladakh who were not even able to ‘tune in’ for the classes as the internet was not easily available to them.
While I taught the course on social stratification, the news updates came from different parts of India on the sad situation of online education; there were deaths, and suicides since students couldn’t afford laptops and internet; many Dalit and Adivasi students didn’t even have the basic facilities to attend online classes. It seemed online education was meant only for the rich and the middle class.
There was no clarification in the beginning on how to really conduct online classes; initially we were told to record the lectures and send them to students. One was skeptical and anxious of doing that, not that we didn’t trust our students, but there was no control on who was attending/listening to the lectures as it was impossible to check the details. Living in a fascist period, one surely is skeptical as social sciences are seen with animosity as we teach students to be critical of the power structures and the State. There were cases of the misuse of online mode to harass teachers based on what they taught. One was surely unsure of what to teach in a class of social anthropology or political theory as the very basis of these disciplines is to criticize and theorize nation, power, and authority.
If teachers like me were anxious about online teaching on various grounds, students were tired of online teaching; it affected them mentally, emotionally, and physically. I get emails from students stating the difficulties they have, how they were dealing with parents who were COVID positive; how they were not able to read, think, and write. They write to me saying how they miss the site of freedom; the university and college campuses; especially for women students.
Since all were stuck at their individual homes, my students informed me that they were expected to help in the kitchen. They felt terrible that their mothers had to cook for everyone, and the male members neither cooked, nor helped in most of the households. They decided to help their mothers, but very clearly were unhappy since they wanted to be out of this kitchen work, and the College campus was a place where they could imagine a world of their own.
The pandemic has destroyed that freedom. They are stuck! I started teaching that particular batch of students online during their second year of college, and by the time I left the college to join IISER, they were entering the third year. The third year batch I taught was graduating when I left. It was still online. It is still online. For the second year students, I taught two complete semesters and three courses without meeting any of them. I don’t think I will remember their faces at all if I see them, but surely remember the conversations.
As mentioned, I reached Bhopal in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown. I was tired of the continuous online classes in Delhi University. I didn’t have any teaching commitments in the first semester of joining IISER. I worked on my manuscript during this time. My students from JMC wrote to me saying that they were tense about the exams, whether DU will conduct the exams, and most importantly about their future. Immediately after I joined IISER, I started getting terrible news about the death of friends and colleagues in Delhi. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired and exhausted of online classes in Delhi, and here I was tired of attending online obituaries. Online obituary meetings have become part of our lives!
Now that the situation is getting better, and many are getting vaccinated, I think it is important to at least partially discontinue the online mode of teaching as students have spent more than a year with this mode, and many have even graduated without being able to meet their friends and teachers.
When started, online classes were perceived as an arrangement for a short time, and it was needed in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Of course the pandemic is still with us and probably will be with us for a long time.
However, we see that there is an emerging trend to normalize online education. The number of online coaching and tuition classes, and the number of online degree programmes have mushroomed during this period of pandemic. It calls for our attention. They come in the form of advertisements in the middle of watching news on the struggles of poor students as they don’t have basic internet and laptops to attend online classes. The advertisements range from online tuition classes to IIT coaching classes. Surely, online or offline, the Indian middle class can’t survive without tuition and coaching classes: the factories that produce ‘merit’. When the elite and the middle class pay to attend these classes and try their best to reach their destination; IITs, the poor students are struggling to even attend their regular online classes. Of course, nothing to be surprised here as we know, and we have seen the economic and social disparities in India; who can forget the images of migrant workers trying to leave Delhi when they had no choice and place.
There is no doubt that students were one of the most affected groups during this age of pandemic as they found it difficult to get out of the everyday patriarchal structure of the family; that is clearly the case for women students. I remember my students complaining in class, how difficult it is for them to manage “housework, cooking, and online classes.”
I have been teaching through online mode for more than a year now, and I only hear complaints about online mode. There were students who thought in the beginning that online mode was better for them as they hated coming to the college. The same students who were happy about the online classes in the beginning are now sad and feel helpless. They miss their friends, their classrooms, canteens, and a sense of freedom.
We need to remember that the online mode was never designed as a permanent solution. It is not okay to normalize online mode, and our experiences of teaching during the lockdown should invite us to think about the limitation of online as a mode to teach. Online will never replace the classrooms. Google Classroom is not actually a class room. It is not.
As I finish writing this essay, I realize that I have an online class tomorrow. Life goes on! Let’s hope that we will be able to meet our students and discuss ideas in person very soon. Let’s hope that we can all come together and write obituaries for online classes soon. Having said that, let’s also make sure that students, teachers, and other employees get vaccinated before they start coming to the campuses. It is important that everyone has access to the vaccination, and everyone gets it without paying for it. Vaccination is as important as returning to the campuses.
Renny Thomas teaches Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IISER Bhopal. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.
This article is part of a Confluence series called “Still Online: Higher Education in India”. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.