COVID – 19 and Learning History


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There are no courses for history in the India-based Swayam portal. Harvard University’s online courses are on China. The Department for Continuing Education of University of Oxford has online history courses that is predominantly British history. Thus, to learn Oriental history (excluding Chinese history) especially Indian History, there are no MOOCs.  

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“…that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it….” – G.W.F. Hegel


History has testimonies of mass destructions and calamities like wars, genocides, epidemics, and natural disasters that had caused annihilation to humankind. These occurrences have altered the course of history, like the Bubonic plague that is believed to have paved the way for the rise of Renaissance in Europe. COVID-19 and its aftermath will be one such experience that will alter the lives of common man and the world order in all ways.


On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as Pandemic with 118,000 cases in 114 countries. It soared and as on 10 May, 2020 the virus has affected nearly 4,152,878 people and killed 282,663 worldwide. With United States leading the world with most number of affected cases and deaths, the virus has spread to 212 countries.

Ring-a-ring o’roses

A pocket full of posies

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.


Going down History with COVID -19

COVID-19 is not the first nor will be the last pandemic. Epidemics and pandemics are not new in history. This famous kindergarten rhyme cited above is related to the Great Plague of England in 1665. Likewise some of the deadliest pandemics were the Plague of Justinian (541-542 A.D.), Bubonic plague (1347-51 A.D.), Spanish Flu (1918-19), AIDS (ongoing), SARS (2002-03), Swine Flu (2009-10), Ebola (2013) etc. COVID – 19, in spite of having low fatality rate is a way different from the above mentioned pandemics. In the age of advance scientific and technological advancement, this virus has led to thousands of death; locked down billions of people to their homes across the globe; closed down educational and religious institutions; stopped global economic activity; and causing a state of uncertainty bringing the greatest nations and the proud superior beings to its knees.


Coping with COVID-19 Lockdown

COVID-19 has completely paralyzed the educational institutions across the globe. As India continues to see a surge in cases of COVID-19, the lockdown 4.0 was declared on 12 May. Since 25 March, all the schools, colleges, universities and other research institutions have been shut. The board exams, semester exams, university exams and all the entrance exams have been rescheduled. Technology played a major role as both the teachers and the students went online for learning. Engaging the students through Google classroom, Google Duo, Zoom, etc., the teachers were able to keep the learning process active during the lockdown. Teaching, learning, and assessment of the students online was a new experiment to many institutions in India. Access to online books, digital libraries, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were a boon in the learning process to both the students and the teachers. What was at the same time missing was the classroom atmosphere, an inter-personal relationship, a bonding of student and teacher friendship with which I have grown up in my institution and which I also share with my students.


Can online teaching be effective for a discipline like History?

History is a conventional discipline and not everyone gets interested to study it. In Indian scenario, it is not a glamorous discipline.  It is a vast discipline that is tangled with all disciplines under the sun. It is not a story as many think that can be narrated. It is a necessary that the learner is made to connect the past with the present and derive lessons for the future. The teacher who teaches History needs to be passionate about both teaching and history, and should ignite a learner effectively. Technology does give an inter-personal interactive option but yet, there are apprehensions and it can never match a classroom interaction.


How affordable is online classes for students?

Affording gadgets and technology is definitely a luxury to a considerable number of students who opt for History as their major in India. When the first year undergraduate class of 80 was asked to join the Google classroom, it was found that nearly 15 students do not even possess a basic mobile and nearly three-fourth of the class don’t have a laptop or desktop. They used the facilities provided by the college and help from their friends to submit their online assignments. It is a challenge to bring in such students into the educational technology fold. The inclusiveness of a class disappears, the time we start using technology and a section of the class is excluded due to lack of the same. The immediate shift to technology for the teaching-learning process during the lockdown was not easy for majority of the educational institutions that has always relied on the conventional methods of classroom instructions. The post COVID-19 India for sure will face a major economic challenge and that may even result in the dropping off of students from educational institutions, in such a scenario, what will be important is to keep the students by providing basic facilities rather than making it more complicated and difficult for them.


How equipped are teachers?

Teaching is a dynamic enterprise. Prepare out each class, build on past successes, learn from failures, incorporate new ideas, and adapt the content and structure to each group of students is a mammoth task. But many teachers in the higher education are not equipped enough to incorporate technology effectively in the teaching-learning process. They need to possess technical knowledge, good organisational skills and also empathy with students for effective handling of online classes. Many faculty members are unsure about the effectiveness of online teaching and are also hesitant to venture into the world of technology.


How Faculty research and learning is affected?

Researchers, especially the women researchers did get affected due to the lockdown. The Guardian (12 May, 2020) reported that research by women plummeted during lockdown as women academics were barely coping with childcare and work whereas articles from men increased. Historical research is basically dependent on the source material collected from Archives and other Record Offices, and libraries, but they couldn’t be used during the lockdown. Many of the institutions started informative webinars to keep the research and the inquisitive mind active during the lockdown. It is a very impressive and innovative attempt to rope in experts across the country and present a talk or have a workshop and provide e-certificates. This proves that humankind will always find a way to survive.


MOOCs cater to the needs of every individual who has the thirst for learning something new. It is a revolution that heralded in higher education since 2012 prompting New York Times to declare 2012 as the Year of MOOC. In India, it is in slow pace but still it is the new mantra with the launching of the Swayam portal in 2017. Conventional disciplines like History don’t find ample space in the MOOCs. EDX for example has nearly 20 courses under the heading History which are mostly on China, Jews, USA and Japan. They also have courses related to history like art history, religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, World History and Western Civilization. The same is with Khan Academy which has courses on World history and US history. Coursera is much better as it has courses on Egyptology, Holocaust, Modern World, US history, Greeks and Romans. There are no courses for history in the India-based Swayam portal. Harvard University’s online courses are on China. The Department for Continuing Education of University of Oxford has online history courses that is predominantly British history. Thus, to learn Oriental history (excluding Chinese history) especially Indian History, there are no MOOCs.



India needs a multi-pronged strategy to build an inclusive resilient Indian education system. There are various e-learning platforms offering different courses with different methodology, assessment parameters and certification but what is required is a unified learning system. Before attempting to go digital, the Government and institutions should ensure that every student is equipped enough. The providing of Aakash – a low-cost tablet computer launched on 5 October, 2011, by the Government of India as part of an initiative to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in an e-learning program should have been improvised. The providing of the free laptops for the school and college students in the state of Tamil Nadu is a step that definitely benefited the marginalized. Teachers also need to be computer literate and adopt to technology.


Unlike what Hegel says, may the world and India, in the time of this pandemic, learn a lesson from its shortcomings and act upon the lessons deduced from it.


Marilyn Gracey Augustine is Assistant Professor at the Department of History, Madras Christian College. Views expressed are personal.


This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.

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Nice and engaging article. Kudos to you!