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How COVID-19 has redefined education in India

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Summary

Although many think so, classroom teaching cannot be replicated in online teaching – the virtual classroom is entirely different. A virtual classroom makes it difficult to assess and measure the teaching learning process and its efficiency. Maintaining a good teacher-student relation (or any relationship!) is a challenge as well. A student while in college, learns not just the subject – it opens to them a new world of experiences.

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Universities and colleges around the globe have been forced to go online overnight with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Education was till now largely treading the conventional path compared to other sectors. Some premier institutions had been offering courses online, but it was restricted in numbers, both of learners and courses. Teachers and students were unprepared to deal with this sudden shift, and the process of introducing EduTech (a general term for education technology) all of a sudden and on such large a scale has created unnecessary confusion as well. Even those teachers who were not in favour of online teaching were now under pressure to go online and were forced to adapt the new mode of teaching without enough training and orientation, neither in the use of technology nor in dealing with online classes.

 

This sudden shift to online classes has exposed the digital divide that exists among our students, something I was not aware of until I introduced my students to online teaching. I was under the impression that most students in the class owned a smart phone as well as a computer. For the majority of the students, although listening to online lectures was possible with a smartphone, doing assignments or tests online was difficult without a desktop or laptop at home. It came as an eye opener to me that out of the 110 students in my class, less than 50% students had a smartphone.  Many of them depended on smartphones borrowed from either parents or relatives. A second issue was the urban-rural divide in digital connectivity. If not having access to the smartphones and computers is one problem faced by underprivileged students, students belonging to rural areas facing erratic networks problems and are doubly underprivileged.

 

I teach in a women’s college in Kozhikode in Kerala. We have students from both urban and rural areas of Kozhikode as well as nearby districts. Apart from this, we also have a sizeable number of tribal students hailing from the adjacent district of Wayanad. More than 70% percent of them do not own a smartphone, neither do their parents. It poses a challenge getting these students online. One interesting thing is that access to smartphones and internet are better among boys. This is especially true in the case of students hailing from middle- and lower-income families. I realized this when I came to notice that a lot of the students among those accessing online classes used the smartphones and google accounts of their male siblings. The Kerala Government has recently decided to begin the 2020-21 academic year from June 1st, but with all courses being taught online. The students have been asked to stay home whereas the teachers are to be in the college from 8.30 am to 1.30pm teaching online as per the timetable. This arrangement shall continue till things return to normalcy. Though this appears to be a welcome move at the outset, there are a lot of difficulties that follow. Apart from other hurdles, one important issue is the number of students who can afford 3G/4G data to attend the live streaming of classes for 5 hours a day. Students will have to obviously opt for bigger data packs for attending online classes on a daily basis. Only time will tell us that how many of them will be able to attend the online classes regularly without interruption.  The principals of the colleges have also been asked to take into consideration the needs of the students who cannot access online classes and ‘do the needful’. Without enough background work to address the numerous needs of teachers and students alike, a sudden shift to online classes can only create unnecessary confusion.

 

The ‘one size fits all model’ that we follow in the online teaching platforms invariably fails to address the varied needs of the diverse learners. The conventional classroom atmosphere enables a teacher to cater to the needs of various kinds of learners they address. This is possible largely because of the kind of atmosphere that he/she creates in a classroom. Each classroom enriches a teacher as well. They learn to assess their students, read their minds, and extract feedback from the class, and in the process make necessary changes in the way they teach, so as to benefit all. It is difficult to recreate this give-and-take process in the online mode of teaching, and this will adversely affect poor learners and might even result in a higher dropout rate among this group. Lively in-class discussions that make students think critically are crucial in making teaching effective. This and post lecture discussions are other aspects that online teaching cannot replicate.

 

Although many think so, classroom teaching cannot be replicated in online teaching – the virtual classroom is entirely different. A virtual classroom makes it difficult to assess and measure the teaching learning process and its efficiency. Maintaining a good teacher-student relation (or any relationship!) is a challenge as well. A student while in college, learns not just the subject – it opens to them a new world of experiences. They also learn through interaction with teachers and peer groups. It is not easy reproducing these experiences and interactions in a virtual classroom. One major difficulty that I faced when I shifted online was how to keep students motivated. It is especially difficult to motivate poor learners. Most students fail to create a learning atmosphere at home, which in turn hampers their motivation levels.

 

Despite its many flaws, EduTech has some benefits. Education cannot be kept separate for long from the tide of going online. It can help in the better integration of curriculum of various students from all backgrounds and give them access to courses offered by faculty from premier institutes across the globe. Webinars have also gained popularity since the lockdown began. They help students and teachers from various institutes to stay connected amidst the lockdown. Students are also exposed to a large number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and are free to do any number of courses of their choice. This helps them explore and choose any course of their passion. This is evident from the increasing number of students opting to do courses in NPTEL – SWAYAM Portals.

 

The Government can play a positive role in this regard. It can help bridge the digital divide among the urban and rural students, so that all students benefit equally from the introduction of EduTech. The teaching / learning process going online can help the government reduce the expense on infrastructure, but at the same time it gives a new responsibility to the government: the large number of underprivileged students should be given laptops either free or heavily subsidized. Unless there is timely intervention from the government though, introduction of EduTech will fail education as an equalizer in society. Only governmental intervention can help reduce the digital divide and ensure a level playing field. Although the Finance Minister has recently announced that SWAYAM PRABHA DTH channels would help reach those who do not have access to the internet, but it is difficult to comment on its feasibility since this is yet to be implemented. However, ‘One channel for one class’ is certainly a difficult task in the Indian context.

 

Could EduTech bring about crucial changes in Indian education? Many of the issues now arise since a good majority of teachers and students are new to this mode of teaching and learning but these will naturally be addressed as we move forward. Even as we cannot totally replace classroom teaching with online teaching and virtual classroom, integrating the two can bring about massive positive changes in education.

 

Ambili Thomas is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Providence Women’s College, Kozhikode. The 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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