Online teaching during the pandemic: Some personal reflections


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The official enthusiasm for the online mode which derives from the obvious possibilities of extensive reach it offers must take into account that online education cannot be simply old wine in a new bottle. The new medium requires new modalities.

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This is a reflective piece based upon my personal experience of transitioning and adapting to the online mode to which much of the teaching-learning process had to abruptly shift owing to the pandemic induced lockdown in 2020. The writing has been undertaken in a documentary spirit and may be of some limited use in thinking about the future such possibilities offer in the field of higher education.


When the lockdown began in March 2020, most of us in the Department of Sociology in University of Delhi were halfway with our MA teaching in the Winter Semester. The sudden change of tracks that the new situation required of us was not something anybody was comfortable with. But given the situation, the availability of technology which permitted continuation of teaching via an online platform did seem like a boon. I have often wondered what would have happened if such a situation had arisen 30 years ago. But then perhaps the technology as well as the Covid19 pandemic are two sides of the same coin.


Teachers and students both took to this medium with some resistance. I remember agonizing at length over the modalities of delivering my first online lecture. Trying hard to channelize what I believe to be my better than average IT skills, teaching in the online mode seemed to require much renewed effort. Not surprisingly, at least some of the students proved to be savvier about the technical know-how and, with their help, at the onset, we could quickly put together resources to enable the faculty to continue with the teaching-learning process.


Given that attendance in classes is not compulsory in the MA program of DU, it is not a very reliable parameter to gauge the experience of online teaching. But interestingly, in my class the attendance remained comparable to and even at times better than that in the offline times. This could be owing to the absence of other distractions in the lives of the students due to the lockdown. Sometimes, classes seemed even more enjoyable than they had in the offline mode. This may be due to the renewed effort we as teachers had to put into our teaching.


This should however not detract us from the serious issues which bedevil this mode of imparting learning in general and also the particular conditions which have shaped its experience in this particular context. Poor internet connectivity as well as lack of adequate physical space were very common issues that students and even teachers have had to continuously face. In addition, the artificially imposed isolation has taken an undeniable toll on mental health of many, especially the young on the cusp of their careers. The latter was more than evident during the second wave of the pandemic when it became impossible to even carry on the online classes for at least a brief period. Such factors cannot be ignored in any assessments of the long-term potential of online education. A sense of gloom and impending doom thus formed the backdrop against which carrying on online classes was primarily directed at maintaining a semblance of normalcy (‘new normal’ and ‘social distancing’ being the new catch words) and even business as usual.


While different members of the faculty took their own time to come to terms with the situation, at least at the beginning no one expected that the lockdown would persist for so long. Some of us, including the students, even expected to go back to the former situation of classroom teaching and exams within the same semester. But as the semester inched towards its culmination and there were no signs of returning to the ‘old normal’, examinations were on everyone’s mind. Despite many differences of opinion and considerable doubts about its efficacy, the University of Delhi opted for the so-called Open Book Examination (OBE) or blended mode of examination which is largely a euphemism for a very compromised mechanism of examining students. The main purpose this mode of examination seems to have served is that of a rite of passage which perhaps exams tend to be in some measure in any case. The official ‘success’ of the OBE/Blended mode of conducting this biannual ritual can be gauged from its having been accepted as the only option for the subsequent examination cycles as well as we continue to reel under the consequences of our response to the pandemic. It is not as if our examination system was ever perfect. However, grafting the existing modes of examination onto the online mode is far more complicated than even the issue of imparting classroom teaching via this mode. Any assessment of the potential of the online education mechanism should therefore also not ignore that such measures were at best a short term coping strategy and cannot be seen as desirable in the long term.


The much delayed start to the academic year 2020-21 amidst the continuing pandemic posed a renewed challenge. While the first transition had meant interacting with students with whom a rapport already existed, teaching a fresh batch of MA students meant knowing students only as a small icon on the computer screen. Teaching a whole batch of students with whom one had no previous interaction was thus a new challenge. Although yet again the student and teacher experience was a mixed one, the limitations of teaching a large group of students (we admit more than a 100 students into MA programme) without even the benefit of looking at their faces was alienating. The teacher has no means to ensure and gauge the attentiveness of students whose only sign of presence in the class is a little square on your screen. Like everything else, this is also something one has grown used to but this is hardly the best case scenario. Interacting with tutorial groups and an M.Phil coursework class proved to be somewhat easier on this media owing primarily to their small size.


Somewhere along the way, it also became clear that tech giants like Google and Zoom dictate the terms of interaction in many ways. The interface is after all in the hands of the service providers who can decide what they allow users to do, and how.  Despite some amount of free services which such platforms continue to provide, they are commercial ventures that entail a cost if their full potential is to be utilised. The potential of technical affordances of such media such as recordability and dissemination of the content of classroom interaction, although not entirely missing even in conventional classroom, proved to be a grey area for which normative and even working frameworks remain to be evolved. This is not the place to assess the extent to which the University system had the capacity to step in to act as an enabler in this regard, but it cannot be overstated that Public Universities require more robust IT infrastructure and personnel at every level if it such platforms are expected to play such a significant role in teaching-learning process, which is the primary raison d’etre for the existence of such institutions. The IT potential for which India is justly famous somehow eludes to enhance the capacities of the Indian university system as perhaps of many other public institutions.


While teaching was a priority, it took us a while to realize that other institutional work would also increasingly need to be carried out online. One inadvertent fallout has been that considerable administrative work has fallen on the faculty shoulders.  Not everyone has taken kindly to this. However, the need for more robust institutional system software has never been felt more. One of the unintended effects of the situation has also been that at least some institutional activities which could or should have been conducted online more efficiently even without the intervention of the pandemic were finally able to break through the usual resistance such changes encounter.


The official enthusiasm for the online mode which derives from the obvious possibilities of extensive reach it offers must take into account that online education cannot be simply old wine in a new bottle. The new medium requires new modalities. MOOCs which predate the pandemic by about a decade have been a very enabling online resource available on global platforms like Coursera and Edx. However, they best cater to the process of continuous self-directed learning and are not comparable to the online classes of the kind that took place during the lockdown. The success of our own homegrown attempts at imparting education using mass media channels (such as Swayam) some of which also predate the lockdown is not so well established and are better seen as substitutes/supplements for the old-fashioned distance education or open learning initiatives. A dispassionate assessment of the same may dampen the enthusiasm for the future of online education in India.


Even if such resources are growing and their quality can potentially improve, whether they can stand in place of some of the conventional modes of learning should not be assumed. The self-directed individualized learning that is permitted by such platforms cannot replace the need for teacher-led group learning which has a different potential.  Teaching even a modestly large group online is something which may be desirable when there is no option (as in the case of conditions of extensive lockdown). It should however not be seen as a replacement for conventional classroom teaching.


By now, online teaching has become as normal as classroom teaching was not so long ago. Google Meet and Zoom have become part of our everyday conversations and it appears strange to think that less than two years ago, most of us in academia had no idea about communicative and interactive possibilities offered by such platforms. It even appears likely that the normalization of such possibilities in educational delivery means that things will never go back to what they were in the pre-pandemic times. But we are still living in what seems like a liminal phase. Even as we are trying to make sense of the potential of the means that the global community mustered up at a fairly short notice to deal with the extraordinary confinement to which the pandemic subjected us, the prolonged character of the crisis is contributing to entrenching new practices in a manner which may have been unlikely had this been a short-lived scenario. This is why some of the changes brought about in this period may be here to stay. But as always, it would be prudent not to treat all the changes we have embraced as in themselves desirable or undesirable and look for independent parameters to assess what we want to keep and what we want to forsake.


Despite the widespread and understandable nostalgia for pre-pandemic times, the possibilities offered by internet and communication technologies had already become pervasive in our practices for some time and at one level the changes experienced can be seen as a matter of degree and not kind. After all, email, WhatsApp, Google DriveGoogle Forms and online resources of all sorts have crept into our educational practices gradually and imperceptibly but to an extent that would be hard to imagine even 20 years ago.  What the lockdown has done is to take this dependence to another level. Maybe this should be seen as an opportunity to dispassionately assess what the uses of such technologies are that need to be embraced wholeheartedly and what are the ones which need to be utilized only under conditions of duress such as those imposed by the pandemic.


Anuja Agrawal is Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. 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.

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This piece has rejuvenated somebody like myself who happens to be a Locomotive handicap with paralysed and multi-operated left limbs both. One's been teaching yo MA students for an year now in the same mode. I too feel that one should not take it and grant it the status of one mode of usual teaching. This has plunged in academia during a Pandemic and should be treated as an emergency, crisis and urgent situation all the more. It's an extremity and must flash like an accident. As pointed out very clearly for the need of new modalities, there should be endeavors to improve and improvise to the best possible. Higher education in particular must enrich and not lose on its paraphernalia. It's in fact not at all and shouldn't be viewed as an old wine in a new bottle. We should get set to devise (as and when depending on situation) and adapt to new modalities indeed.
Sandeep Rai
guest faculty
Dept of Sociology
University of Delhi