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Teaching in Pandemic Times – A Personal Reflection

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Summary

Come what may, the pandemic has made a compelling case for teaching online. As I stand at the threshold of another new semester, I am excited to hone skills I have learnt as well as to continue experimenting with the possibilities presented by the online medium.

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It is an interesting exercise to be reflecting on the impact  that the  COVID-19 pandemic has had on education more than a year after we were forced to migrate online in order to teach. From being completely at a loss in March 2020 — and wondering about the relevance of my profession — I am now comfortably and confidently preparing to teach a new batch of students via online classes. This journey from uncertainty to a degree of control has been riddled with mishaps and situations where one has either been forced to quickly learn new skills or rummage around for skills one had earlier dismissed as either obsolete or far too irrelevant for one’s context. Before I elaborate on my experience, allow me to provide a little background on my institution and the milieu of teaching there before the pandemic.

 

Kohima College Kohima

Kohima is the capital of the state of Nagaland. It is located in the district of Kohima. I teach in Kohima College, Kohima, currently the only government arts and commerce college in the entire district. Established in 1967, Kohima College, Kohima is one of the state’s oldest arts colleges. It was absorbed into the Department of Higher Education under Government of Nagaland, in 2006 and moved to its current location in Kruoliezou in 2009. Kohima College has the peculiar situation of sharing its campus with Thinuovicha Memorial High School, a government run school. The college has 18 classrooms for a student strength of 1400. All classrooms are occupied at all times, precluding the possibility of conducting classes outside of the prescribed routine. Being the only arts and commerce government college in the district, the college is mandated to accept any student that has passed out from government schools in the district who meets the cut-off marks criteria set by the college each year. Hence our students are predominantly from low-income, semi rural to rural agrarian backgrounds. While the rural agrarian students belong to the tribes whose lands fall within the district – Angami, Rengma and some Chakhesang, a significant number of this group belong to other tribes from the state whose parents are employed in low level government jobs or hold working class jobs in the private sector. The student body thus boasts a wide representation of Naga tribes from within and even outside the state.

 

The Department of English, Kohima College, Kohima

The Department of English is one of the oldest departments in the college and boasts of having an all woman faculty since its inception in 1967. Having taught both in annual mode and experienced the transition to semester system, it is my personal opinion that the current syllabus is least suited for this format. The annual syllabus was arbitrarily redistributed to semesters so that some semesters have honours papers covering only fiction and drama while others have only a handful of poems. This imbalance, in terms of scope and bulk has been the subject of many a casual conversation in the staffroom as well as a matter that has been raised (by myself and others) during the curriculum review under taken at the meetings of the Board of Undergraduate Studies (BUGS), Nagaland University, of which I am a member. The current modalities of the semester system as implemented by Nagaland University, to which all higher education institutions are affiliated, also focuses on facilitating administrative convenience at the cost of actual teaching time. Hence we hardly have three months of teaching per semester, whereas on paper, each is roughly five and a half months in duration.

 

Literature is a discipline that demands protracted discussions, often spilling out of the space and time of the classroom. In my opinion, students benefit best when given research based assignments that can be delivered in the form of presentations, discussions, essays and term papers. All of these allow for students to both develop their critical thinking as well mastery over language and writing. Within the current semester system, time is scarce for both student and teacher and specifically in our college, the dearth of space also does not allow for teachers to conduct more classes though they and their students may so desire. Nevertheless, most continue to take classes beyond the stipulated teaching period to cover up the syllabus as well as to accommodate and encourage the intellectual curiosity of our students. So in one sense, performing one’s duties involves teaching against the current system.

 

Going Online

I was one of the faculty members tasked to review the National Education Policy in 2019 when our college was asked to send feedback to the Department of Higher Education. Reading through it, I was particularly struck by the focus on digitising pedagogy. While attending an orientation programme that is mandatory for college teachers, I listened to lectures on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) and other forms of  digital learning with impatience and a dismissive attitude, wondering how and if at all these would ever be a possibility in Nagaland. At that time, it seemed highly impractical and irrelevant for us in Kohima, the capital of our state and even more so for other government colleges in other districts, most of them semi-rural areas. My previous posting prior to Kohima College, Kohima had been Pfütsero Government College, Phek. Pfütsero, Nagaland’s highest altitude town is a small idyllic town and the college there is housed in a very basic rudimentary structure. The roof of the largest lecture hall was a single sheet of corrugated tin that would make giving lectures during rain a futile exercise. And this is a town that is a few hours ride away from the capital Kohima. Given that more interior parts of Nagaland do not have good roads and suffer poor infrastructure, I considered the idea that going digital would somehow democratise and make accessible education to students (school and college) with a great sense of irony.

 

Pandemic

That was of course until the pandemic hit and all life, including the school my children attend and college where I teach came to a standstill. As we were forced to go online, Kohima College contracted a software development firm to create an online portal for us to be able to take classes virtually. By June we were informed that Proctur was ready:  Proctur is much like Zoom and Google Meet, a more basic and less stylised version but one that allowed the institution to manage the classes as well as to keep track of classes conducted and student attendance. By the time we began online teaching, most of the faculty including myself, were already familiar with Zoom and Google owing to the fact that we were using both for our meetings, faculty academic programmes and also our own academic work in the form of attending webinars and online conferences. So adding Proctur to our list of online platforms was an easy transition but on the other hand also frustrating because of many initial glitches that one had not experienced in the more sophisticated platforms. For one, a time table had to be followed and once again, even online, it was not possible for multiple classes to be conducted at the same time on this platform. So if one of us overstayed our time slot, it would cause problems for the colleague following us.

 

Unlike its commercial counterparts, Proctur did not allow for us to see our students via video. The only visual that is available is the video feed of the instructor. It was and continues to be a big challenge to look at one’s own face for the entire duration of one’s lecture. It also limits the nature of interaction we can have with our students. One crucial aspect of this is that one is unable to gauge their level of interest /attention and engagement with our lecture – something I personally felt reduced my lecture to a monotonous monologue – a teacher’s worst nightmare. Though there is a provision to share Power     point files and even pre-record and upload lectures, these features in practice were not so user-friendly and almost always did not work smoothly. Given again the time constraints – both in terms of semester as well as class slots, time could not be wasted on fidgeting with settings to set up Powerpoint etc. Lastly the availability and quality of the internet is not constant and one often loses an entire class due to the lack of a steady internet. Thankfully, the process of using Proctur was iterative and as faculty faced difficulties, those charged with liaising with the developers constantly gave feedback and Proctur continued to be tweaked and enhanced till we arrived at a relatively smooth running by the end of the next semester. Proctur however continued to be a one way video feed and could accommodate only one online class at a time. This is where the availability of other commercial platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet provided much needed virtual space and time that was not available to us even in our actual campus.

 

Adaptation

Realising that my students and I need not limit ourselves to meeting only on Proctor was a liberating and exciting moment. I must make a disclaimer here that I was charged with teaching Honours in which the total student strength was 30 to 40. Moving out of Proctur was not a luxury available to colleagues teaching general courses or honours in other subjects like Political Science whose enrollments touch 100 and more. Taking advantage of the fact that the number of students I had to teach fell within the limit of Zoom’s free allotment, we took to meeting for extra classes scheduled outside of the stipulated college timing and as per the convenience of students and teacher. Having this option allowed for a much needed leisurely and in-depth teaching of texts. It also provided one the luxury of accommodating intellectual digression – something I had come to miss dearly in the rush of completing courses and paperwork in the offline mode.

 

A mention must also be made of the culture of pedagogy here in Nagaland. In general, the interactions between teacher and students in a classroom continue to reproduce hierarchies established by  colonial/missionary practices. The teacher is a figure of absolute unquestionable authority and students docile subjects expected to accept and absorb lessons. In fact, critical engagement and original thought is often actively discouraged – a simple example being that answers which deviate in letter and thought from prescribed notes are generally not rewarded with good marks. So when students come to college, we are confronted with docile minds, intimidated by the perceived authority of the teacher. This results in mostly one way lectures where students mutely listen to lectures and refuse to engage in classroom discussions despite many efforts by teachers to elicit responses from them.

 

A wonderful corollary of going online was to witness these very same ‘docile’ students come out of their shells. In particular, in the space of the chat box – a feature available both on Proctur as well as other platforms like Zoom, they were highly interactive. It was possible to have very stimulating discussions where many raised critical questions and demonstrated mature analytical skills that proved them at par with any of their counterparts across the world. By going online and bypassing the conventional four walls of the classroom, my students were somehow less inhibited and laid bare faculties that must have been there all along (in previous batches too) but had somehow been stifled within real offline structures. As they shed their inhibitions on chat, many slowly began to speak up in virtual classes and by the end of the semester, when they made presentations online, they were more at ease with me as well as with their peers in my presence.

 

Apart from video classes, WhatsApp has also proved to be remarkably useful for teaching/learning. Teachers from my childrens’ school have taken to creating excellent video content covering their lessons that parents can show their children as part of their home school work. It has also expedited and eased the process of sharing texts, notes and assignments.

 

Access

Regardless of the surprising positive outcomes of going online, the issue of access was and remains a great challenge. Two aspects bear mentioning – access to devices and access to internet/data services. As we began our classes a few students were conspicuously absent. When I tracked them down and spoke to them personally, they confided their inability to afford smartphones with which  to join classes. This was something many of my colleagues also faced with their students and also among many school students. Collectively, teachers and parents have been compelled to take on informal awareness building to de-stigmatise  non-ownership of smartphones and devices. Localities both in urban and rural areas have mobilised to make sharing devices amongst their members – whether it is in the form of lending devices to those who cannot afford their own, or hosting them in an informal ‘classroom’ setups. In one case, classmates contributed towards buying their lone peer a mobile device. While our traditional sense of community has yielded these heartwarming stories, they still do not account for the many students who were left behind, some who had to drop their studies altogether because they could simply not afford  devices or pay for data services. When we began online classes, most of our students had returned to their villages – some in remote ‘backward’ districts. Though they had smartphones and other devices, many of them either missed a number of classes or were not able to enjoy smooth connection due to poor network. One solution was to switch off the video mode but again, this turned what could have been an interactive class into a one way lecture. Many times, the unstable connection of a student disrupted the entire class time, costing both teacher and other students precious teaching/learning time.

 

Online and Onward

Come what may, the pandemic has made a compelling case for teaching online. As I stand at the threshold of another new semester, I am excited to hone skills I have learnt as well as to continue experimenting with the possibilities presented by the online medium. Some possibilities I am considering are video assignments – in the cinematic sense. Work that can be shot on our cameras, edited using apps that are free that can then be viewed collectively via screen share. Online teaching also situates the platform on the same device as my digital store house of notes, power points, liked YouTube videos, bookmarked Kindle pages. The past year and a half of teaching as well as pursuing my own academic work in the form of online workshops, webinars and conferences has made me more dexterous in accessing and sharing these resources in real time. If offline lectures are a dramatic performance of sorts, then online teaching also presents possibilities of a different theatrics – one that, provided the obstacles of access are surmounted, promises to bring pleasure back into pedagogy.

 

Theyiesinuo Keditsu is an Assistant Professor in Department of English at Kohima College, Nagaland. 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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