Teaching through tragedy: How teachers can cope with the virtual classroom


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In a traditional classroom, the teacher acts as both an instructor and as a guide, but this changes in online teaching. A teacher is now no longer just an instructor but is also a content developer and designer of online curricula. She or he will also need skills in content-communication online. Teachers should also ensure appropriate video and voice qualities and if needed, some enrichment of the content before sharing them with students – all of which make online teachers “super”teachers!

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Across all walks of life, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented changes. All sectors have been  affected, and people around the world have been thrown into a variety of social and economic crises. Around 1.52 billion students have been stranded at home, and over 60.2 million teachers remain out of schools (UN Secretary-General, 2020, March), making the education sector one of the most deeply affected. In a bid to adjust to the crisis and to ensure that classes continue, the digital classroom has emerged as the most viable option available to academic stakeholders. Following the endorsement from international bodies such as UNESCO and national bodies like the Ministry of Education, most schools and higher educational institutions have shifted their teaching online to ensure ‘learning never get disrupted’ for during the isolation.


The Indian education sector has over 1.3 million recognized schools including primary, upper primary, secondary, and senior secondary schools (AIES, 2002). Also, we have over 789 universities, 37,204 colleges, and 11,443 stand-alone institutions (UGC, 2017). UNESCO reports that the coronavirus crisis has adversely affected over 320 million Indian students.


The digital platform is new for both teachers and students. Due to the suddenness of the pandemic, there was no training intervention to empower teachers with digital skills before or immediately after the nation-wide lockdown. Many teachers who are skilled in teaching in a face-to-face classroom are unfortunately crippled by the digital shift and are struggling to learn new techno-pedagogies required in order to teach online. In spite of spending more time to attain the required mastery in a virtual classroom, many teachers are digital immigrants who feel uncomfortable in the ecosystem of online classes.


Further, many teachers have expressed a deep worry about the effectiveness of teaching-learning process in digital classes (see here and here). Problems related to online teaching differ across various parts of India. States like Himachal Pradesh (mountainous areas), Rajasthan (sparsely deserted areas), and Madhya Pradesh (forested areas) have poor connectivity, and this is a concern for country-wide outreach of e-learning. Students from poor economic backgrounds and from remote villages in the states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh etc. have also been crippled by the shift online.


The Northeast part of India is geographically less accessible with several obstacles varying from lack of development and infrastructure to socio-political unrest. The schools of this region are mostly located in rural areas and do not have necessary digital infrastructure to deal with the current challenges of online classes. In spite of that, the educational institutions in the different cities of Northeast India have done a great job in terms of online teaching. For examples, Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU), Ri-Bhoi, Meghalaya, has taken several initiatives to teach its students online using its own Learning Management System (LMS) and the Zoom app. Similarly, Assam Down Town University (AdtU), Guwahati, Assam has established connection with its students over virtual platforms amid the crisis.


However, students living in marginalized urban ghettos as well as in rural areas of Northeast India are in dire straits in the context of online education. Their parents are mostly daily wage labourers, vegetable vendors, small traders or subsistence farmers, most of who find it difficult to purchase smartphone/tablets/laptops for their children. Besides, the internet penetration in this region is also limited as compared to other Indian states. The region of Assam & other northeastern states has 38 percent internet penetration against the mainland states Delhi NCT (69%), Kerala (54%), Punjab (49%), and Maharastra (43%) etc. States such as Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur are in a critical situation in terms of internet accessibility and digital outreach; the effectiveness  of digital learning amid Covid-19 crisis is a matter of  concern.


Nevertheless, the state governments have taken several initiatives to overcome these barriers to bring the online education to students across the poor and marginal sections of the society. Sikkim is enabling students to access online education using online networking applications like WhatsApp and Zoom. Similarly Assam is also using individual calls and WhatsApp for sharing e-contents and study-related assignments with students. Besides, in the rural areas of the states like Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, the governments are planning to use radio broadcast and Doordarshan as means to outreach e-ducation to those areas having no internet establishments.


Online Education: The issues

The discourse on online versus face-to-face classes has brought out some intrinsic limitations of online teaching like issues related to instructional designs, students’ online discipline, learning engagement in the virtual classroom, teacher-taught relationships, online assessment, non-cognitive developments of students, and so on. Many questions have also arisen in the teachers’ minds, from how to start online classes to make use of available e-resources to creating a supportive learning environment. The focus of the present article is to address all these queries about how to make online teaching worthwhile in the times of the pandemic despite having a range of challenges and issues.


Setting optimal class size for online teaching

It has been observed that educational institutions do not put any upper or lower limit on online class size. However, experts have asked stakeholders to limit the class size even for online teaching as one has for offline teaching in the conventional classroom. According to the Economic Survey (2017-18), the country has an average Student-Classroom Ratio (SCR) of 30 in face-to-face classroom teaching. Also, the RTE Act, 2009 mandates Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 30:1 for primary and 35:1 for upper primary level. However, for the digital classroom, there are no such established guidelines. The published researches showed a varying size of online class from small to large depending on the purpose of course designations. According to a research project, a large size online class with 40 or more students’ enrolment is ideal for ‘foundational and factual knowledge acquisition’. On the flip side, a small class size with 15 or even fewer is better ‘to develop higher order thinking, mastery of complex knowledge, and student skill development’.


Designing online course materials using multiple strategies

Online teaching has put new demands on teachers in terms of curriculum reconstruction and teaching content design, given the requirement to provide enriched ‘human and non-human resources’ and pertinent ‘animated and unanimated’ study-material. In a traditional classroom, the teacher acts as both an instructor and as a guide, but this changes in online teaching. A teacher is now no longer just an instructor but is also a content developer and designer of online curricula. She or he will also need skills in content-communication online. UNICEF has recommended that video-lectures need to be kept short, around 30-45 minutes at most  with a recommended format. Teachers should also ensure appropriate video and voice qualities and if needed, some enrichment of the content before sharing them with students – all of which make online teachers “super”teachers!


Making teaching more interesting to students

Good teaching always requires the teachers’ full-engagement in the students’ learning through explanation, illustration, question-answer sessions, or group discussions. However, there are concerns that online teaching cannot sustain the students’ interests in a virtual classroom. While it depends to some extent on the teachers’ instructional materials and students’ attitude, in online teaching, a teacher must ensure his or her strong presence in the virtual classroom. Also, it is important for the teachers to make students feel connected to the classroom lectures. While avoiding monotonous presentation, the teacher should also blend his or her lectures with thought-provoking incentives and humour. The aim is to make students feel empowered in the virtual classroom to have the space for virtual interaction and to provide collaborative learning assignments to students for a meaningful participatory-learning. This can be a challenge.


Making use of existing online resources

Developing e-contents is not a simple task. Teachers who have difficulty in computer-based preparation of PPT or other content can consider using widely available platforms such as NCERT, DIKSHA, SWAYAM  and NPTEL These can help teachers to have swift access to respond quickly to students’ requirements.


Assisting those who are unresponsive and slow learners in e-classes

In online classes, there are no backbenchers or frontbenchers, but there still are about 10% slow-learners, many of who may not be able to understand the teachers’ lectures in the first attempt. Teachers need to ensure the availability of video-lectures online immediately after classes are over. There should be a space for repeating some of the taught topics too or teachers may think of organizing remedial sessions for slow learners.


Developing socio-emotional aspects through e-teaching

Critics of online teaching often argue that online teaching stresses cognitive development at the expense  of the socio-emotional development of children. Online teaching promotes a ‘banking system of education’ , depositing knowledge-based instruction in children’s minds. Due to the intrinsic limitation of online teaching, it is difficult to implement the so-called “3-H” principle (Head-on, Hands-on, and Heart-on). Teachers may consider using group-based tasks to encourage collaborative learning to develop the students’ social-emotional skills in virtual settings. Besides, the use of various incentives, creating opportunities for play-based activities, listening to students’ feelings, and valuing their opinions are invaluable for the learners’ progressive development.


Establishing home-school online partnerships

Since online classes are taken mainly in the home, teachers need to ensure that every family has the support needed for effective study. Both teachers and parents need to work together through the ‘home-school online partnerships’ to ensure better learning opportunities, creative experiences, better time management, and safe learning. They should establish ‘spontaneous collaboration’ and ‘hands-on supports’ with parents to regulate online classes for students. Also, teachers should help in better mentoring learners to stay positive and manage stress in this time of crisis.


Nawaz Sarif is a Ph.D. scholar and a UGC fellow at the School of Education, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, India. 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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