Much has been written about the issue of online teaching in India in the last one year. However, the majority of this has focused on school education and on the issue of access barriers that children have been facing. Higher education has received relatively less attention and the teachers’ experiences have received even lesser attention. Starting with the sudden lockdown announced on 25th March, 2020, most colleges and universities have been operating with the help of ‘online’ classes alone. This has indeed been challenging for all for a variety of reasons, but the suddenness of the decision and uncertainties associated with not knowing when it would end has been especially difficult to deal with for both teachers and students.
This piece is primarily based on the qualitative interviews with fourteen teachers teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate/research levels at different institutions in Bangalore (5), New Delhi (3) and Hyderabad (6) teaching mainly Sociology, Physics, Political Science and Public policy courses. Almost all these teachers have been teaching their respective courses using online methods alone, with one or two exceptions where there was the opportunity for laboratory-based classes for a few students. Their teaching and discussions (or the effort to have discussions) have been dependent on online platforms such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Most of them have also used reading and/or writing assignments in addition to conducting tests. The interviews focused on understanding teachers’ experiences of online teaching, which become important in view of the growing importance of online education in the context of policy, with or without the pandemic.
The New Education Policy, 2020 (NEP 2020) mentions online mode as a very important alternative to face-to-face teaching in a variety of contexts including higher education. The NEP 2020 talks about developing ‘norms, standards, and guidelines for systemic development, regulation, and accreditation of ODL (Open and Distance Learning)’ and developing ‘a framework for quality of ODL that will be recommendatory for all HEIs (Higher Education Institutions)’  without any reference to the vast literature available globally that refers to the challenges of ODL. It is also interesting to note that this forced emergency caused by the pandemic is leading to some arguments for using online modes more widely in view of its potential to reach large numbers and argue for this ‘cost-effective’ method to be more widely used, mainly emanating from those associated with edutech companies that have made major financial gains during the pandemic phase. The experience of online teaching forced by the pandemic has created an evidence base that must be studied and underscored to examine the potential of ODL at respective stages. In this article I argue that if the experience of online teaching for the last one year is any indication, pushing this as an effective option in a country like India needs serious rethinking.
The ODL literature clearly identifies three major challenges: transactional distance, low learner motivation and access to technology (Jha. et al, 2020). The analysis of teachers’ experience here clearly bears evidence to the fact that these three have indeed been the most critical challenges that they have faced in the last one and a half years. Transactional distance, which simply refers to the gaps in communication and understanding between the teacher and learner caused by not being together in a context where interactions can reduce that gap, emerges as one of the most important challenges. While there was a general agreement that it was indeed ‘a second best’ option given the health challenges due to the pandemic, most teachers found the experience of online teaching frustrating with a sense of dissatisfaction, helplessness, and that the classes were stressful, disengaged, lost and challenging.
Using the online medium, teachers could not use the pedagogic and assessment tools that they otherwise commonly use: one-to-one discussion and individual feedback. As a result, they found it difficult to connect with students and relate to them; the feeling of talking to a wall has been a common expression. One teacher shared that ‘it has been strange to look at yourself and teach, as most of the time students keep their camera shut’. Teachers tried hard to be effective and used diverse tools such as uploading their lectures on youtube or sharing lecture notes but that was no substitute for face-to-face teaching. Lack of spontaneous interactions where even ‘chastising students for chatting amongst themselves is an active engagement’, was a serious constraint in the online mode. Digressions to related topics, open discussions and debates are common discursive modes that have been almost impossible in online teaching. This has been frustrating for many. Even those who tried something innovative to enhance the interactive elements in their classes met with very limited success. For instance, one teacher teaching master’s classes for Public Policy course conducted an online workshop but failed to do any group exercises – something that proved to be a major constraint. Courses that needed laboratory classes or fieldwork have suffered in their scope and learning.
This lack of possibilities to use discursive modes also led to a lack of interest from students’ side. This emerged as a common challenge that teachers identified. They felt that despite trying diverse methods, they have not been able to hold students’ interest in the manner that they were used to in their regular classes. Teachers are also not sure if it was the real lack of interest or merely technology-related constraint; if a student was not switching on the camera, it was difficult to know whether it was due to the low bandwidth or a disinterest to engage with the class. Students had to save mobile data for multiple classes and their microphones had to be on mute to avoid disturbance to the class, as they were inside their homes and with other family members. Although teachers realise and acknowledge that access to technology was a challenge for many, both because of the bandwidth and affordability issues, the experiences of students logging in and then doing other things have also not been uncommon. Such experiences have been indeed demotivating to teachers who have had to put in a lot of effort in preparing for these classes.
In general, another common thread that emerges here is that while the effort-levels are very high, the rewards (in terms of outcomes) are low. This relates to both teaching and assessment. Devising activities to test their progress have been difficult because of the challenge of the online medium and the growing tendency to ‘Google’ all answers. Efforts to formulate questions and tests that would make students think and reflect have paid but incidence of copying among each other has been high. The lack of any experience or training in self-learning prevented students from engaging with materials on their own when teachers shared articles or reading materials to be read and discussed. Even efforts such as mini projects to be completed over a few weeks, and breaking classes into small groups to have discussion sessions did not meet with much success. The fact that many of these students are ‘new’ students who have never met their teachers and classmates earlier and hence, have not had the opportunity to forge a relationship that normally a physical class allows for, made it worse.
Non-submission and late submission of assignments have been common and there has been no way of knowing if the reasons for these delays were genuine or not. While some students really suffered because of Covid19 within their families, many may also have made excuses. Most teachers felt that only a small group of students were engaged in all the classes and hence it was not to do with a particular teacher. Discussions within the faculty confirmed that If a student was active and regular in one class, she or he was active and regular for all classes.
It is evident that the continuation of online teaching that was initially viewed as short-term measure beyond a year or perhaps more for some, is leading to higher levels of fatigue despite greater familiarity and ease of using the mode. While most teachers feel that they are now better than before in dealing with pauses, viewing only their own faces, dealing with students’ indifference and ever-changing technological tools, they also feel even more ‘irritated’, ‘demotivated’ and are ‘losing stream’. This largely comes from absence of live interactions and the way it drives teaching coupled with the fact that they had to spend a lot of energy chasing students for assignments, tests and evaluation.
Teachers also think that students too are experiencing fatigue as questions related to opening of institutions have gone up and ‘the anxiety of not being sure of learning, certification and its value in the job-market is becoming visible’. Lack of or limited connectivity including its affordability have become even more critical for a good number of students perhaps on account of decreased family income because of the economic impact of the pandemic. Those students who did not have access to a computer or laptop and dependent on mobile phones for classes are especially fatigued. Blurring of the difference between home and work/learning space also created problems both in the case of a section of teachers and a section of students.
Since the teachers interviewed for this research come from institutions that host students from all over the country, the uncertainties associated with the opening of the institution for face-to-face teaching is especially demotivating for these students, as they are missing all other exposure that the city and peers bring in there. In general, the lack of ‘a social life, friends, library, laboratories, canteens, discussions’ that a college or university campus brings in, has indeed limited the learning experiences of these students. Teachers felt that missing the ‘fun’ of being together is one of the biggest losses for students. Even those students who have been regular have ‘started losing enthusiasm now’. The only major gain seems to be in terms of increased familiarity with technological devices and their use. Added to this was the absence of commuting and the fact that ‘one could take the classes in one’s pajamas without facing the city traffic’ as one positive feature of the online classes. However, teachers also have a sense of relief that they could do something ‘rather than losing the whole year’ and think that students also felt the same. While some also reported their eyes are getting excessively strained due to increased screen time, almost all referred to the online teaching being the safest option in the time of Covid.
Teachers, in general, seem to be more confident and better well-versed with the use of online mode in terms of navigating the classes, choice of pedagogical process that could hold students’ interest better and dealing with ‘sudden adversities’ that could arise in future. They also seem to have been more reflective about diversity that exists among students in these institutions. Although they knew that they come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, there still used to be some form of uniformity in treatment in the classroom whereas in the online mode, some had no issues of accessing regular high bandwidth on a laptop while others had to manage with poor connectivity and low bandwidth on a mobile. The family context and situations are also varied that remained somewhat invisible in a classroom but could be sensed during online classes. The need and justification for financial support to a section of students becomes more evident and clearer while engaging with students through the online classes. Similarly, the need for greater flexibility and the need for an online conduct to guide their classes is also felt, and this also takes us to the issue of institutional response.
Teachers had varied experiences when it came to the issue of facilities and other forms of support including training and timetable adjustments. Some institutions were more responsive than the other but in general they tried to ensure that classes are held and facilitated that by adjusting timetables. But most teachers did not receive any orientation on online teaching and those who received it, it was largely limited to the familiarity with the platform being used rather than on the pedagogy of distance education and addressing the issue of transactional distance that they all experienced. Teachers do want to return to face to face mode, they also would like to do things differently if the online mode needs to continue. For instance, teachers view the need for regular counselling for students as essential. Similarly, the pattern and mode of assessments and examinations need to change, and it can’t be the same as it has been for the face-to-face mode. For many, class sizes have been big making it difficult for them to pay special attention to those who needed it most. They opine that the class sizes need to be reduced for online teaching with more faculties sharing the same course, and more time and space for individual interactions.
What emerges from these responses is that teachers have experienced all three commonly identified challenges associated with the ODL based education. It is important for the colleges and universities to take note of these both in the present and future context, but it is even more important for the Higher Education policy both at national and state levels to realise that online education is not a panacea. Just because technology allows for inclusion of a large number online, education does not become inclusive. In fact, the very nature of online education is inherently non-inclusive and impersonal, as is clear from the accounts shared by teachers analysed above. Hence, it calls for several supportive measures to make it inclusive and personal, which need both financial and human-resource investment: more teachers to handle smaller classes, more time for individual interactions navigated through technology, better technology and deeper training for an approach that is relevant to the mode, and not mere a second-rate extension of the face-to-face mode.
The issues linked with access to technology and technological devices as well as student motivation are also pertinent. Learning at any stage is not merely the completion of a degree, it is much more than that in terms of learning through expansion of lived experiences. This is especially true for the higher education stage where students are adults and through their time spent in education institutions, learn not only the narrow curricular objectives to complete a course but also about different ideas of the past and present, diverse positions and thoughts as well as philosophy and rationales behind those. This is true for students in all disciplines and not only humanities or social sciences. Science is as much about ideas, and it has its own politics and sociology that students of science need to understand. With greater focus on interdisciplinarity, as is the case with the NEP 2020, it is important to understand the limitations of online education, especially when used as a singular or the main medium of instruction.
Also important is to understand that possessing a mobile phone does not translate itself into ‘ready access to technology for learning’. As analysed above, students come from diverse backgrounds and access to technology, both in terms of connectivity and affordability to have enough bandwidth, have been major issues. The evidence emanating from various research studies clearly show that online education during the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities: while those coming from privileged backgrounds could afford access to diverse resources, those coming from remote areas and poorer backgrounds could not even access classes. A higher dependence on online will make this situation worse.
Finally, it is important to realise that while the online mode has potential to serve in an emergency or as a supplementary delivery channel in specific cases, it cannot replace face-to-face education. This is more true for the underprivileged: they need the institutional environment, resources and processes for their education.
Jha, J., Ghatak, N., Minni, P., Rajagopal, S., & Mahendiran, S., (2020) Open and distance learning in secondary school education in India – potential and limitations. Routledge.
Jyotsna Jha works as director of Bangalore based Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. 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.