Online Education in the times of COVID-19 and Beyond – Part 3
Author : Jayasree Subramanian.
The most fundamental question is, how are we sure that children and youth, who themselves are facing different kinds of hardships in these abnormal times, would find it worthwhile to sit through these sessions which does not seem to provide anything including a hope for a better future.
Online Education and the Silencing of Teachers’ Voice
Online education radically transforms the way a teacher realizes her professional commitments and hence it would require a substantial amount of preparation for a teacher who has trained to do face-to-face classroom teaching to shift to online teaching. It is pertinent to note that, barring a few, prominent among them being Delhi University Teachers’ Association, teacher unions have hardly come out and expressed their reservations about online education.
Online education has burdened teachers with many hours of additional work per day. They are forced to teach through a medium which they are not in control of and which does not lend itself easily to carrying out the task of teaching as they are used to doing over the years.
- They know the shortcomings of teaching without making eye contact with students and without being able to assess quickly if they have been successful in communicating what they set out to communicate.
- They know that in face-to-face classroom teaching they can spot and try and attend to language difficulties faced by students, which they cannot do in online classes.
- They know that students miss out on the ambience a classroom provides for learning, miss out on the opportunities for peer learning, and the scope for expressing their confusions and seeking clarifications.
With online education they have to prepare the content as a Power point presentation, which calls for more work. They will be heavily limited in using additional teaching-learning material that they routinely use in their classes. The need to repeat the same class several times, the need to assign homework, conduct quizzes and polls and assess all these, add to their work many folds.
- They know the sense of dissatisfaction they are left with at the end of each online session because they do not know how many students at the other end gave up not being able to follow what was being said.
- Indeed, once the new academic year begins, they know that things are going to be worse because, unlike the current batch of students with whom they had had a face-to-face interaction in the classroom, with the new batch their only interaction would be via the internet. Teaching online would amount to the impersonal act of making good Power point presentations and conducting tests and not the personal knowledge that the communication they sought to achieve has happened or failed to happen.
In several cases, teachers are not even going to be trusted with the responsibility of making the online content that they will transact. They will be directed to take the content prepared by other content developers and simply transact it, robbing them of even the minimal autonomy they had as teachers. Not just that, they may in the process share their personal information with the content providers, compromising their information security. Given all these, one would expect teachers resist online education. Yet teacher unions have not come out voicing their concerns and protesting against online teaching. In fact, teachers are competing with each other in creating online content and transacting them. This is partly because the lockdown has effectively curbed all forms of resistance in the country and made it more difficult for people to come together and formulate a collective response to any decision from the state. It could be partly also because anything to do with the unexplored domain of ICT seems to hold new possibilities and hence appear enticing. In fact, incorporating ICT in school and university education can in many ways enhance the quality of education, and teachers who are aware of the use of technology in teaching use it routinely in their classes. But the central reason for the absence of resistance from teachers is that in the present scenario of privatized education teachers know that their jobs will be under threat if they put up a resistance to online education. From primary grade teachers to academics in universities, teachers are left with no option but to cooperate with the institution in promoting online education if they want to hold on to their jobs, no matter what they believe. The only exceptions to this are a few newspaper and social media articles pointing to the limitations of online education, written by a small number of senior academics from state-funded universities (Bhattacharya, 2020; Deshpande, 2020; Pathak, 2020; Mehra, 2020).
Epistemological Issues Involved in Online Education
Lack of access to computers and a network connection with a good bandwidth constitutes the most basic challenge to online education. But it would be wrong to assume that if there is access to technology then teaching and learning can be moved to the online mode. Approaches to curriculum development and pedagogy are determined by certain philosophical theories and epistemological frameworks about how children learn, almost all of which assume a physical classroom where the teachers and learners meet each other face to face. Some of these theories look upon the learner not as a passive recipient of predetermined content, but as coming from a certain socio-economic and cultural location, bringing with them local knowledge and being involved in actively constructing new knowledge, facilitated by the teacher. For a country with a multitude of hierarchies and diversity, these approaches are more appropriate than those that assume an ideal learner ready to receive a predetermined content designed by the teacher or presented in a textbook. The classroom provides a particular ambience within which teaching and learning happens and this includes the seating arrangement in the classroom, teaching-learning materials that are available for manipulation, classroom dynamics brought into existence as teachers and students interact by posing and responding to queries, peer interaction in the classroom, teachers’ attention to the needs of specific groups of learners, the subtle messages from the teachers and peers and so on. A curriculum developed for face-to-face transaction in a physical classroom cannot be effectively transacted in a virtual classroom where the learner is isolated from their peers and invisible to the teacher, precisely because a virtual classroom lacks the charge and the supporting features that a physical classroom provides. If we envisage switching to online education as a permanent measure, it would be a paradigm shift calling for alternate philosophical and epistemological frameworks and approaches to teaching and learning. To simply present over an online platform what was designed to be presented in a specific way in a different setting would only result in a major compromise in the quality of education.
Virtual Education and Subversion of the Aims of Education
Urgency with which online education is being pushed into practice would make it appear that enabling learners to master the prescribed content in the prescribed time is the sole aim of education. This fundamentally contradicts the aims of education as envisioned in the Constitution and outlined in policy documents. Schools and universities are envisioned as sites that provide an opportunity for children and youth to come together, socialize, build emotional and intellectual partnerships outside the family, think together, subject their received notions to critical enquiry, overcome the sectarian biases based on caste, religion, region and gender, develop ethical values and rationality and prepare oneself to play one’s role as a secular democratic citizen.
Schools and universities mean a lot more than lessons and exams for a lot of students. Schools and universities could be the spaces they escape into from oppressive homes and communities, spaces where they feel as more equal beings than their immediate family and neighbourhood would allow them to feel, spaces where they find others with whom they can share their dreams and desires. Universities provide opportunities for students to listen to scholars across disciplines and broaden their understanding. Schools and universities provide female students an opportunity to step out of their homes and develop a sense of independence. It goes without saying that the true gains of schooling and university education are the scope it offers for socialization, critical self-development and acquisition of values to live in a democratic society along with subject knowledge. The potential the schools and universities offer for development of the student far exceeds what can be offered via online education and to treat online education as a substitute for regular schooling or university education is not just subverting the aims of education, it is in fact doing the learners a major injustice by denying them their rightful opportunities to evolve as a human being.
Student life in a university bestows the youth with a period of time in their life where they exist and function from a space that is outside parental control and unconstrained by the pressures of a workplace. Student movements, cultural groups and journals edited by them play a strong role in transforming the society we live in. If education in schools and universities were to be replaced by online learning, education would cease to be an instrument for social change and building democratic citizenship and would instead only produce trained workforce for the industry. This would amount to a major loss not just for learners but for society as a whole.
Education in Abnormal Times
If we leave aside the entitled India which seeks schools to provide nothing more than subject matter knowledge and who have the physical infrastructure and mental framework to cope with online education, and instead focus our attention on the large majority of school-going children and youth enrolled in higher education who are faced with several challenges that prevent them from taking advantage of online education, it is clear that there is no easy ‘one size fits all’ solution to the education question in these abnormal times. It is true that children and youth sitting at home need something to sustain their emotional and intellectual needs. But to teach them online or through television merely the subject matter knowledge poses not just practical challenges of access, but also defeats the very purpose of education. The issue is not one of resource management or planning, to be attended to by providing free laptops and dongle; it is not one of time management to be attended to by cleverly scheduling sessions for all subjects and for all grades to be telecast. The most fundamental question is, how are we sure that children and youth, who themselves are facing different kinds of hardships in these abnormal times, would find it worthwhile to sit through these sessions which does not seem to provide anything including a hope for a better future. This opens up a host of questions such as, why we teach what we teach in school, what meaning and relevance this knowledge has for the learner even during normal times, would we be able to see the students in the classroom without using coercive instruments like mandatory attendance of a certain percentage and the use of assessments, is there a way to conceive of education (and subject matter knowledge) in such a way that a typical learner is drawn to it for the emotional and intellectual fulfilment it offers and so on.
These questions are important when we are looking for alternatives to online education during abnormal times, because it is our answers to these questions that will guide us in conceiving alternatives. Functioning as autonomous units in a decentralized setup, schools and higher educational institutions could still play a role in engaging children and youth in emotionally and intellectually sustaining activities in a noncoercive manner. As a lot of online libraries have given free access to books, children and youth can be guided and encouraged to read good literature, can be encouraged to write on their own, carry out simple experiments with locally available material, try their hand at arts and crafts. Educational institutions in a locality can come together, form several local communities of learners of mixed age groups who can be guided to protect themselves from being infected by the virus and who can spread awareness among the people in their locality, provide support to those who require it and maintain a journal and so on. The possibilities are limitless and the freedom that a school year without a prescribed syllabus or assessment offers can result in substantial gains for the students. The question is whether the state would take charge and act to protect the interest of all the learners!
I would like to thank Senthil Babu, Kishor Bhat, Neeraja Budhey, Kishore Darak, Shreya Khemani, Anupama Pradeepan, and Tulsi Srinivasan for their valuable comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Nityanand Rao for meticulous proof reading in a remarkably short time.
 DUTA (June 2020) https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/duta-writes-to-pm-opposing-online-exam/article31854539.ece
 Bhattacharya, S (June 2020) What is so wrong with online teaching? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 55, Issue 23, 06, June, 2020
 Deshpande, S (May 2020). Online education must supplement not replace, physical sites of learning. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-importance-of-campus-6428694/
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