Welcome to the 2020 college experience

For the two days that Nilambur-based Aswitha Raj fell unwell and had to skip online classes at Manipal University, she found an unexpected friend in her classmate Darunya. “Throughout the two days, she kept me updated with what was going on in class and shared her notes. I did not know people could care this much online,” she says.

Aswitha’s surprise at a classmate sharing notes — something that before 2020, would have been a basic expectation — is telling of the change in the essential college-going experience this year.

The freshman year is always an exciting one. For many, it marks a transition from the security of high school to the independence of college. New friendships are forged over afterparties, all-nighters, canteen hangouts, and an unsaid yet understood homesickness. How does that experience translate online?

“I have pretty much grown up with a phone in my hand,” says Madurai-based Ricky Franklin. Maintaining relationships over text is not unusual for this 18-year-old, but the main difference, he points out, “is that I have made these friends in real life first. So then while texting, you know their tone behind the words, you get when they are joking, and there is a lesser chance of misunderstanding. Getting to know a person purely via text takes more time.”

After over a month of online classes, students recall the thrill of meeting their classmates digitally. WhatsApp groups were formed in a flurry, Instagram accounts stalked, and Snapchat accounts added as students tried to figure each other out based on their curated online presence, their display pictures, and their bios. Sub-groups based on language preferences were created, allowing the normally reserved people to speak up more in their native tongues.

Getting friendly

“When we were first added to the official WhatsApp group, I personal-messaged everyone on that group saying that I know these are tough times, but I hope we could be friends. Some replied, some seen-zoned me,” Aswitha laughs, “And some numbers were actually of parents and that got awkward.”

Of the people who replied, about four or five continue to text her daily. Ricky too has made a separate WhatsApp group with three of his classmates. “The four of us just hit it off. We all have some passion that we follow other than our classes, like I’m a singer, this other guy is a sportsperson, one is a designer… ,” he says, adding, “It’s fun texting each other during class [like live commentary]. That’s not something we would have been able to do if it were a physical class.”

For the most part, however, online classes have been dry, with students complaining that paying attention becomes difficult when they cannot see their classmates or even their teacher sometimes.

Rakshika Babu, first year at Stella Maris, Chennai, is resentful that her first year of college is less fun than what she expected it to be, based on stories she heard from her seniors.

“My first reaction was, I did not sign up for this!” she says. “Moreover in online classes, in a group of over 80 students, we are hesitant to unmute ourselves and talk.”

Classes with a smaller group of students have had better luck in this department. Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, which has about 130 students this year, has admitted 12 to its Bloomberg programme. Jarshad NK, dean of ACJ-Bloomberg says they pay special attention to ensure that there is not only student to teacher communication, but also student to student. “We give them a lot of assignments in which they are forced to interact with each other after class. Within Zoom, there are breakout rooms that split up students into smaller groups for more personal interactions,” he says.

At MOP Vaishnav College for Women, Chennai, assistant professor Harinee Ravimaran sets aside 4 pm to 6 pm for students to call in to talk about whatever they wish — academic or otherwise.

Online freshers’ parties are also trying to fill the void of real-life socialising. While ACJ plans to invite people to send in their dance videos, perform songs or recite poetry live, MOP Vaishnav had the student office bearers speak to each of the batches — first, second and third years — personally.

Sunny side up

“But when it comes to knowledge sharing, the biggest advantage of online classes has been the lack of geographical boundaries,” says Jarshad. At ACJ-Bloomberg, a host of respected professionals in the field of journalism have been taking guest lectures: Pulitzer Prize winning Scillia Alecci, Raju Narisetti, formerly with The Wall Street Journal, and author Samanth Subramanian.

“We would fly experts down in the previous years, but the number of guest lecturers has gone way up this year,” says Jarshad, adding that online classes have also forced him to reinvent himself as a lecturer. “The sessions require minute-by-minute planning,” he says.

Harinee agrees that the amount of knowledge sharing in an online session is greater than it is in a regular classroom. “Not only that, sharing of resources is also immediate,” she says, explaining, “We generally advise students to do their own research after class, but once the bell rings, they would forget about that. With online classes, students have the luxury to open up another tab simultaneously, look up video explainers and share them immediately.”

What this also does is encourage those students who were otherwise reserved in class, and that is Harinee’s greatest joy. “There are students in my final year who for the past two years would sit in the back benches and either sleep or just not interact. They have now started responding and asking doubts in the chatbox.”

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 5:47:32 PM |

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