For better or for worse?

What is also apparent is the lack of recognition of the burden on faculty and students in what was a personally stressful time, with COVID-19 having entered many households.   | Photo Credit: vejaa

Twenty years ago, online teaching would have been impossible. Had a pandemic occurred, it would have crippled the educational system.

Today, we have extensive broadband access, IT-enabled tools such as Zoom, Google Meet, Slido, Moodle, and the ubiquitous smartphone and that has made a difference.

In 2020, when the government announced the replacement of brick-and-mortar classes with virtual lookalikes, we hastily assumed that the future probably lay in online education that promised inclusivity. But reviewing the scene in the U.S., Michael Horn, author of Choosing College (2019, Jossey-Bass), says he doubts whether the students and their parents who have experienced hastily constructed online courses “will look back fondly on those on-line experiences”.

Like in every country, in India too, teachers are exhausted, as most had to fall back on limited, often personal, resources and no uniform plan for curriculum delivery. Apart from the lack of laptops/smartphones, Internet and connectivity, especially for those from underprivileged and rural backgrounds, there have also been challenges of how much to teach in the truncated time frame, how to assess students and ensure that they do not cheat.

It’s not been easy for the students either. With different courses being taught for the duration of one hour or 45 minutes, they have been expected to listen to lectures through the day.

Unrealistic demands

What is also apparent is the lack of recognition of the burden on faculty and students in what was a personally stressful time, with COVID-19 having entered many households. Often unrealistic demands were made on the faculty to attend lengthy meetings, spilling over to holidays and after office. Teachers were asked to complete NAAC forms at the cost of classes, which were considered their responsibility to complete whenever they could.

Dr. Deb Pathak, a professor of sociology from Delhi, describes the experience as “stagnating” because of the rigidity of the authorities, who insisted that a final examination carrying 60% weightage had to be held. If the teacher wanted to evaluate her/his students through continuous, creative assignments, the scope did not exist.

The same inflexibility was seen in the insistence on passing medical students based on theory courses. Dr Smitha (name changed), a senior medical surgeon who teaches at a hospital in Hyderabad, is distressed that students had no exposure to clinical practice of examining live patients or learning how to talk to them. “The university could have extended the courses by a year and offered clinical experience,” she says. “We could see students using textbooks to cheat.”

Full courses have not been taught in colleges. There was no time and no one to take the call on extending the term. Gayatri, an underprivileged student studying computer science engineering in Maharashtra, said, “The university asked colleges to complete the full semester’s course in six weeks. We were given some online classes and assigned courses from Coursera to study along with links to YouTube videos to observe practicals.” Since students recognised their teacher only by the voice, “no one asks questions.”

Dr. Shanti Bhattacharya, professor of electrical engineering at IIT-Madras, felt it was stressful to set exams to prevent cheating. She used sequential flow in Moodle so that questions came at different times for each student. Other teachers used MCQs, pop-up quizzes, gave students creative assignments that could not be copy-pasted, and held debates. Yet there were complaints of cheating.

Online teaching has stressed teachers also because they couldn’t see their students or get non-verbal feedback, say Dr. Anjali Roy, professor of English at IIT-Kharagpur and Dr. Yogesh Snehi, professor of history at Amity University, Delhi. Only Dr. Ashwin Mahalingam, who teaches civil engineering at IIT-Madras, felt it was teaching as usual, though he had to drop a lab course the previous semester.

While faculty in colleges with good resources and used IT-enabled tools regularly could focus on teaching, the number of students increased as their courses were opened up. The rest juggled between technology and the syllabus, and the latter suffered.

Online classes have left faculty dispirited. Dr. Martha (name changed), a professor of financial management in Mumbai, says, “Preparation time for every class has increased manifold.” Students have cut corners to pass, and administrations have neither appreciated faculty nor devised plans to ensure quality teaching/learning in the coming year.

The writer is former Professor of English at IIT Bombay.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 11:28:37 PM |

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