As the pandemic prompts teachers to innovate and adapt to online formats, is this the end of traditional classroom teaching as we knew it?
In Isaac Asimov’s story, The Fun They Had, set in the year 2155, two children stumble upon a “real book"—a relic from a distant past they have never encountered before. Tom, the older one, informs the younger Margie that the book is about a school where human teachers, unlike the mechanical teachers they have at home, educate children, who have to assemble in a building every day. Barely a few pages long, Asimov’s tale now belongs to the pantheon of classic science fiction, filled with an elegiac nostalgia. In today’s context, though, it rings uncannily true.
“I have been thinking about this story ever since my children started attending school online during the lockdown," says Amit Haldar, a neurologist based in Kolkata. Parent to a 17-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, he has witnessed the distinction between home and school blur during the pandemic. As the classroom has shifted to the virtual realm—mostly for schools in urban centres, where most students are likely to have better access to the internet—teachers have turned into disembodied voices. The school, as the physical space we knew it to be, has shrunk to the size of electronic screens.
Instead of walking down the aisles, ensuring discipline and checking the progress of their students, teachers now appear as thumbnails, while chalk-and-board lessons unfold on PowerPoint. Most alarmingly perhaps, their performance is no longer privy to the eyes of their students alone. Parents and guardians, too, can now sit in on their lessons and judge their merits.
“I warned the teachers in my school at the outset that they would be, literally, entering the homes of their students when teaching online, so the quality of their classes has to be as good as possible," says Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi. “We don’t want parents to pass any comments."
The reality, at the teachers’ end, was stressful in other ways as well. For them, it was the workplace that was entering their homes, where some of them have to grapple with domestic responsibilities and faltering internet connections. “Many of the teachers in our school, for instance, live in joint families, where they have to take care of their in-laws," says Sandeep Hooda, the co-founder of Vega Schools in Gurugram, Haryana. “Although most of them are teaching 3-4 hours every day online, the time needed to prepare for these lessons is much longer than for offline classes."
Just as the pandemic has changed the dynamics of learning for students, it has also impacted methods of teaching. Whether they are tech-savvy or not, teachers have been shaken up overnight and forced to upgrade their pedagogical and communication tools. As Wattal puts it, in the initial days of the lockdown, her team had to do “mental gymnastics" to figure out ways of humanizing the classroom experience online. But radical as these new methods may appear to the newly initiated, virtual tools can make teaching a richly rewarding experience.
“I was already well acquainted with tech and integrating information and communication technology (ICT) in my classroom teaching, though some of my colleagues were not as savvy," says Sreetama Gupta, who teaches biology to students of classes VIII-XII at South Point High School in Kolkata. “But in the last few months most of my colleagues have started using multimedia resources, like podcasts and videos, to teach—far more than they would have otherwise." It is even possible to demonstrate laboratory experiments virtually, so students can stay up to speed.
The transition hasn’t been seamless, though, especially for a school like South Point—with 12,000 students, it is among India’s largest educational institutions. “Around 400 teachers are teaching 1,350 virtual classes every week at the junior and senior levels since the lockdown," says Krishna Damani, trustee, South Point Education Society.
Since March, the school has launched its own teaching app, with an integrated learning management system, where assignments are posted, corrected and returned. Cyclone Amphan, which ripped through the city in May, threw internet connections off kilter for several days but classes have resumed full steam since. “Our aim is to make the delivery of online lessons as secure and effective as possible in the coming months," adds Damani.
While technology can simulate the experience of being in a physical classroom, it’s hard to replicate the nuances, body language, looks and facial expression that are key to effective classroom communication. “In a technological space, you are working in a silo," Wattal says. “It’s not enough to simply put up a video. You have to actively teach, socialize with the students, allow them to talk about what they are feeling."
Yet, by using technology effectively, teachers can also open up horizons. They can create “cluster classrooms" online, with limited numbers of students, for better communication. Teaching can also become more interdisciplinary. A lesson on electricity, for instance, need not only be confined to physics and mathematics, but can also encompass geography, social sciences and economics. “So many parents have told us that they, too, have learnt much while sitting in their children’s classes," Wattal adds.
One of the aims of teaching is to forge connections between various fields of knowledge. Educationists use different levels of depth of knowledge (DOK) to access and measure the success of teaching programmes. “DOK 1 and 2 are mostly content based: It’s what you can do with what you know," Hooda explains. “In the last 10 years, many schools are trying to migrate to DOK 3 and 4, where students are encouraged to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems." The challenge before schools in the age of coronavirus is to figure out a way of delivering higher DOK levels while using distance learning modules.
While online education can elevate levels of learning—“My students are now participating in webinars with those from schools across India," says Gupta—the medium isn’t free of logistical and psychological challenges. The question of access, for one, looms large over online teaching.
Even in urban centres, internet connectivity can be patchy. Not all homes may have multiple internet connections, or a laptop or phone to spare, which can be used exclusively, or even uninterruptedly, by a school-going child. The problem becomes magnified if there are several school-going children in a family.
“Springdales follows a policy of bringing children from weaker sections of society into its fold, long before it was mandated in the right to education Act," says Wattal. “We also have students with special needs as part of our usual classrooms." In the early days of online teaching, with no para-helpers, occupational and speech therapists at hand, the school had to teach in smaller groups. There were remedial classes in the afternoon, a dedicated slot for online exercise and recreation in the evenings, and even customized webinars about dealing with abuse and anger at home during the lockdown—both for children and their parents.
Being physically absent from school, missing the rough and tumble of the playground and the camaraderie of friends may be an ordeal for extrovert students, but for the introverts, online lessons can be a blessing.
“It is possible for us to pay closer attention to students online," says Tamali Ghosh, who teaches nine-year-olds at South Point School. While managing a class of roughly 90 students in real life may involve much struggle and sweat, it’s possible to mute 89 and listen to one student speaking at a time on video. Those who are not too interactive in real-life classrooms are opening up, asking more questions and participating in discussions.
While the apprehension of students wasting time online instead of paying attention and getting too much screen time is real, most teachers Mint spoke to believe such scenarios can usually be avoided if the lesson itself is compelling enough. For, given the shorter duration of online classes, there is less opportunity for students to dawdle than if they were spending nearly half a day in school.
“We have to look at qualities of screen time, measure and moderate its use, instead of condemning it outright," says Wattal. “We need to develop a creative understanding of screen time, because if used mindlessly it can bring on depression, anxiety, lead to cyber bullying and disrupt the sleep cycle."
Online classes, Wattal adds, have made her team not only better teachers capable of holding their students’ attention outside the conventional setup, but also more compassionate human beings, alert to the emotional needs of their students. There is no fear of mechanical teachers replacing human ones, as Asimov predicted.