All students need not learn at the same pace and this can be assured by online tools for teaching
Of the many consequences of the pandemic-induced lockdown, one of the most visible to anyone with children is its impact on education. Schools and universities have been forced to shut down their campuses and scramble to move their teaching online. For most of them, this has meant finding ways to re-create the physical classroom by getting teachers and students to interact with each other through video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Much has been said about the social inequities that this has revealed. The moment you take teaching online, you make education inaccessible to those whose access to the internet is constrained by their economic circumstances or physical location. And while we should be rightly grateful that technology has made it possible for students to at least have the option to continue with their education in a pandemic, we have to be mindful of those who will be left behind by the new reality of remote learning.
Formal education, as we know it, is currently centred on the classroom—a physical space in which teachers and students assemble to participate in a shared ritual of learning. Most of the methodologies used by teachers are designed to leverage the physical environment to impart knowledge. This is why teaching involves class discussions and case studies, and why most educational institutions incorporate group projects and experiments into their teaching plan.
It is this reality that has guided our immediate response to the pandemic. Since so much of our current pedagogy depends on students learning from one another, we’ve organized our virtual learning experience to simulate as closely as possible the physical environment of the classroom. This is why educational institutions have been at such pains to create synchronous learning environments using virtual conference facilities.
But does it have to be this way? The internet is primarily an asynchronous medium. Should it not be possible for us to use modern technology to teach students asynchronously and be just as effective?
The most obvious benefit of asynchronous learning is that those who do not have always-on high-speed internet access can still continue their learning if they can access the internet for just a few hours in the day. All they need is the ability to download the course material, so that they could study the material offline. This solves the inequity implicit in the current virtual classroom model by including those who cannot be connected to classrooms in real time.
But the benefits of asynchronous learning extend beyond this. One of the challenges of the classroom setting is to get students with different aptitudes to learn the same things at the same time. Even today, teachers struggle to ensure that every last student gets everything one can out of every class. If they pitch their instruction too simply, the smarter students in the class will get bored. On the other hand, if they teach at a level that challenges the smartest in the class, they will leave behind those with less aptitude.
Asynchronous learning allows students to learn at their own pace. Being a modular design, students can select the study material they need and move to the next level only after they have mastered the previous module. If you add to this system an appropriately dynamic evaluation mechanism, every student will be able to progress through their educational journey in a bespoke manner that allows those who have grasped the concept quickly to be able to skip intermediate exercises, while at the same time giving those who have not got the opportunity to keep practising till they master the concepts.
This is exactly how Khan Academy, for example, works. The popular tutoring service has been designed to let students select their study material, and, using a simple whiteboard and oral instructions, explains the material to them in an easy-to- understand manner. Since the material is pre-recorded, students can engage with it at their own pace, pausing and rewinding as necessary to absorb more complex concepts. Since it is modular, students learn in appropriately incremental ways, allowing them to build on the knowledge of previous classes before proceeding to the next. And at the end of each module, they can evaluate their understanding by taking a simple online test to assess their progress.
Just because the pandemic has forced us to take education online, it doesn’t mean we have to replicate the physical world in an online setting. If our current circumstances can be an impetus for change, we should use the circumstances to fundamentally alter education for the better, making it more relevant to our times.
One of the practical obstacles to this idea is the fact that academic success is still associated with our institutions of learning. Schools and colleges are useful not just for the education they provide, but also for the weight their names add to our biodatas. Online education just does not have the same credibility—even if the education that students receive may be as good or better.
However, if our academic institutions of repute start developing asynchronous learning programs that borrow ideas from some of these online teaching modules, they will not only address the issue of access, but also give this modern form of learning the seal of approval it needs. Then, perhaps, we would finally be able to bring education out of the Industrial Age.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan