By V. Joseph Xavier, SJ
All the observations I make about the teachers and students here in this article are based on several articles, a few surveys done among teachers and conversations I have had with a number of teachers, parents and students.
Even before the pandemic struck, Information Communication Technology (ICT) was used in India in certain educational institutes like IIMs and IITs. University Grants Commission and some private universities had already started courses like MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and Swayam. A small number of interested students took advantage of these courses and in some institutions these courses were made a requirement to obtain a degree. For others, the challenge was how to use ICT tools to replace the face-to-face mode of education. Universities and colleges which had better ICT-enabled infrastructure took to it. Other institutions did not have enough infrastructure and internet connectivity to make use of ICT.
Challenges brought by the pandemic
But things changed after Covid-19 forced a national lockdown and educational institutions had to be closed in March 2020. This brought with it problems like anxiety and stress, fear of losing academic years and job opportunities. The future was uncertain.
Many hoped the pandemic would subside soon and they would be able to go back to their class rooms.
The challenge before education was not just to look for online methods of teaching but also to explore effective and innovative pedagogy and keep the students engaged in learning, arouse their interest in the new methodologies and alleviate their anxiety and stress. Most of the teachers appeared confused and showed reluctance to adopt new online teaching-learning-evaluation methods. Many hoped the pandemic would subside soon and they would be able to go back to their class rooms.
But soon it became clear that the pandemic would not disappear soon and so would affect all aspects of our life, including education. Educators realized they had no alternative but to explore and invent new forms of technology-enabled education.
The success of online education depended on the availability of technical infrastructure. ICT tools like internet connectivity, continuous availability of electric power and quality mobile phones/laptops were not available in rural and semi-urban areas.
Problems experienced by the teachers
Most of the teachers did not know how to use the gadgets for teaching. Some of the teachers had what we can call ‘gadget phobia.’ They avoided using gadgets in their own personal life, including complicated smart phones. Many of those who had been in the teaching profession for more than 15 years seldom used computers and resisted using them. But all of a sudden there was no alternative.
The senior teachers feared that they could be replaced by younger teachers, whose generation was at home with digital gadgets. They worried they could be rejected by the management and the students. But the new generation of teachers were technology friendly and learnt quickly digital teaching techniques.
Before the pandemic, usually nobody monitored what and how the teachers taught. But with regard to online classes, the teachers had no control over who would be monitoring their classes. Since some parents attended the online classes, along with their children, the teachers realized that they should be updated, well-prepared and use methods that were appropriate to the subject like the use of e-texts, videos and audios.
The senior teachers feared that they could be replaced by younger teachers, whose generation was at home with digital gadgets.
In the classroom teaching the teachers saw their students and monitored their activities. So they naturally resented the lack of face-to-face interaction in online teaching. They could not make sure that the students paid attention and were interactive. Soon the teachers understood all the limitations of online classes and realized that these can never replace completely the usual classes.
Whenever the classes were not innovative or interesting, learners switched on the gadget but did not pay attention and did their own work. The teachers found it difficult to hold the attention of the students. When they asked the students why they did not respond, the excuse they gave was that either their gadget was malfunctioning, or there was no power or there was no internet connection. Some students would keep the audio on but switch the camera off, hoping that the teacher would think they were listening, although their faces were not visible.
Online teaching took it for granted that the students were motivated to learn and so would pay attention. In most cases, the students, who were confused and anxious, were not motivated and were not interested in learning.
Issues related to students
Teachers found it difficult to make the students self-directed. Students were used to spoon feeding and the examination system was memory based. When self-directed learning was demanded, they were either at a loss or were unable to cope with the pressure of self-learning. Except a few motivated students most of them did not benefit through self-directed learning. When the evaluation had to be done online, it became difficult to measure the learning of the student.
Getting students to learn outside the class
In online teaching, the teachers had the extra pressure of making students learn outside the teaching-learning process. Teachers encouraged self-learning among the students. But many students were distracted by gadgets, video games and social media, and preferred to have fun rather than learn. Using these gadgets which they associated with friends and fun for the serious work of learning became a tedious task for many students. Involving the parents in online teaching was a challenge for the teachers and administrators.
Since institutions could not collect the fees from students as they used to do earlier, some were forced to lay off the teachers during the pandemic and others were obliged to reduce their salary. This affected particularly those teachers who did not have the government-approved posts and so had to be paid by the management. These teachers usually received salaries which were much lower than the government salaries. When even these were reduced, their families had to face the impact. If a member of the family of these teachers had to be hospitalized because of Covid 19 or its aftereffects, their burden became heavier.
Many families wanted to stay together and face the unprecedented crisis. They believed their togetherness and companionship would help them deal with the anxiety and fear the pandemic brought. The lockdown brought sons and daughters home, as their offices closed and they were asked to work from home.
But this gave birth to other unexpected problems. Many families had little privacy. For lower middle class or poor families isolating or quarantining oneself did not have any meaning, as they did not have many rooms. There was no way they could do it. For teachers living in such houses online classes must have been an ordeal.
Under normal circumstances, they would be out of the house at least for a few hours. But the lockdown kept them together day and night. Constant proximity led to tensions, quarrels and even domestic violence. The house had to be a home, workplace and the place for recreation. It is easy to imagine the tension in a house, where two were working from home and two children were attending online classes. What about the usual household duties like cooking and washing dishes and clothes etc?
Initially for teachers, like many others, being ostracized was a serious issue. If someone was affected by Corona or succumbed to it, even relatives and friends were reluctant to come and help, for fear of contracting the disease. The family felt abandoned. This led to loneliness and dejection. If the family faced also economic problems, it became unbearable.
The common feelings expressed by the teachers were anger, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom. Covid did not allow them to socialize, to meet and interact with their friends. Some of the teachers lost members of their families to Covid, resulting in depression. If they had contracted Covid, the quarantine led to suicidal thoughts. Some even reported health issues – severe stress, headache and eye strain because of having to look at the screen of a computer or phone for long hours.
The students had to give up their relaxed, distracted life. Some of them lost one or more of their family. Parents of some other students had lost jobs and livelihood.
The way ahead
Can we live life as before? Will there be a post Corona period? Will the pandemic become endemic like some other diseases? At this moment we don’t know. Whether we like it or not, a different style of teaching-learning is going to be the future. Traditional methods might not interest students as they have got used to a new mode of learning and a new environment which gives them freedom to explore. Many of them would have understood by now that they don’t need to sit in the class for hours and listen to boring teachers in order to learn. They would have developed confidence to learn by themselves, using the internet. Therefore it is necessary that all institutions design a different learning environment, redesign contents and adopt a different set of teaching-learning methodology. Experiential learning would replace the banking concept of education. Modular learning, with inbuilt assessment, would come to stay.
It is clear that ‘blended learning’ (BL) would be the future of education. Blended learning changes education from teacher-directed, top-down, and one-size-fits-all enterprise to something that is student-driven, bottom-up, and customized. There would be a balance between online instructions and face-to-face, interactive, but tech-based learning. Its pace will vary depending on the student. The future mode of education will have to ensure that students would be continuously engaged and motivated. However, I think, the learner would miss the human elements of encouragement, compassion, and caring guidance, which the teachers can provide only in the traditional setting.
One of the suggestions from the students to teachers was to send recorded lectures ahead to the students. They would listen to them and note down what they didn’t understand. During the offline classes, they would be able to clarify their doubts or initiate discussions. A lot of learning may happen through writing assignments and undertaking practical training. This methodology implies that the ratio between the students and the teachers is manageable.
Therefore hereafter the focus of educational institutions should be on designing a new strategy for imparting education on both modes – online and offline. As learners are tech savvy, the teachers would have to improve their technical skills. They need to learn to co-teach with either peers or students and focus on facilitation and feedback. Their teaching should engage the students and create an environment for creative thinking and deeper learning. To be effective they should be creative, and adapt and innovate to face these new challenges. The teachers, whom the pandemic has brought to the crossroads, should realize that the old, familiar road is closed and there is only one road to take.
A former Principal of Loyola College, Chennai, and former Research Director at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, V. Joseph Xavier, SJ has worked in the field of Higher Education for more than 40 years. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org