With educational institutes closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has been encouraging online education to achieve academic continuity. Most high-end private and public institutions have made the switch smoothly using online platforms such as Zoom, Google classrooms, Microsoft teams, etc., while many still find it a herculean task. The challenges of online education are multifaceted. It is time that we Indians, as a society, understand the realms of online education – in India, for India.
Online education allows for learning something beyond the norm. A learner has access to unlimited topics and global experts in niche subjects – something otherwise not affordable or imaginable for many. Online programs allow people of a wide age group to learn at their own pace, without inhibitions, and without compromising on their other responsibilities. With the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in India, online education has trickled down to the most basic level — schools and colleges! When asked about their experience with online teaching, a student from a college in Bengaluru said, “The online option is a need in this pandemic situation. It has brought education to us without us going anywhere, and it is more flexible”. Probably, students are finding it a welcome change from strict schedules and long-distance commutes to attend classes. For some others, who find learning in large classes intimidating, this may be a less stressful option. Many teachers are making the best of this situation by exploring new methods of teaching and assessment.This is encouraging. But the moment online education moves from an optional to the only form of learning, and that too long term, the bad and the ugly slowly become evident. India is beginning to get a taste of this now.
Using the internet for entertainment is common, but for online lessons is a big challenge. Teachers may not be well-versed with creating digital content, and conveying it effectively online. A sudden expectation from them to upgrade, and from students to adapt, is unfair.Body language and eye contact, which are important cues for the teacher, are difficult to perceive in an online class. “I do not receive continual feedback in the form of students’ reactions during online sessions, which reduces the effectiveness of teaching”, says a college teacher in suburban Mumbai. How many students have paid attention in a class? Of those, how many understood the lesson? Is the teaching pace alright? Are some students getting left behind? These questions arise even in traditional classrooms, but they are harder to address in online classes. A parent of an 8‑year-old attending a private school in Gurgaon says, “There shouldn’t be online classes for such young kids. Their concentration span is small and they do not pay attention after a while.” The 8‑year-old added, “I hate them (online classes)!”Even college students seem to value the in-class physical learning experience much more than a virtual one. Many acknowledge that phones can be very distracting. In addition, science and technology programs often include hands-on laboratory sessions, dissertation projects and field trips to complement theoretical studies. This aspect of learning is severely limited in online education.Finally, education is not just about subject knowledge but also about developing social skills and sportsmanship among the students, which is built over years. Relying solely on online education may hinder the holistic development of children, and many may underperform later in their professional and personal lives.
While India enjoys a wide geographic and cultural diversity, it also suffers from a huge socio-economic divide. Only a small part of the Indian population has access to online education right now. Interrupted power supply, weak or non-existent internet connectivity, and unaffordability to buy necessary devices are major concerns. “In a Class of 40 students, after two months of online classes, around 20 students regularly attend class with whatever device and connection they have. Around 5 – 8 students are completely absent till date and rest are fluctuating”, says a school teacher in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. A teacher in a government-aided school from the small town of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh says, “It is a frustrating experience to engage students of lower classes in online mode. There are network issues on both teachers’ and students’ ends”. To deal with internet connectivity and device availability issues, ‘classes’ in many places are happening via sharing of videos by teachers over WhatsApp or YouTube, so that students can watch them at their convenience. This too, however, comes with difficulties in understanding the lessons and promotes rote learning. The same is true of pre-recorded sessions aired on the television (e.g., Swayam Prabha DTH channels) and radio (audio lessons, through All India Radio), although they do cater to a wider student population that cannot avail live online classes.