It just isn’t the same thing
Let’s just say it, for all that online education can provide and all the resources it can open up for students and learning, it just isn’t the same as face-to-face education and we need to focus more on when schools can open urgently or risk students missing out on a-lot more than just time.
The pandemic has brought the internet front and centre in many many more lives than before. These days we are doing everything from viewing to shopping virtually and ordering even the most mundane things via our mobile phones. The gradual opening up of the country in many areas has not stopped these as the convenience that online transactions provides is just something that having to get up, get in a car, walk through a shop, maybe find the right amount of cash and then repeat the return trip home, will never ever be able to rival. People have formed strong habits and these habits are addictive. Returning to shops, unless absolutely necessary, is just not something people need to do anymore. They may want to once in a while but the necessity is long gone.
The same was touted about education. Since the lockdown began, the shift from offline to online teaching was swift and widely embraced though differently adopted in many places. The virtual classroom was now a Zoom call or a Google Meet link that put teachers and the class of students in the same chat to get instruction in science, maths, English, History or any of the subjects you can think of. Educators and institutions quickly flipped over to the online space as the need grew to keep students learning as the realisation dawned that this pandemic was not going to go away as the summer related and the colder weather arrived. Across the country, online education was lauded as a significant replacement for all students and all subjects.
Until it wasn’t.
The reality is that students experience of learning is more than just what is being taught. There are many other factors to it. Who is teaching, how it is being taught, where and why. These are all huge facets that determine student learning. The online medium is a great repository. A great resource centre and I would say its also a great place to interact with a limited group of students and mentor, guide, discuss, etc. I myself have found one-on-one discussions with my research mentees, working their way through their final dissertation, extremely fulfilling as students, who are obviously keen, come prepared and ready for a robust conversation. My experience in larger groups though, has been less inspiring.
Perhaps the reason is that the subjects that I teach and indeed those taught at my institute are extremely hands-on in nature. This is one of the key challenges of online learning. How can you effectively teach things like Fashion, Design, Film or even Chemistry, Engineering and others without the necessary equipment and laboratories which necessitate learning in these areas? Yes technology has increased so that a lot can be done at home but it cannot all be replicated. Also what of the human input in terms of showing and demonstrating? That too is a method and how we learn so much from. The online environment doesn’t easily allow this form or learning unless there is a considerable set-up in place for the input to be given. Most teachers will struggle with this from their simple W-F-H set ups.
This is not to say there is a lack of effort. Far from it. In India at least, most teachers have done brilliantly well to try to engage students during a difficult time over a medium that they are still grappling with. Teachers have learnt and got better with time (I believe I certainly have) and are now beginning to use all aspects of the technology to better their instruction and engage their classes. However the fact that you are only able to see certain faces (large groups of students will have cameras off and most will have sound off), it is impossible to pick up visual cues the way you would in a classroom where you can see how the engagement levels and understanding levels are and course correct if need be. I am not even blaming students. They are having a really hard time with the situation, especially older students as fear of the future and isolation from their friends and peers begins to hit home in earnest. I felt this after a few months of online teaching. Students found it hard to engage as they were, even though connected, still sitting in a room all alone. It was the same for many faculty, who could not quite get the same vibe and therefore felt intimidated, lonely and alone from the experience.
Then there is the difficulty with the technology itself. Internet is not equal. Devices are not equal. A student sitting in Mumbai would have much more access to stable internet than a kid in a remote village or town. In schools, asking every student to have access to data or a personal device in a country like India is a pipe-dream even in 2020 and this means that throughout the last 9 months, many students have gone with intermittent and broken learning. Some in key classes of their education. Until government’s, institutions and families can provide a level playing field in the access to devices and technology, there will always be a huge discrepancy in learning, not just school to school but student to student and that is a huge issue.
Of course there was no other solution. COVID-19 caught the whole world on the hope and unprepared. The move to online education for students was the logical solution even if it was uneven and fraught with difficulty. However, I feel a reasonable job has been done. Of course this has depending from institution to institution and from student to student but many students have done well with this learning and thrived whilst many others have felt disconnected and deprived. Hybrid education will soon become the norm as schools and colleges limp back to the campuses for critical learning which cannot be replicated at home while still doing large theory oriented learning over Zoom, Meet or Teams. The worry is that so far this has been a place the government has been too keen to ignore by keeping schools closed and assuming online is doing the job. It isn’t and the longer this continues, the more students will suffer having learnt less and in a more isolated way.
The pandemic is still with us so I am not advocating a rushed return to schooling and education as before but surely, if permission can be granted for Water Parks and Amusement Parks to open, then SOP’s can be framed, checked and monitored to allow our kids to return to their largest social learning environment in a COVID protocol following way.