By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
Within a span of a few weeks, Covid-19 has catapulted lives across the globe. With many nations under lockdown, educators and students have quickly transited to remote learning. Of course, this is possible only if students and educators have access to laptops or tablets and Wi-fi connections at home. Though a sizable proportion in our country cannot engage in remote learning, the pandemic, even after it abates, may usher in a new era in online education.
First, educators who were reluctant and sceptical of the effectiveness of online education, now realize that it is possible, at least in certain situations with caveats attached. Given that millions of students, from Kindergarten to graduate-level courses, have shifted to digital learning in a very short span of time, and under great duress, this model does indeed have potential to transform education. From music to art to special education to physical training, a number of classes have made this shift.
While it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of online versus classroom learning, this unplanned experiment with electronic education reveals a number of insights regarding teaching and learning that can have longer-term implications. Foremost, it shows that teachers can be very adaptable and creative when provided with the right incentives. During this humanitarian crisis, teachers are stretching themselves so that their students have continuity in learning. Before the pandemic hit, if any school or college had suggested that teachers move to online education within a week, educators would have balked at the idea.
But now teachers have proven to themselves that online learning is not only possible but has immense potential that is yet to be tapped. For students who cannot be present physically in a school or college, the online medium is definitely an option. While this alternative existed even before the virus upended our world, a much larger percentage of teachers and students are now more accepting of trying this mode of learning. And a change in pedagogy can be brought about only when there is a willingness to embrace it.
Further, certain features of online education, if used correctly, can make learning more robust. In an article published in Physical Review, Physics Education Research in January 2020, Greg Kestin, a preceptor of Physics at Harvard University along with his colleagues in Chemistry and Engineering Departments, argue that online videos were as, or sometimes more, effective than live demos in illustrating scientific concepts to students. The authors observe that students in STEM classes usually report that the live demos are the "highlights of the classes."
However, sometimes showing a video is more practical, coherent and convenient than lugging heavy and expensive equipment into lecture halls. Often, in large classes, students may have difficulty seeing a demo if they are sitting further behind and may focus on irrelevant aspects of an experiment. Unlike a video, which can be projected on a large screen and replayed at no cost, repeating a demo to clarify students' misunderstanding is not always feasible. Additionally, in a video, the professor can channelize students' attention and promote understanding by using multimedia tools, like pointing with a cursor, providing audio or textual commentary, using animation and slow-motion. Demos also require more personnel for maintenance and can sometimes fail, much to the chagrin of the professor.
Online learning also lends itself more easily to the "flipped classroom" model popularized by Salman Khan of the Khan Academy. Instead of wasting limited and precious classroom time on learning content, students watch videos and read textbooks at home. Time in class, under the teacher's guidance, is spent solving problems. This model is in stark contrast to how schools traditionally approach learning wherein children are introduced to content in class and are given problems for homework.
Another benefit of online education is that good teachers can reach more students. While data still needs to be collected, it is worth considering whether an exceptional teacher online may be more engaging and motivating than face-to-face interactions with a substandard one. I am by no means suggesting that online education should replace in-person instruction. But it can definitely supplement classroom teaching and fill in lacunae in our current system, like teacher absenteeism, paucity of good teachers, lack of infrastructure (e.g., laboratories) and inability of some students to access high-quality schools and colleges. Further, governments and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs may consider providing students from disadvantaged homes with tablets and Wi-fi connectivity.
Good teaching should always be the heart of education. Though online instruction has many pluses, it also has drawbacks. Keeping students engaged online can be more exacting than getting them to focus in class. Additionally, inspiring teaching involves striking rapport with students and connecting with them in deep and personal ways. While this poses a challenge even in physical classrooms, it is much more arduous, but not impossible, during online sessions.
The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author's own.