The Coronavirus Pandemic has caused amazing shifts in our style of living: social distancing, “Touch me not” advises and ultimately lockdowns. Perhaps, the worst effected segment of our life by the Pandemic is education: schools, colleges and universities are closed by the governments across the States in their anxiety to cut the virus spread, children are caged in the houses with no scope to play even, students in some States were promoted to the next level with no exams, while University examinations all over the country are postponed indefinitely.
Of this segment, again it is the school children who are the worst affected. Millions of them have lost their lifeline: midday meals. Over it, children from low-income groups with no stable home have to attend to the family chores, look after the elders or siblings, etc. No wonder if they are forced into child labour even. Over it, if there is domestic violence coupled with parental substance abuse or a mental disorder, the risk of child abuse goes up. There are thus serious health consequences, both mental and physical, to keeping schools closed for long. All this simply complicates the calculus of reopening schools. And the unfortunate truth is there is no easy answer to this growing tragedy.
Over it, shifting teaching to online for the school children during the lockdown. This is almost certainly worsening the educational inequality. It is so obvious that families from low income sections of the society lack a computer and broadband internet access at home. Many of these families live in small spaces that hardly can afford them a space to sit with computer and stay focused on the school transmission/lesson. Nor do parents have ability to help students with their school work. Thus, the practical, technical and emotional challenges faced by these children are many and they are acute too.
Here, it is very pertinent to remember the fact that education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability. And if that is what we believe in, there is much else to be done in terms improving digital infrastructure and its accessibility for the population at the large before shifting to online teaching, particularly at the school level.
Turning our attention to the very online classes, it appears that there is an assumption underlying the introduction of on line classes about teachers’ ability to implement remote learning. But research indicates that the present crop of teachers having had very little or no learning experiences online, might “lack models for planning online learning experiences” for their students. Hence, according to Volkan Yuzer and Eby Gulsun (2014), this very newness of the online learning landscape poses a challenge to teachers. Whereas, like any other good teaching practice, online instructional planning too must focus on student learning and this, education technologists say, calls for special effort from teachers backed by sound research.
Online teaching moves away from top-down lecturing to passive students to a more interactive, collaborative approach whereby students and teacher co-create the learning process. Distance learning calls for such student-cantered approach where under, students actively construct new knowledge as they interact with the teacher as also among themselves. As Jean Piaget, the Swiss philosopher said, teachers as facilitators must help students develop their own understanding of the content.
Such an approach towards teaching obviously, compels teachers to question themselves: What kind of personal interactions students need with their peers and teachers? Do I have the necessary wherewithal to teach the prescribed content in a creative and authentic way? What level of freedom should I grant students to learn interactively in a democratic online classroom? Do I have the competency to host the lesson in the virtual environment of LMS? What kind of preparation do I need to make for teaching online? How to invite feedback from the students and test their understanding of the lesson? Being first-timer, can I foresee what a creative and effective online course look-like?
It is through such self-introspection and acquiring right answers thereof alone, online teachers can plan for and teach in such a way that it ultimately empowers and engages learners actively, which in turn enable them to work individually, cooperatively and collaboratively towards acquisition of knowledge. And if the online teachers are to create such a compelling and powerful instructional-learning environment that effectively caters to the needs and interests of students they must first be aware of research-driven frameworks and standards which they can practice while handling the technology.
So, in order to make all this happen, teachers must first be trained in the conceptual frameworks of designing, facilitating, and directing an online course. Such training should include imparting technological pedagogical content knowledge and knowledge of substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition models. They must also be trained in how to meaningfully engage students in an online class and support the learning needs of diverse student population.
True, what is now possible in the virtual world with the kind of technological advancement that we are witnessing today would not have been possible even a few years ago. But to leverage on this what is called for is: steadfast commitment from the teaching community to make online teaching effective. This simply means tremendous hard work from the deliverers of learning. For, they have to consciously move away from their today’s style of teaching a style dominated by delivering content-driven packages in a locked-in atmosphere to participatory knowledge-building style. Would they? The answer is anybody’s guess!
Nevertheless, the COVID-19 induced prospect of hundreds of schools, their teachers and students venturing into cyberspace for the first time having gone up tremendously, one wonders if schools and their faculty jump into the bandwagon without proper training to translate their teaching expertise into a different learning modality, a very different outcome seems as likely. And it may not be in anybody’s interest!