Corona Times: Is Online Learning the New Normal?
As a dreaded virus spreads its tentacles across the world, it is imperative to share experiences and learnings for benefit of different communities. In this Odisha Bytes special series titled Corona Notes, we would publish articles by people residing in different countries and continents on how they are coping with the COVID challenge.
In the COVID-19 lockdown scenario, parents of urban school-going children are anxious over the uncertainty that looms over reopening of educational institutions. The chief concern lies in the eventuality of different dates for resumption of work in offices and other work-related institutions, and resumption of regular school. All indicators point to a much later reopening of schools, with a time lag of a few months at least between the two. In such a situation, if both parents go back to work after lockdown is lifted, the children are left at home for an extended period of time over and above summer vacations without parental supervision and guidance. With schools pursuing online classes in all earnestness, the absence of parents could be the spoiler for smooth transmission of e-lessons.
Can online learning be the ‘new normal’ for school-going children and teachers? My answer would be a definitive no. At best, it’s a temporary filler to tide over this period of flux and uncertainty, and any similar circumstances that may arise in future. With the COVID-19 pandemic having come upon the world with absolutely no time for any kind of preparedness, we have to make do with short-term solutions on all fronts in order to tide over this period of compulsory closure.
At the very core of education lies human touch. A school or an educational institution is much much more than a device that imparts knowledge. The process of education begins with the formation of a human bond between teachers and children, a bond akin to an umbilical cord, which I call, the ‘alumnus cord’, a bond that cannot undergo severance. Even after the child completes formal education, this bond with teachers and institution remains unbroken through the wisdom, experiences and memories garnered during the schooling process.
The classroom environment is where children are introduced to their first experiences of socialization, relationships and collaboration, skills of independence, coping and problem-solving, as well as, values of discipline, empathy and tolerance. We have our roots in the ancient gurukul system where education was ‘holistic’ in the purest sense. While parents co-created children, it was the teachers or gurus who reared the children as their own from an impressionable age, moulding their characters, and, ingraining them with requisite values, skills, and knowledge to emerge as ‘holistic’ personalities, once the process of formal education was complete. This, obviously, required close human interfacing and spending quality time together for the teacher to understand the innate qualities of every child, and, then to nurture these qualities to the best extent. The same holds good even today in every institution that propounds ‘holistic’ learning with honesty.
‘Experiential Learning’ involves all five senses in order to be ‘holistic’ and, this is not feasible when lessons are being imparted through a machine. Therefore, the importance of the real classroom experience cannot be undermined, whatever might be the state of the world that we are living in.
The initial experimentation with recent online learning has also revealed the problem of online inequality. At least 30 per cent of urban homes with school-going children do not have adequate internet speed or a computer. A smartphone is certainly not the smartest way to receive lessons because of the disadvantage of restrictive screen size. Unless every home has a tablet, laptop or a PC, it will be very tough to simulate a democratic classroom experience. Parents are already complaining about patchy dissemination of content due to slow internet speed. Also showing up are moments of indiscipline amongst children of middle school and early high school classes who use any unsupervised moments to disturb their friends while a session is underway. Boredom in young children sets in after 20-25 minutes of being online due to lack of physical interactions between students and instructor. Smooth flowing discussions, debates and questions are also stymied due to incongruous on-screen coordination. Most importantly, learning outcomes cannot be sufficiently examined in digital classrooms. However this is a good time for schools to build on digital and online literacy for teachers, and, impress upon parents the need to equip the home with a system that meets the needs for remote learning in order to strengthen resources to deal with such situations efficiently in future.
So if not online, what could be the solution? Even after schools do reopen, social distancing, sanitization and masks would be the norm and necessity until the virus stops its return cycles. There aren’t many options really. Schools could ramp up infrastructure to accommodate social distancing norms inside classrooms, which is not an immediate solution. Another option is to divide students and teachers into shifts in order to reduce numbers and implement social distancing. But this option would entail a total revamping of schedules and also be a drain on resources like transport, day boarding etc. The only practical solution, therefore, is to bide time while conforming to lockdown discipline, and, pray for the early success of COVID-19 vaccine trials so that maximum numbers of children and adults can be immunized as soon as possible. Let the online classrooms being held currently, (and even if they are extended further), be the means to maintaining a continuum between pre-lockdown and post-lockdown real classrooms, as well as an attempt to bridge the emotional distance between students and mentors that may arise due to the extended closure of schools. But let the old normal be the only normal, for education would lose its essence without classrooms.