From black-boards to keyboards: Can online learning compensate for classroom learning?

9 months ago 52
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With the announcement of COVID-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11th March 2020, radical changes in all aspects of our lives have forced educational institutions across the globe to pin their hopes on technology-based remote learning. Social distancing and restrictive movement policies have markedly deranged traditional educational practices and the time course of these changes has so far been indeterminate. While many policymakers and social scientists see these changes as an opportunity to revolutionise the digital learning sector, it also has laid bare several glaring inequalities and loopholes in capabilities of Indian institutions to effectively and urgently adapt to this shift from black-boards to keyboards. Do developing countries like India have fundamental ecosystems to facilitate online teaching environments, and can this shift replace or compensate for the conventional physical-learning centric approach especially in higher education? And finally do the necessary administrative support and appropriate infrastructure exist to make such a shift?

In India, soon after the outbreak of the crisis the transition has been comparatively a smooth one for private educational institutions but their public counterparts still seem to be grappling and adapting. A countless number of examples of such assertion include India’s most prestigious Delhi University whose massive failure in carrying out effective mock online-based examinations recently speaks volumes about issues concerning accessibility, unstable internet bandwidth and connectivity, lack of adequate resources as well as a socio-cultural divide in India. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates a number of 320 million learners in India (among a total estimate of 1.26 billion children worldwide) who are experiencing a sudden halt or shift in their learning environment.

Accessing online classes | Source : The Indian Express

One of the key factors in this debate of online learning versus classroom learning is the digital divide that is still a harsh reality in the Indian context. On the one hand, we see that most faculty members are facing the challenges of lacking online teaching experience, early preparation, or support from educational technology teams while on the other end of this process, the learning gap between children from lower-income and higher-income families is quite common. In terms of higher education, a survey by IIT Kanpur revealed that 9.3 percent of its 2,789 students were not able to download material sent by the institute or study online. Only 34.1 percent of them had internet connection well enough for streaming real-time lectures. Another survey conducted by LocalCircles among 25,000 respondents found that only 57 percent of students had the required hardware — computer, router, and printer — at home to attend online classes. Lack of suitable study environment, abusive parents, precarious housing situations or familial settings such as in case of children of migrant labour, loss of academic achievement among children of low-income families due to long holidays as suggested by studies and inability of parents/guardians to bridge in the physical gap left by a teacher in “digitally-poor families” are further contributing to the unreliable status of online learning in our country. 

Furthermore, in traditional in-class teaching, body language, facial expressions, and teachers’ voice are all important teaching tools. However, once the teaching and studying are switched to an online mode, body language and facial expressions are under restrictions as it is difficult to use these tools through screens, and only “voice” could be fully functioned which can readily hamper the grasping power of the student often leading to anxiety and irritation due to increased exposure to mobile/computer screens. 

The pandemic in all likelihood is supposed to result in economic recession with consequences like food insecurity and unemployment taking up even worse forms. Under such conditions, children can potentially fall prey to malnutrition, school dropouts, child marriages and even forced to join child labour post-pandemic. Thus, even if institutions brace themselves to enforce this shift, it is quite uncertain the environment surrounding these children will permit them to get ready for a mode of learning that requires collaborative efforts of school, parents and home financially, psychologically and socially. Moreover, as online classes become a norm, there would be a higher reliance on solutions provided by ed-tech companies which would ultimately turn the initially free online learning tools into paid ones leaving an irreparable affordability gap among various sections of society. 

Additionally, when compared with traditional in-class lectures, faculty have less control over online teaching and students are more likely to “skip the class”. The depth of the peer-to-peer learning process via group discussions, class presentations etc. are also being undermined or overlooked in this mode of teaching-learning. While online platforms like zoom, google meet etc. provide the features of breakout groups, screen sharing, etc. enabling teachers to provide an almost classroom like environment, it still cannot be denied that decreased face-to-face interactions among students leads to underconfidence in the spheres of public speaking or voicing their opinions.

To put it in a nutshell, while digital forms of learning have the potential to enable students to pursue independent learning, conventional classroom learning should not be fully considered as a thing of the past. Online learning needs to be taken as one strand in a large complex learning environment and its potential can be fully achieved when placed against the backdrop of strong infrastructure and innovative institutions in the field of engagement and learning such as committing to providing broadband access and suitable devices to all, setting up a democratized, human-centric ed-tech platforms, and so on.


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