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Online Education: How real are the fears and the hopes

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Rakesh Kumar Pandey
Rakesh Kumar Pandey
Professor in Physics at Kirori Mal College. Teaching in a DU college since 1989. Academic Council member in Delhi University from 1994 to 1998. Activist associated with NDTF activities in Delhi University. Former President of NDTF.

Advent of Online Era

Amid the recent continuing Corona crisis, dependence on Online mode of Education has increased manifold in a very short duration of time. This phenomenon has raised many hopes and concerns simultaneously among different segments of the Indian society. An impression has started spreading its ground again that teachers fear that increasing influence of online mode in education will result in loss of teaching jobs. Teachers organizations, in my opinion, have not helped in setting aside these fears as either they are unable to critically analyse the effect or they are themselves part of those who genuinely share the conceived threat of loss of teaching jobs. They normally base their arguments on the existing digital divide in the country that differentiates students on the basis of connectivity and affordability of high-end equipment that are required to access online education.

Such arguments do expose the inadequate infrastructure that would eventually deny education to a large disadvantaged section of our society but are counterproductive. I consider such arguments to be weak as these arguments passively admit that once the infrastructure is made available, online education may make the services of teachers an avoidable luxury. Unfortunately, the policy makers in the education sector have shown immature optimism towards the conceived effectiveness and outcome of Online Education because they have been fed with the one-sided story of optimism by a bunch of self-serving strategists who are bureaucrats but consider themselves as educationists.

Let me start with a statement that Online mode of education is here to stay with us and for our own good, but thinking that this will help us in effectively serving a larger section of education seekers with lesser number of teachers is completely flawed understanding. Those who think that future would require a reduced strength of teachers is living in a completely unrealistic world and are set for a setback in due course of time. And I am sure that I have placed enough arguments below to carry my point home.

Past Experiences

Just imagine what would have had been teachers feeling when the oral tradition of teaching was probably getting shifted to written tradition of teaching in our country. Ancient India used oral tradition of teaching where teachers relied less on written materials and use to utilize their understanding of memorized ancient texts for teaching their students. They must have feared then that they would not be required in future. Teachers must have feared again when libraries were being built up to keep a collection of rare books written on tree-leaves, as it would have allowed anyone to read those books without the help from teachers. Even further, I am sure people would have thought that the dependence on teachers would become less when book-printing technology had arrived in the world.

Teachers must have had been fearing those days that they would not be required in future as books would be available for a cost to all who would need them. Teachers of that era must have had felt threatened the same way as they are now feeling on witnessing an ever increasing influence of online education mode in the education sector. At all the above mentioned stages of evolution, teachers must have had undeniably felt similar threats. But did they come true? And don’t we have Google search engine that can provide all kinds of answers to the students on click of their fingers? Truth is that teachers still exist in classrooms today along with the books, pens, papers, help-books, photocopying machines and chalks and black/green/white boards. Even distance learning and concept of Open schools and Open Universities must have had invoked similar threats that are yet to come true.

Analysing features of online education

There are in fact, three distinct aspects of online education

  1. Online Lecturing/teaching
  2. Online Studying/learning
  3. Online availability of materials

Online Lecturing/teaching: If online teaching is considered merely as a one sided lecturing it would indeed reduce the requirement of teachers. This idea of one-sided lecture can be utilized to reach out to as large an audience as possible using TV and other social media platforms. But if the teacher is required to interact LIVE with the students and vice versa, the effective strength of students that a teacher can engage with would remain the same. No change in workload would be there as meaningful interaction can be ensured only for the same number of students present otherwise in the classrooms. The benefit however would be that teachers and students would be able to conveniently engage from home and would not require a specific classroom. Infrastructure will be less burdened and it will lead to less traffic on the roads and therefore less pollution and will also help in keeping the new requirement of physical distancing due to Corona crisis.

Online Studying/learning: The effectiveness of the online studying/learning from the students’ point of view will be critical because it would require students to be highly self motivated. It would be entirely the responsibility of students to keep themselves alert, attentive and alive during the lecture. Further, if the lecture will be available to them at a press of their buttons again, there would be no exclusivity that is generally required to make a person attentive and alert. Students will have the confidence that they are not going to miss it because it will be available on the net too for viewing later. The peer pressure will also be absent. The feeling of being left behind others and therefore work hard to cover the lectures will not work as a compulsive factor as it does in a classroom environment. Students will be at the most disadvantageous position unless the teachers are asked to contact each one of their students to assess their progress and take personal care of them. This again will increase the involvement and requirement of teachers.

Online availability of materials: However it is the third aspect that has generated a flawed expectation among the policy makers and the bureaucrats working in the education sector. It is stupidly concluded by them that once a digitally interactive course will be developed and uploaded on the internet, teachers will not be required to run the courses. Their conviction is based on those interactive lectures that require the students to keep submitting regular assignments and are checked by the online software. This has generated a false hope in them that the future would see a reduction in the strength of teachers because availability can hardly ensure usability.

The reality

UK did a study on the performance of their MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) in around 2015. Despite the fact that they did not have the issue of connectivity and other infrastructural unavailability they found out that hardly 5 to 15 percent of those register for their well-developed interactive online courses complete them. This completion percentage was hopelessly low to establish any effectiveness of these promising courses. They then analysed it further and consequently adopted the following strategies to raise this figure successfully to 85% last year.

  1. They made the students to pay a huge amount at the time of registration so that not only the non-serious students are discouraged from joining but the serious ones get trapped under their commitment.
  2. They encouraged the students to join in groups so that they are able to consult and discuss the subject among themselves. Further this also helped in generating peer pressure required to drive some of the students to cover up their studies when they started lagging behind.
  3. Teachers were asked to respond to each assignment submitted by the students in as much detail as possible so that they get a feeling that they are being seen and are being personally taken care of. This was required to inspire and drive the students to learn with greater intensity and interest.

We may notice, the first step taken by them was to reduce the number of registration drastically. This helped in improving the percentage by reducing the denominator. The second two factors were attempts to improve the numerator and were targeted by involving the teacher more than what is normally required in a classroom teaching.

Self motivated students are generally matured students falling in the age of 25 to 35. These are the students that are generally not given the due attention in India as we normally discourage students from shifting their background that gets attached to them during primitive years of their education. There is no way that a commerce graduate can think of pursuing a medical degree despite the desired urge realized at a mature stage. In fact, this segment is witnessed to be the most serious section of students, mature enough and willing to pay to learn new skills, new ideas and new techniques.

In the age less than 20, hardly 10 percent of the students are able to realize their interest, potential and motivation. This is unfortunately also the time when their paying capacity gets determined by their parents and factors other than their own passion and interest. And so, online courses for the age of students, lying between 5 to 20 years, is destined to meet a disappointing 5 to 10 percent of completion rate. If the policy makers want to derive a satisfaction in the fact that they have made ‘education AVAILABLE for all’, then they may feel satisfied but in terms of reach, it is bound to compromise enormously on the OPEN and MASSIVE features of such attempts This will in effect defeat the very purpose of these courses meant to target this particular age group.

The education will boast of achieving 100 percent Gross Enrollment Ratio but sadly with less than 10 percent ‘useful’ completion rate. The National Education Policy that has envisaged of attaining a challenging Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) of 100% in schools and 50% in Higher Education would not of any worth due to hopeless completion rates. This will be either remain far less than the target or it will be ‘covered up’ by distributing degrees to non deserving students in the manner the Distance Education in India has been functioning. Distance Education through Open Schools and Open Universities are known to be producing degree holders with much less abilities and confidence as compared to the students of regular courses. This happens also because students of regular courses gain confidence and personality in the team work when they indulge into several group and organisational activities embedded into their school/college life. Such an opportunity is unfortunately missing in the curriculum based narrow attitude of all Distance Learning Programs.

The Future: hopes and promises

Make no mistakes as technologies would only help teachers in working more efficiently for the same set of students because the expectation from the teachers by the students will grow exponentially with the use of online modes. Teachers would be required to address to their individual problems and concerns as compared to what it used to be during the existing pre-online mode of education. The students may come up with problems and solutions both and would ask the teachers to explain the same in detail giving them individual attention. Teachers will have to respond to the queries of students even after the classes get over. Teachers will have to use new skills to help students learn with them. Teaching students to keep learning throughout their life is a new aspect of teaching that has emerge recently with very fast developments in the area of learning. To prepare their students for this challenge teachers might have to suggest their students an online course and see to it that they are able to complete them by almost learning and studying with them. The old idea of looking up to the teachers for ready answers will end and a new idea of asking help from teachers in understanding the online materials would become the new way of study. Conferences, public addresses, small meetings, teachers training programs and learning skills for career advancements are destined to shift to online modes because these are meant for matured and self motivated section of the society.

Recently it has been reported that Finland has sought to revolutionize the concept of teaching in this era of online mode of education. They have conceptualized ‘phenomena driven learning’ for the students. Teachers will be required to help their students in finding ways to deal with their understanding about different phenomenon that they observe in their real life. The era of tutoring, wherein a teacher was required to make the students understand the problems and then was also asked to provide their answers, may be over in due course of time.

Now teachers will be required to ask the students about their problems and then help them in finding their answers. Teachers would be required to provide more personalized attention and hence would be required more in numbers. Roles of teachers will change not their requirement. Teachers must get equipped with the online modes of teaching along with the existing teaching techniques to help their students in addressing their individual concerns. Role of teachers will be widened now and their requirement is set to increase like never before.

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Rakesh Kumar Pandey
Rakesh Kumar Pandey
Professor in Physics at Kirori Mal College. Teaching in a DU college since 1989. Academic Council member in Delhi University from 1994 to 1998. Activist associated with NDTF activities in Delhi University. Former President of NDTF.
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