Digitalization of the Educational Landscape in India: Responses to “Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic”

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Introduction by Latika Gupta and Chaise LaDousa:

For Shuddhashar FreeVoice’s Education issue, published May 2022, Latika Gupta and Chaise LaDousa described their conversation in which they identified and discussed some of the issues that have been confronting educators in India since the onset of the pandemic. One of its consequences for teachers was a complete shift to the digital at all levels of education from nursery to Ph.D. course work. The conversation brought out a complex set of observations and experiences on how young people enrolled in teacher education and master in education programmes dealt with the shift. The shift was conceptualised and implemented in a jiffy with a combat-like approach. Here is a problem and here is the solution. The solution lacked a post-pandemic vision for the students and their learning. There was no attempt to ponder or even engage in basic curiosity about what is possible when we responded solely with meeting and social networking apps. As John Dewey wrote, “After we have reached the conclusion, a reconsideration of the steps of the process to see what is helpful, what is harmful, what is merely useless, will assist in dealing more promptly and efficaciously with analogous problems in the future” (Dewey 1910: 113). A significant dimension of learning is going through the process of learning.

The “online education” had no space for what Postman (1985) described as instruments of reasoned discourse, namely, enduring a perplexed state of mind, hypotheses, argument, discussion, reasons and refutation, among several more. In the absence of these, educational experience becomes banal and insipid. A teacher could not demand or create opportunities for any instruments of reasoned discourse in the online classes purely because of the mechanics involved. The simplest possible argument or hypothesis also demanded an exchange of several ideas for which the teacher and the taught need to take turns to speak in a logical flow. In online classes, the mere act of pressing the mike on and off to keep the unnecessary noise away made this sharing tedious and discouraged the students. A sustained dialogue was impossible to hold as it required people to constantly switch the mike on and off, whereas others couldn’t participate because their spontaneous ideas had to be subjected to a mike-on-and-off ritual after waiting for their turn. Soon, people began to lose interest and start paying attention to what was compelling in their immediate surroundings rather than on the screen of their mobile or computer.

A lot needs to be studied, with an anthropological frame, about what we did in the name of education by resorting to digital. Its details need to be uncovered. The conversation between Gupta and LaDousa was a modest beginning in this direction. It triggered responses from school teachers who had their distinct challenges and frustrations. Three responses by Indian school teachers are presented here. They all teach different subjects at the high and senior secondary level. Their descriptions take us a little deeper into what the teachers did in the last two years.

Uniyal’s narrative brings out the portrait of a teacher as a data keeper rather than as an educator. She had to master the complicated process of entering the details of students’ IDs and numbers on various apps. All that hard work resulted in almost nothing and left her feeling helpless as her students entertained themselves rather than attend to educational tasks on the same apps. Gupta describes the tendencies that emerged among her senior secondary level students, ranging from mindless copying from a random website to having a general lack of interest in school. The digital became a means of caging the teacher rather than an apparatus of learning. Singh has recounted her frustrations that the students completely lost the desire to select an appropriate text and read it. They largely developed a pattern of being thrilled about real or fake images rather than diving deeply into an idea or thought.

 

First reflection by Sakshi Uniyal:

Latika Gupta and Chaise LaDousa bring many critical issues to our attention through their reflections on the impact of the shift to purely digital classrooms during the covid pandemic. While studies have been conducted on how the pandemic impacted student learning, the issues faced by teachers, in my opinion, have neither received the attention nor the reflection they deserve. As a secondary level science teacher working in a government school during the pandemic, I could almost feel the frustration while reading Gupta’s reflection on the suddenness and unpreparedness with which online teaching was imposed upon teachers. I consciously use the word impose to underline how teachers were never involved in the decision, and yet were expected to rise to the occasion and become pure-bred technophiles within a matter of days.

The reflections presented by Latika Gupta highlighting the obstructions she faced towards creating an effective teaching learning experience in online classrooms was very relatable and took me back to the time when I myself was going through a similar chaos. In my case, the first Herculean task that I had to undertake was to collect WhatsApp numbers of ALL students I was teaching – I was at that time given 5 sections with about 50 students in each section. I was not only expected to collect – but to save – 250-odd numbers to my contact list. This was to be followed by the creation of WhatsApp groups specific to each subject for each section. As a class teacher, I was also expected to be a part of all subject-specific groups for my class. Then there were several smaller groups created for miscellaneous purposes – one for PISA, one for NAS, one for science exhibition, one for science congress, and so on. I woke up every day with the notification of being added to yet another WhatsApp group. It was normal for me to have anywhere between 100-300 unread messages at any point during those days. It became a source of great anxiety to go through that many messages every day and reply to as many as possible or check the work the students had sent. In fact, it became the major task that I was engaged in throughout the day.

Finally, after the summer vacation, we were allotted Google suite IDs by the school. All the work we’d done in creating the WhatsApp groups had been rendered moot – we now had to first distribute google suite IDs to all students, then call them 3-4 times every day to ensure they had activated it. Once every student had activated their IDs, we again created subject-specific classrooms and did another round of everyday calling to ensure all 250 students had joined the classroom. Moreover, it wasn’t easy for grade 6 or even 8 children to figure out the technicalities of Google classroom. In fact, I myself had to watch multiple YouTube tutorials to solve the many errors they were encountering. As a teacher, the entirety of my energy was devoted to ensuring every student’s presence in the Google classroom as it was an administrative mandate with the clear instruction that teachers were to be held “personally accountable” for any lapses. It seemed that during the pandemic, teachers were held personally accountable for a lot of things, many of which were entirely out of their hands!

Once the Google Classrooms were in place, we shifted to Google Meet for our daily classes. That brought with it a fresh set of complications, most of which have been highlighted rather starkly by Latika Gupta. It took students a couple of weeks to understand how Google Meet works and what the expectations from them were. However, it also quickly dawned on them that it was too easy to turn off their mics as well as cameras and shift the blame to the “poor network connection.” I spent hours each day planning and preparing the lessons, but when I asked even a very basic question, no student would turn on their mic even if their name was called. While earlier I could go up to the child and simply interact with them, here it became impossible to breach the digital barrier. Some students joined the class initially, but left within 5-10 minutes. Still others never joined, and I was expected to personally call them up and counsel them regarding it. How I was to counsel a student when I could see them update TikTok videos to their WhatsApp status while the class was going on is something I have still not been able to figure out. This attitude made me think whether the “casual” disposition observed by Latika Gupta in her students is not just her personal experience, but slowly becoming a norm in our schools as well as universities.

Gupta’s point about students’ reluctance to read or write also seems to point to a larger problem that has been building up for quite some time now and has got exacerbated by the pandemic. Since exams were also held online, I could see students had simply copy and pasted either from Google, or from the textbook. I do not mean to imply that students were actively engaging in writing before the pandemic. In fact, most of the students I was involved with limited their writing only to the chapter-end exercises given in their textbook. They never showed interest in the crucial skill of note-taking and summarising. I do feel, however, that a shift to online modes of teaching and learning has legitimised their disinterest. For the simple reason that all material is available in a soft copy, students do not feel the need to read texts or develop writing skills beyond writing specified question answers. This was visible even when students came back to school for physical classes. They expected me to upload relevant material in Google Classroom instead of taking down notes in the class. I also observed that students’ attention spans were lower than ever, and engaging with any idea for longer than a few minutes was extremely challenging for them.

Another dimension of challenges teachers faced was the usage of sexually explicit and abusive language by students during online classes. Since the students were careful enough to hide their true identity, no one was ever held accountable, but teachers all over the country went through severe mental trauma. I myself witnessed the same during a class and my first reaction was to simply freeze due to shock. Later I did wonder if technology has permeated our psyche deep enough to impact the values that we hold important as a society.

As is evident, the major emotions I felt throughout the duration of online classes was frustration and helplessness. So caught up was I in the entry of different kinds of data that I had no energy left for planning and preparing for my lessons. As someone who entered the Department of Education with great zeal and enthusiasm, I shudder to think if I felt lack of motivation in a matter of 4-5 years, what would be the plight of those who entered the profession reluctantly taking it, as Latika Gupta calls it, “the last option.” More disturbingly, if the number of such teachers is indeed higher than the ones who are truly excited about teaching, is it really surprising that less than 5% of all students enrolled in our schools in grade 5 could barely read at a grade 2 level (ASER reading level data 2018)?

The challenges faced by under-prepared and over-worked teachers during the pandemic definitely merit deeper concern and analysis, something that Gupta and LaDousa surely succeed in making the reader realise. Narratives such as the one presented by Gupta in the interview would help deepen and enrich our understanding of how the pandemic reshaped the idea of teaching and learning. Even then, the impact that a shift to digital modes of learning, however temporary, has had on the larger ethos of the school as well as the value system of learners is yet to unfold in its full form.

 

Second Reflection by Deepika Gupta:

While the sudden school closure was challenging for most, a few “visionary” and “progressive” schools took pride in successfully moving to the digital learning platform within a week. This feat has been celebrated and hailed as a momentous achievement for schools as it ensured “continued” learning for the students. What has been ignored, however, is the multitude of hardships faced by the students and teachers during the pandemic along with the significant break that this “continued” digital education represented. Students, initially engaged with their online classes, began losing interest as they could manage to score good marks in online exams. Summative assessment in the Indian school system encourages plagiarism and rote learning wherein students have no incentive to seriously engage with knowledge or think in different directions. The students, thus, used copying from textbooks as a strategy to perform well in the pen-and-paper tests. In senior classes, the MCQ format of assessment further minimised the need to be creative as students could now simply type into the Google search box to find answers to all their problems. As students got used to staying at home and to the ease with which they could score well and be promoted, classes seemed futile and irrelevant. They had textbooks at their disposal and YouTube was the new teacher who could be asked for help in the case of doubt. Due to this, out of a strength of 40, only 5 of them would be engaged in class with their cameras turned on and responding to questions. The rest would remain disappeared, albeit appearing in the attendance sheet as present. Moreover, to account for the possibility of network problems, students who attended classes for a minimum of 20 minutes out of 40 were to be marked present.

What are these children learning in class? Are they able to make connections between different concepts? How does the teacher ensure individual attention and learning? These questions highlight the challenges inherent in the online system of education.

Moreover, as the pandemic situation improved, the school shifted to a hybrid model of learning which represents the worst mode of educational interaction. Parents who were happy to take their children for vacations or send them to playgrounds were hesitant to send their children to school. Students would choose to join classes online for reasons as bizarre as not being able to wake up in the morning. With 10 students sitting in front of the teacher and 30 sleepily sitting at home, with their cameras turned off, probably playing video games on another tab, the teacher was constantly juggling between the two groups, unable to pay proper attention to either. The pressures on a teacher, too, were multi-fold. In the corporate-like environment at school, teachers faced numerous class observations wherein the number of students attending the class and number of cameras turned on formed the bases to evaluate the teacher. A higher number of cameras turned on meant that the class was interesting. As the individual class attendance was marked, teachers could feel a sense of competitiveness when the number of students in their class was less than in their colleagues’. A feeling of inadequacy and anxiety crept in as the school authorities did not hesitate to point out that the reason for student absenteeism is the non-engaging class of the teacher. One would hope that the troubles were over with the reopening of schools, but the aftereffects have just started to be felt. As the schools have reopened after a long span of two years of syllabus deletion and open-book examinations, the students struggle to remain attentive during the 40-minute class or study on their own. The senior-most students have lost the habit of writing. Over the years, the ability to form basic sentences and to follow the fundamental rule to use upper case for writing proper nouns is missing. The teacher-student relationship has been further eroded by technology and YouTube as students now prefer watching videos over attending classes regularly, reading, and making notes. They are unable to make any sense of the text by themselves and depend on ready-made notes to be memorized the night before the examination. Referring to the dictionary is also a thing of the past as students try to memorize the key words and frame sentences around them. Despite this learning gap during the pandemic, capitalised aims in education are pressurising the teachers to produce results. Amidst this, absenteeism remains a problem. “One missing student can spoil the mean result of a teacher” is what the authorities profess. Instead of focusing on individualized learning and socio-emotional rebuilding for students, teachers of “progressive schools” are being pushed towards producing the “perfect Board results.” With students rigorously underlining answers in the textbook, copying them into the notebook, and losing marks for expressing anything different from what’s given in the textbook, and teachers being restricted to teaching the text, rushing through the syllabus due to time-constraints and repeatedly revising to internalize the content, the creativity of both students and teachers is bound to perish further post-pandemic.

 

Third Reflection by Honey Sing:

In the first year of our B.Ed. programme, a two year teacher education program offered at Indian universities in order to become a professional school teacher, we study Plato’s allegory of the cave. It is imperative to explore this metaphor further to understand the complexities of the post-COVID digital paradox. The digital world of COVID propelled students to revel in the mere images of the truth, and complete disassociation with reality in online classrooms has further supported this confinement.

The availability of PDFs and scanned copies further diminished the importance of the text in the classroom. The preview of the text plays a vital role in establishing its authority in the classroom. The book cover creates a sense of anticipation in the reader’s mind, and the medium affects the interpretation. It determines whether ideas are worth exploring or not, which further shapes the attitude of the learners towards the text.

The grammar of the textbook or any physical reading material is to coerce learners to decide what is worth looking at and observing. The art of interpreting poetry or prose is akin to “walking inside the room and feeling the walls for a light switch.” However, the availability of short summaries and answers of all chapters online was detrimental to the learner’s ability to engage with a text critically. Asking questions from students served no purpose, as they would read simply from different websites or scan questions for answers. The sense of ownership created by the reader’s understanding of the text was absent in this process.

Independent reading skills are highly underdeveloped in India, with most students relating this to only that dreadful reading comprehension question that comes once a year in exams. The process of reading is also about phonemic awareness and the interplay of words, sounds and meanings. The assessment of reading was nearly impossible in an online classroom. Endless overstimulation in classrooms had a negative impact on the learners. As a teacher, I had to compete for students’ attention by using “entertaining” explanatory videos. In some cases, exposure to American shows altered the accents of children. I had some students speaking in different accents while others, with limited resources, struggled to read basic sentences. Due to a lack of resources and limited accessibility, children’s literature was simply out of the classroom discourse. A vast majority of students were reading trash from inauthentic sources. It often included sexual and violent content.

Assessment and evaluation became a nightmare. As a recent postgraduate, I was familiar with the mechanics of online examinations. With all the answers available promptly, it was convenient to copy and paste them. The assessment was usually done in the form of Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) in Google Forms. However, a comprehensive subject like Literature cannot have such a simplistic and reductive approach. This approach hardly leaves any space for the creativity of the learner. Also, these were students, who grappled with the mechanics of writing. As a result, they couldn’t articulate their ideas in a paragraph coherently. They started writing fragmented answers in points. Many learners had forgotten how to hold a pen. They became accustomed to Power Points and typed answers.

The free limited 40-minute Zoom sessions and frequent network disconnections because of unstable internet connection added to my woes. Instead of worrying about the content of my lesson, “Am I audible?” became the motto of my class. An idea, irrespective of any discipline, is a complex, non-linear set of connected ideas. However, these constant disruptions led to an incomplete understanding of reality, which now, from the students’ perspective, consisted of small isolated units instead of one collective unit. It denied the continuity and interconnectedness of ideas.

The mutuality required for transcending spatial and temporal reality in Buber’s I-Thou-It framework dissipated in an online classroom. Instead of a teaching-learning process, it became just a teaching process. The students were literally and metaphorically removed from this dialogic process. There were days when I felt like I was merely giving a monologue or staring at my own reflection on the screen.

The grandiose feeling of holding the classroom, the teacher, and the lesson in one’s tiny hands led to the dehumanization of the entire teaching-learning process. As a teacher, I was just someone who could be muted or removed from the meeting, without having any control or agency.

In this treacherous world of Zoom and Google Meet, I was exposed to the feeling of alienation. Video as a medium is associated with entertainment. From a utilitarian perspective, there are “spectators” on one side of the screen and “entertainers” on the other. In these online classes, the spectators or the students often indulged in voyeurism and vicarious pleasures. My identity was doubly displaced, firstly, as a young teacher and secondly, as a woman.

With endless blank black screens staring at me, I just didn’t know who was on the other side of the camera in the majority of the cases. Most Indian students don’t have the luxury of private intellectual space or a study room. Families often stay in small one-room flats. In a few cases, when cameras were on, the male relatives would blatantly sit at the back and gawk at the screen while their child was attending the classes.

My privacy and agency were compromised.

Surveillance became another issue. I recall discussing a chapter called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” which reveals our self-destructive prejudices and talks about the concept of kangaroo courts and mob mentality. Physical classrooms are considered intellectual spaces for dealing with different kinds of conflicts. However, when the home becomes the classroom and parents become the gatekeepers of the knowledge, the problem of censorship becomes an enormous issue. In an already restrictive space, a teacher has to measure each and every word and be politically correct without critically engaging with conflict. The constant pressure to not offend parents was an arduous task. The primary aim of education is to reverse the primary socialisation of children. In online classrooms, this became an impossible goal. Instead of making the learner aware of their reality, it anaesthetizes them.

In a profession where we are forced to feel guilty about not doing enough in our positions without providing adequate resources, I also battled guilt for my inability to reach out to children belonging to economically weaker sections. Many households had only one digital device. With overlapping classes, the male child was often given the privilege to attend online classes.

Overall, this entire process of online classes was mentally and emotionally draining.

 

References:

ASER. 2018. ASER 2018 Full Report. asercentre.org/keywords/p/337.html

Dewey, John. 1910. How We Think. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., Publishers.

Gupta, Latika and Chaise LaDousa. 2022. Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic: Reflections on the Digital in University Education in India. In Shuddhashar FreeVoice, Issue 29: Education.

Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. New York: Viking.

 

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