Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic: Reflections on the Digital in University Education in India

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Introduction (Chaise LaDousa): Global media reported on the COVID-19 pandemic in India, focusing on infrastructural dynamics in the health care system, patterns of migrant labor, and inequities in society more generally. The plight of teachers and students was less visible. One of the most common responses to the pandemic worldwide was to switch to online instruction – to allow instruction to continue somehow in the absence of physical presence. Like many teachers, Chaise LaDousa and Latika Gupta began to commiserate – online! – about the shock of matters ranging from communicating with students in a digital format to making sense of what effects the pandemic was having on courses, pedagogical aims and goals, and their and their students’ wellbeing. LaDousa asked Gupta whether she would be willing to reflect on her experiences as a professor in Delhi University’s Department of Education during the pandemic, and the resulting interview took place on March 10, 2022.[1] They developed a broad question for discussion: “What are some of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out problems for teachers and students in university education?” LaDousa, an anthropologist, urged Gupta to draw from personal experience to talk about what she found important. In the interview, Gupta reflects on the ways the pandemic has involved teachers and students in new kinds of interaction with the digital sphere. She recounts the hardships for professors, but also the ways that the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated inequalities between students. She also reflects on the ways that the sudden switch to online instruction has enhanced tendencies that were long-standing in Indian higher education. These she describes as manifesting a “casual” approach to education in which students are able to utilize digital infrastructures to avoid engagement with analytical practices. [2]

Interview (Latika Gupta): Let us first talk about our students – students of higher education. They were bachelor’s, master’s, or M Phil in Education. What the pandemic has done is that it has intensified some of the very casual habits and attitudes that students at universities and colleges have. For instance, university students, most of them don’t really read in India. You have to push them like kindergarten or nursery students to read, bring a book, open it, write. And in India we made a switch to complete online instruction without any resources. We used these platforms that weren’t teachers’ resources which meant it was completely left to me. How do I teach? There was no library system. Before this, even in Delhi University, we never had any library access or e-access. Then, once we started, after two or three months we were given this access, but the membership was so meager that I could hardly download things that I needed for my course. And it was an immediate shift. Like 25th March [2020] we were told, “You start teaching on Zoom or Google Meet or whatever.” We didn’t even have our official IDs or anything, you know, we used email. We were using email and all. So, you just had to teach. It was only 40 minutes [available on the platform]. So, that 40 minutes was to end, and I would generate another link and send it through WhatsApp or this or that. There was a lot of techno-managerial kind of chaos. Some classes were on Skype, some were on Google Meet. We were learning all this, and a lot of students were learning, “Okay, Google Meet is not safe,” and they would put up resistance.

All of the teachers and students had to suddenly learn and get the technology and real learning material, and books, articles, all those were out of the framework. And I had to, for instance, if I really still wanted my students to read, then I had to scan each and every page of the article, so you can imagine that I was scanning almost 100 to 200 pages every day because I teach five or six courses in the program. Initially, in the first three to four months of 2020, we didn’t have access to Google Classroom or anything, so I got an email list of everybody, and I used it to email to all of my students. Almost 80 percent didn’t have computers or laptops, so they were accessing whatever on their mobile phones, most of them. And they were literally listening to classes on mobile phones. So, essentially, what happened, this idea got very, I should say, strongly reinforced that learning is listening to the teacher without reading anything yourself, without engaging with the text yourself, without ultimately writing anything. This is already an idea in higher education. Students come very causally, you know, they attend one or two classes, so the whole responsibility of taking the class through discussion or taking the topic is on the teacher. Now in this kind of screen set up, teachers couldn’t even demand that you read. They could genuinely say that they were helpless. So, the university started this kind of online open-book exam. So how do you make those question papers, translate them, and then make every student fill in an online form. We spent about four or five months doing all of that. Students protested. Two or three times the exams were delayed. So, the exams happened and then we as teachers evaluated those answer scripts online. In summer I would have evaluated almost 1,000 to 2,000 answer scripts online because, other than our own students’ answer scripts on the exam, we have a school of open learning here which is open and distance learning. That is additional work of evaluation.

And when the next session started, and then this chaos, what was happening was the students were now coming in the second year. So, they came to us by October, I think, or September, and then the new batch couldn’t come because the entrance exam, etc., was delayed. So, by then we got Google Meet because a better account was set up by IT at Delhi University. And we kind of struggled on our own. We have two or three colleagues who know technology well. They took online sessions to help us figure it out. But, basically, I think we all learned, I’ve learned by trial and error. Like Google Classroom, how do you make it? And copying every student’s email ID? So, students sent the wrong email ID. And typing the very complex email IDs… You know, I’m and Indian and I still get flustered with Indian names. All this kind of work… And then, this idea started that the Google Class link has been completed, the material is uploaded, so there so there is this pressure to upload every damn thing, every article, every book, everything that I want them to read – that was entirely on me. The university gave us some kind of e-resource, and this idea was floating that e-resource was there for the students also, but neither did the students demand it, nor did it ever reach them. Because Indian students study without demanding books or other reading material.

And none of them would ever put their videos on. There were various reasons they would give. It was only the teacher who had to keep the video on. So, it was entirely on the teacher. How will you do it? How much do you want to struggle and push the students to do it? It became more and more possible for the students to simply just log in on the link, keep the video off, and be present in the class. And I would ask them to reply, and they would log out, come back, and say, “My network is having a problem. I’m sorry, what did you ask?” So, you can’t keep playing this game. This became a habit, and our first class would be at 9:30, and I would often joke, you know, “What are you all doing?” And most of them were in the bed. They would simply get on the link or on the mobile, so a sleeping student is what I got. One or two out of, say, forty or forty-five were motivated enough. And that with a teacher like me who pushes, who, you know, takes names, asks questions, even I didn’t find more than two or three of them really interested.

And another thing. It was there in the media, was there on social media everywhere, that young people are having mental health issues, they are not able to meet, they are not able to socialize, they are not coming to institutions. What I found in Delhi University, in our students, was that they started coming to meet each other. They started using Delhi University space as a picnic spot. So, they would say that they were coming to the library, but they would sit out on the lawn, have fun. The canteen, etc., food stalls were all closed, nothing was there. So, they would sit in the department’s gardens, and they would order food from these food delivery services and spend hours there. Sometimes when I had a lot of administrative work I used to go to my department, and I would see that if they had classes, they had their mobile phones lying on the ground, and the classes were on, and they were having fun in groups. So, this idea, you know, that casualness became intensified. And they took no effort to intellectually stimulate themselves, really. Earlier I would say that in a batch 10 to 15 students I could really stimulate. I could push them into really thinking. 20 out of 50 would be in the middle zone. They read sometimes, they have potential, they keep coming back, fall out, but keep coming back too. 30 would be lost in their world. But, now, I think if I have a batch of 50, only five or six can I catch.

Already we had this problem that in the School of Education or Department of Education we get people who failed everywhere else in the world. They have not managed to get any kind of government job in lower bureaucracy, higher bureaucracy, they couldn’t clear a medical or engineering entrance exam, they couldn’t do anything better. They come to education. And over the years, the number of such people has increased in education. They are here as the last option. Or education is multidisciplinary, so their writing will improve. Or they will master general knowledge by reading certain subjects. What I also noticed is that during the pandemic many jobs were completely restricted. The private sector completely fell apart. Government jobs were put on hold. So that insecurity, that anxiety of the young, intensified in the last two years. Earlier in education, out of 100, 80 used to be girls and 20 used to be boys. Now, it’s almost equal. 75 girls and 65 boys. And when the pandemic started this idea started that everyone should be done in Indian universities by using computer technology. So, for instance, earlier we used to have a physical board entrance exam in India, and you had to come to Delhi to appear in the exam. So, if the student came, even if they had to come from all over India, they had this assessment of their own ability of whether they would be able to survive in Delhi on their own. But, just one year before the pandemic, Delhi University started conducting completely online exams. And, therefore, they were anywhere in the country. So, they just appeared in the exam, they cleared it… So, they also just thought that this would carry on and on and on, and they could get the degree just by clicking on certain links. And now, suddenly, this year it [the university] has opened, they have to come. So, they are not able to cope with it. Now they don’t want to come. 40 percent haven’t come. And those who are coming, they just don’t want to sit in the class, very sincere ones also. They don’t want to… they can’t sit for long hours. “Long hours” means one or two hours. They don’t want to read, they can’t read. And they’re just feeling trapped that “We have to now come.” Plus, many of them are very poor. They cannot afford to stay in Delhi on their own. And the hostel and all, our infrastructure is very limited.

So, that sense of engaging with advanced knowledge at the higher level is in very few of them. And when you push you can see that they feel that they do not need to read, and you can see if they are reading. So, if I teach, say, Althusser’s essay I give one copy to the photocopy shop in advance, and all the students collect it from there. I did that even now, but many of them don’t have it. And they take pictures of that. I see them in the class scrolling their mobile. So, this is the next habit which had already started coming in. You know I would struggle with their mobile fancy a lot. I had to constantly scold them to keep it in their bags. But now they have a legitimate reason. And they say we don’t have money to photocopy. So, they are reading this on the mobile and they keep scrolling. Now, many of them don’t have very big smartphones, they have these small smartphones. And how much can you read, I mean a 40-page-long article, I mean how much can you read.  So even in the class they are trying to let it pass like a very casual activity.

Conclusion (Chaise LaDousa): Two major themes emerge in the interview: the uses of technology and the inequalities they expose. Gupta describes the many ways in which the decision to continue with instruction in the face of pandemic with online interaction added significantly to the labor of instructors. Teachers were tasked with new forms of technological work and management, draining them of energy and forcing them to make tough decisions about how they could make their classes remain environments for learning. Relationships between teachers and students were affected by the responsibilities of the instructor, and Gupta notes that some students took advantage of the technological complexities required for online instruction to treat their instructors like service providers. One is reminded of Krishna Kumar’s (1988) argument that the colonial imposition of the textbook had a profound influence on shaping what teachers might do in the classroom and what relationships between teachers and students might be. Gupta elucidates the paradox wherein a technology meant to facilitate interaction entangles teachers and students in particular ways that thwart pedagogy and learning. The transition to online learning has cast teachers in the role of technological support, has made reading practices even more perfunctory, and has further enhanced the casual or uncommitted disposition of the student.

The introduction of online instruction during the pandemic has revealed inequalities between students in higher education in new ways. Gupta explains that the Department of Education already has a reputation for drawing students who have not been able to complete other courses of study or attain employment, notoriously elusive for the young in India. Gupta speaks to the ways that online infrastructures are hardly unified, and the situatedness of a person and practice within can have unanticipated consequences depending on what technologies are being used to do. For example, Gupta intimates that students are using mobiles rather than laptops to engage in class, ostensibly because they are more – well – mobile, as well as cheaper. This hampers their ability to write in essay form given the lack of a keyboard, and to do readings which appear small and require scrolling. Indeed, some students are using the camera on their phone to make a copy of the readings, which will, of course, be much harder to read from a smartphone’s small display. Only can only imagine that these dynamics are interacting to produce an especially “casual” disposition among students studying education. By casual, Gupta means a disposition to education that is less demanding of one’s attention to the purposes of texts produced in other times and places, less set apart from entertainment, and, ultimately, less conducive to what Gupta calls “really thinking.” The inculcation of such a disposition among already stigmatized students will only add to their stigma, further differentiating them from students in other lines of study. Gupta reminds us that large-scale responses to the pandemic must be considered from particular points of view whose perspectives reveal particular inequalities.

[1] For an overview of BEd programs, see Gupta 2018.

[2] Since the publication of this article, several teachers responded to the observations made by Latika Gupta and Chaise LaDousa.  Three of their responses can be found here, published in Shuddhashar on 15 January 2023.


Gupta, Latika. 2018. Discourse of Teacher Education in India. In Routledge Handbook of Education in India: Debates, Practices, and Policies, ed. Krishna Kumar, pp. 175–88. New York: Routledge.

Kumar, Krishna. 1988. Origins of India’s “Textbook Culture.” Comparative Education Review 32(4):452–64.

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