28 Sept 2020 – In response to a post by writer Sudeep Chakravarti, asking for teachers among his Facebook friends to share their online teaching experience (and tips) with him, I jotted down some points in a hasty hour last Friday night. Thought of sharing those – observations based on my 6 months in the digital classroom – and expanding on it a little more, in this blogpost.
Some things made right:
- Studentes learning to value their classroom – I find more students ‘eagerly’ doing online classes than they did real ones. Bunking has been replaced by a nostalgia for classes even by those who hardly entered the class room!
Privileged students & teachers:
- ‘Online/offline’ are often used as binary terms these days while talking of classes. But I think they have long been complementary for the privileged section of teachers/learners in our society, as we increasingly use online resources for teaching, study and research. For those teaching in smart classrooms, this is even more the case. (I am indebted to a judge in a recent debate competition we had for pointing this out). Though I myself dislike PowerPoint’s for teaching (they are an excuse for lazy teaching and take all the joy out of the impromptu element in class), I do ask students to look up this or that on their phones in class. As facts and data are available on their fingertips 24/7, I leave that part to them, concentrating only on their interpretation, trying to give the students fresh insights and helping them learn to think on their own. During the pandemic, the main difference is that, the ‘online-offline’ balance is gone – as everything is entirely online.
- I teach in a private college in Kolkata which can only be afforded by privileged young adults. They all have access to the internet, use laptop and smartphones. But that doesn’t avert connectivity issues, especially on rainy days. One needs a lot more patience during online classes as a result: admitting students one by one, which takes a while; then, classes again getting disrupted with late comers, late for connectivity issues; some losing connection during the class, coming back and feeling lost, etc. When one has a class of 50/60 students, this can take a toll, as constant disruptions interrupt the flow of thought. One is forever trying to gather them… and move on.
- Post-Amphan, I remember, we could not take online classes for almost a fortnight via Zoom or Google Meet. I resorted to audio lectures then, which, most have found useful. At least, it helped to manage the situation somehow, when syllabus had to be completed and (internal) exams taken. In the new Semester, however, I’ve only done video lectures… but I now know that I can fall back on audio, if need be, and just WhatsApp them to the student groups.
Google Meet classrooms:
- Our 2nd and 3rd year students don’t like switching on their videos/showing their faces. I’ve repeatedly requested them, without success. But the new first years are never off the screen, eager as they are to ‘meet’/’see’ their new classmates and teachers!
- They all LOVE the chat box, furiously typing away if I ask something… or quarrelling among themselves with the only option they have! I also use the chat box extensively to engage in discussions with them – as video/ audio is frequently a problem. So, I ask them something, they type their responses and I discuss the points raised/ or clarify/elaborate.
- I use a lot of visual aids, mostly videos and internet resources. Since I teach literature, I show them interviews, documentaries and features with topics/authors, related to/in their syllabus. (The big hits of this Semester so far has been a BBC documentary on Agatha Christie, Simone Beauvoir’s first Interview on French TV in 1975, a documentary on Judith Butler, and Ray’s ‘Charulata’).
- There’s nothing like talking to students. Just engaging in conversation with them. This holds true in any situation. When our students started their new Semester in end- July, I spent a good three classes with each, chatting them up. Just how they have been and what they were doing. Yes, I knew they were bored and restless – but they opened up to infinite variations of it, as they did with coping strategies (a lot of which had to do with many of them immersing themselves in some form of art). That was a very rewarding warming-up exercise for the new session. I also gave them some classes ‘off’: on a particularly sultry Friday afternoon, for example, when neither they nor I wanted to be in class, we discussed films and web series we have watched during lockdown. After a relaxed beginning, on the whole, they were pretty piped up for the fresh set of texts they were to be engaged with for the next few months. August and half-September has gone really well (given the circumstances) and they just appeared for their mid-Sem internals.
- I have discovered that the students who enjoy their studies do so, anyway. The ones who brought their texts (they very often don’t), engaged in class, asked pertinent questions, and sought reference material on their own, still continue doing that. I have to ‘trust’ them with the texts, though; and in fact, trust their ‘presence’ in the classroom. That they are actually there and listening to me, and not doing something else, while just ‘showing’ themselves online. While the latter is inevitable to some extent, I just assume it is the exception and not the rule. I would not be able to teach otherwise! I have told my students that.
- My heart goes out to them: stuck at home for months, glued to the screen more than ever before, missing out on half a year (and more…) of campus life – the best time of their lives! To be confined is bad, but to be confined when you have just tasted freedom as a young adult is downright aweful!
(Seeming) WhatsApp indispensability:
- When we say online classes, I want to add ‘WhatsApp’ as part of that apparatus. As WhatsApp groups have become nodal points of communication, replacing the email to a great extent. We have a Departmental WhatsApp group, a student WhatsApp group for each year and a student mentee WhatsApp group for each tutor. All communication is streamlined through these 3 channels. (There is, of course, a Faculty WhatsApp group as well, meant primarily for de-stressing!)
- This is a follow up of the previous point: In my Department, we have devised a simple method to make work relatively easier and less complicated for all. We have divided each batch into four groups, each under a full time faculty. All assignments/ exam scripts etc. are allotted as per that list – which means we take charge of all papers for all students under our wing. It goes without saying that we tend to bond more with them, as we communicate with them more. And we do that mostly through WhatsApp chats and calls (for eg: mentoring them individually for their assignments, since we can’t meet them in separate tutorials).