In the six months since schools across India switched to online classes, those like Surender Singh – one of the 45 teachers who President Ram Nath Kovind will confer with a National Award today – have had to find new troubleshooting skills every other day. It has also meant mastering Zoom and Hangouts classes, recording lectures and posting them via email and WhatsApp, collecting and correcting homework using digital tools and turning textbook chapters into engaging radio and TV programmes.
But the learning arc hasn’t stopped at technology. Virtual classrooms are a whole new universe and bring very different social and learning challenges. Those of us who don’t teach can imagine a meeting call while working from home – the general difficulty of making ourselves understood (or even heard through the patchy networks), the disruptive power of one unmuted mic and the commotion of many. Teachers have the same setting but with groups of kids with shorter attention spans and many more distractions. “Sometimes, they’d be eating or drinking. Or just wandering off,” says Mridula Pattanath (50), who teaches at DPS Gurgaon (Sector 45).
Since the pandemic struck, teachers have silently overcome many such challenges, thinking on their feet and with little time to adapt, holding our education system together with innovation and sheer resilience. On Teacher’s Day, we bring you 10 accounts of this trying journey that has changed both teaching and learning as we know it.
Blackboard, chalk and duster for 28 years. Now suddenly, laptop and YouTube
Neelam Gupta, associate professor (financial management & statistics), BR Ambedkar College, Delhi University
For 28 years, I used conventional methods to teach. All of a sudden, it has drastically changed. Previously, we did not have computers, lab facilities or projectors to facilitate our teaching in colleges. Blackboard, chalk and duster were the means to teach. But now, I am actively using my laptop, digital pen, tablet, a mic system, videos and YouTube for my teaching.
It has become tougher to explain practical aspects of subjects such as maths, statistics, financial management, accounts and income-tax. Moreover, there is limited teacher-student interaction and one can’t check up on them, find out if they are studying or not. It is also difficult to give attention to individual students. It is also difficult to learn new technology. There is limited help from the college and one has to turn to family and friends for assistance. We’re still struggling.
One mobile at home and 3 kids. So tasks are sent in 2 shifts
Manoj Lakra, teacher at a govt school in Gurgaon (will receive a National Award today)
Everything has moved to WhatsApp. But kids who come to my school are from poor families. They don’t all have tools for digital learning. In the button wala phone, children are getting SMSes with some lessons. The Haryana government has tied up with DTH service providers to telecast lessons. This helps children who don’t have phones. But what about kids who have don’t have a TV either? I don’t know how fruitful it is, but we are trying every possible way to keep our students in school.
What the lockdown taught us is that we should always be prepared for disasters. Some challenges have been sorted out, but others remain. Now, there may be one mobile at home and three children. Then what? So one child sends back the assignment in the evening, another the next morning. We have to allow that.
I have been a Hindi teacher for 20 years. I am interested in technology and believe it can help solve many problems. When the lockdown began, I realised there is a need to go beyond the usual. If I tell the kids about a volcano, they’ll say, “Show me.” Now, I don’t have a projector or a computer. So I made one — a one foot by one foot device, which I call a mobile TV without electricity. It acts like a projector. I call a mobile TV without electricity. It acts like a projector. We also came up with a VR (virtual reality) device for Rs 10, with a cardboard box and two lenses. This is all basic technology, nothing complicated.
Can you please recharge our internet: Voice note from a student’s sister
Surender Singh, teacher at municipal corporation school in north Delhi
The coronavirus has forced everyone indoors and the suspension of physical classes has had an impact on the little ones. Virtual classes are very new to both students and teachers. We have had to first learn the technology and then start using it. Many teachers struggled with it in the initial days. But once the digital classes began, we realized students were missing the finer points of lessons. Learning was incomplete. So, instead of voice notes, we decided to record lectures and send videos to the students. This showed much better results.
But even if you master the technology, other problems can present themselves. One day, I received a voice message from a student’s sister that said he could not play the video as the internet wasn’t available. “My father doesn’t have the money to recharge the phone. My brother is dejected. Can you please help recharge the phone? If he studies, he will earn and one day pay you back,” said the message. The poignant message moved me. I recharged data on the number. The boy has been performing well in class.
Digital classrooms can never replace the spontaneity and interactivity of the physical classroom where teachers can make learning interesting in various ways. Having said that, both teachers and students are now much more comfortable with virtual classes than before.
Very few students unmute or switch on the camera
Chaity Das, assistant professor (English), Kalindi College, Delhi University
When you no longer have students in front of you, no eye contact and no immediate feedback, teaching becomes an entirely different experience. The attention of students also suffers. they may not be as tuned in or consider themselves as accountable as in the physical classroom. Getting used to technology and features of a software is also something that happens gradually. All said and done, it (online classes) has taken away the unpredictable joys of a classroom. However, the quality of teaching may not be too affected. Teachers are reinventing themselves; it’s a learning curve for both. Some students are responding well, they understand the challenges and the responsibility. Network disturbances remain a huge problem.
Students might have very different household environments and this also needs to be factored in. For teachers, too, the home and the workplace coalescing has its own challenges. Very few students unmute themselves or switch the camera on. It could be due to privacy issues but it also has an individual and social aspect. A teacher can cut through social discomfort in a class much better than online. Social discomfort may be due to issues that require special attention. Normally, students would approach you for mentoring or counselling after a lecture. It would be spontaneous, perhaps triggered by a class discussion. Not anymore. Confidence-building will suffer in this slightly detached mode. Social inequality can be best addressed in a more tactile, physical environment.
As for academics, the loss of a real space of communication and its transformation into a virtual one has turned the teacher-student relationship into a more distant one, and the more vocal ones may unwittingly end up getting more attention than the others. In a classroom, you can tell from the expressions if a student has understood the lecture. Now, that is not possible. However, we are evolving.
Out of bed and straight into class. Kids find it too convenient
Mridula Pattanath, teacher at DPS Sector 45, Gurgaon
Initially, it was very challenging. The kids are really young. They didn’t know how to come to the screen, how to click. We had to have parents helping them. Sometimes, they’d be eating or drinking. Or just wandering off. But as months progressed, we saw the change. They are more confident, and we are figuring out the best ways to keep them engaged.
Technology keeps changing. It can be daunting. But teaching methods have quickly changed and become so much more innovative in such a short time. We plan videos, do experiments, use virtual reality. If I have to teach children how to write A, I can send a quick video. When we used augmented reality to teach kids about lions, even parents were fascinated.
What I have tried to do is keep classes very interactive. If there is an element of play, children will be drawn in. We have no more than 13-14 children in a class, so they can all be seen on one screen. The small class size helps. You can talk individually to each child. You have time for feedback, you can ask how their day was. And there are two teachers — one main and one assisting.
The only challenge I foresee is getting my kids back to regular school, whenever that happens. The other day, I was told that a child had told his parent, “Mere ko toh yeh class achchha lagta hai, yehi class attend karoonga (I like this class. I will attend only this class).” It’s easy to get out of bed and sit in front of a computer. So that might be a challenge, weaning students off staying at home.
The other day, I was told that a child had told his parent, “Mere ko toh yeh class achchha lagta hai, yehi class attend karoonga.”
Teaching from home: ‘Ma’am, your sofa is looking nice’
Isha Singh, assistant professor (applied sciences and humanities), University of Lucknow
I am not tech savvy and had never taught online. And my first lecture on Zoom — it was on Tagore’s views on nationalism — was filled with lags and glitches. Students couldn’t hear me properly and I had to mute all of them to get some semblance of continuity. But since then, I have learnt how to teach online better and developed ways to make lectures interesting online. For example, I use a lot of PowerPoint presentations. I keep explaining with each slide. I think students understand things better if there’s a slide on the screen. I have recorded my lectures on various topics and uploaded them on my personal YouTube channel. This is because many students have poor connectivity or don’t have that much data, and often miss lectures. But they can see them online. I have put 30 such videos online.
After every lecture, I keep 10 minutes aside to answer questions and interact with students. It’s important right now to stay accessible to students over various online platforms. In the absence of physical classes, they feel confused and lost. The drawback of online learning is that the batch size is greatly reduced. If I have 40 students in a class, only 25 end up attending. The rest are not able to because of poor connectivity or lack of enough data or absence of a mobile or phone or laptop. Of those that attend, some turn their audio and video off and I realise later they have left. But in the initial few lectures, students were very interested to attend. It was the first time they were seeing us teachers in our homes and would comment that we are looking nice, or a curtain or sofa is looking nice.
The drawback of online learning is that the batch size is greatly reduced. If I have 40 students in a class, only 25 end up attending. The rest are not able to because of poor connectivity or lack of enough data or absence of a mobile or phone or laptop.
Slow internet is a big problem
Anjali Kulkarni, assistant professor (botany), Savitribai Phule Pune University
Many of our students are in villages and small towns and didn’t have the necessary bandwidth to attend online classes. So, in the first class…it was on Zoom, students were continuously entering and exiting the classroom because of poor net connection which was distracting for both me and other students. Then botany is a figure-intensive subject and there are a lot of drawings. All these images take up a lot of space and make the app slow. Even if I record the lecture with PPTs, the files are difficult to download on a weak net connection or with little data.
To make the app work better I would mute the students and keep their video off but then it would rob me of audio-visual cues, which are necessary to figure out whether they have understood. To overcome this problem, I take a short break every once in a while and ask them if they have understood the concept or not. Or, I conduct a short quiz.
There’s a positive side too to online teaching. At least students are continuing their learning. The other alternative — as was suggested by the government — was to declare this year a zero academic year, which was not ideal.
When the student told the teacher, ‘No homework, vacations are on’
Shobha Bhagat, special educator at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Delhi
A funny incident happened during the lockdown with one of my students. As I called her, gave her assignments and asked her to send me her work, she clearly refused. “Mujhe nahin karna koi kaam, kyunki meri chhutti hai (I’m on holiday, I won’t do any assignments),” she told me. Her innocent but frank remark made me smile. This was the same child who rarely expressed her thoughts in the classroom. But on the phone, she was speaking confidently with me.
As a result of learning at home, students have become more friendly with their teachers and more comfortable with technology. Besides, all family members have become involved in the learning process, either directly or indirectly. But there are parents too who are not well prepared and are unable to manage their children’s learning and technology.
From conference calls to workbook delivery and pickup
Aastha Rayal, teacher at Rajkiya Inter College, Uttarakhand
Our school has 150 kids. But since the lockdown began, we have only been able to reach out to 90. Some don’t have phones. Sometimes, there is no power for three days. Some live in villages where everything is solar-powered. If there is a long spell of rain, they get cut off. There are others who are shy about talking on the phone.
When the lockdown started, for a month, I could not do anything. Then I thought of making conference calls. I would sit with three phones, dial as many children as I could and hold the class on the phone. I would do this thrice — at 11.30am, 12.30pm and 3.30pm. For students who didn’t have phones, we made workbooks. That helped a lot. We appointed village agents, who went around dropping the workbooks and picking them up again after a few days. This way, most students could stay in touch with studies.
But I teach level one students. We divide students on the basis of learning levels — those who can read paragraphs are in level three, those who can read lines are level two and those who are still making sense of words and sounds are on level one. That has students from class VI-IX, so WhatsApp may not help. Workbooks would not either. I would need to teach them in person.
Thankfully, there has been no Covid case in my village. So I have gradually started bringing them back in very small batches of 10-12. They sit far apart, wearing masks, and come in two batches..
More screen time has become a concern for all
Vidhu Narayan, science teacher, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, New Delhi
From interacting with animated kids in class, we are now staring at an inanimate object – our devices. We are learning to teach all over again. Lack of connect, group work, cooperative and collaborative learning have hindered the teaching-learning process.
It wasn’t difficult to switch to online teaching as far the use of technology was concerned. The hard part was looking for ways to keep the students engaged during online classes. It was harder to make connections with students, to be able to reach out to them. There were times when I felt that I was losing some of the kids. At the same time, as a teacher it was essential to provide hope. But the challenges that we are still struggling with are uninterrupted power supply and network connectivity. These have been hindrances in the learning process.
The reaction of parents to online teaching has been mixed. Many of them are happy that learning continues and that their child is productively engaged at home. Because of the pandemic, they don’t want to send their child to school and online learning is the only alternative available as of now. But the time spent on screen has become a cause for concern for all.