O is for Online Classes


Raise your hands, those who have never done online classes or work? 


Not a single hand raised. What a changed world! 


When Covid-19 was accepted as a reality and the protocol for dealing with it was put in place everywhere, a ripple of excitement accompanied the various ripples of suspicion, fear, worry and wonder that went through all of us. We were going to continue our work, but—online! 


Very quickly, many platforms appeared, chief among them, Zoom, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. What lovely names— we zoom away into infinity, making our own videos and enjoying others', confronting our friends with our news and pictures, and a What's up? All the platforms seemed miraculous. They successfully bound us together in a time when we could not physically meet and visit. Overnight we developed the vocabulary of that which was past and faraway as 'physical' and 'offline' to contrast to our new reality which was 'virtual' and 'online.' 


I lived in a village during Covid, in a school that stood silent and empty for one and a half years. I would phone my class 9 and 10 students to teach them European and World History. Surrealistically, we would discuss dictatorship, revolution, socialism, and democracy. In retrospect, I understand that I should have discussed instead their lives, situations, and feelings. They would have learnt more.  


My worthy readers must know this already, but it bears repeating. India is infrastructurally weak yet in its provision of electricity, sewerage, potable water, and, of course, internet. Because phone companies have woken up to the immensity of the Indian market, millions of Indians have cell phones, including smart ones. They pay a monthly amount which seems manageable, until it is not, at which point they suspend the service for some time. There is no penalty. For an average Indian child to conduct their whole education online, as became mandatory during Covid lockdown times, is a mind-boggling leap of faith (excuse the mixed metaphors). 


That is why I was conducting my lessons by phone. None of my students had a smart phone to themselves. If there was one in the house, it was already being used by a senior person. Nor did I myself have internet, sitting in my huge classroom of a room. We had a dongle and that, too, was being shared and worked only within a distance of a few yards. 


This is the point at which a few ads should appear on this blog, selling various phones, dongles, services, advice and help. Because our lives have come to be run by the companies manufacturing all these. Children began to regard it as natural that of course the teacher was a voice, a crackling one at that, sometimes a face, and that a blurred or crooked one, with part of the screen taken up by her ill-dressed family members passing at the back, her ceiling or window, her weird room behind her. 


In turn, I could see my children at home. They were mostly village children and I had been to some of their houses. Anushka was squatting on the floor, her mother cooking nearby, her sister playing in the corner, her bag hanging behind her, her eyes on the phone, very serious, very keen, but not able to get more than a few odd sentences in the whole time. She could not take notes because she did not get things ready beforehand.  


Then I spent hours everyday monitoring randomly what my teachers were doing. They were teaching classes all the way Nursery upwards. My rough calculations are as follows: 50% of registered students could attend the classes. Of those 25% attended the full time and did the work. Others either left in the middle and/or ignored the work. Of all the students, 5-10% could follow even a little of what the teacher was trying to convey. The 25% attending properly included parents who helped their children complete their work, most of the time without understanding it. 


Definitely, one cheer for Online Classes! It doesn't deserve three, as my favourite novelist Edmund Morgan Forster said about Democracy, and not even two. But one is fine because Online Classes did force us teachers to worry and strain. 


They were a mixed experience for parents. Some parents were in their glory as they revealed their closet selves, tutoring their children, completing their projects, making them learn and recite and create. Some were driven crazy, unable to cope with the just demands of a child suddenly left to the family's devices. Most were probably in the middle, with good and bad days and feelings. 


The tragedy of Online Classes needs to be confronted head-on. They provide a very poor education. If we are going to use a technology that relies totally on voice, image and words, we have to develop teaching styles, content, and persona suitable to this technology. A random survey of classes and videos shows that teachers are more boring than ever, standing before blcakboards, droning away in uninspiring, often unintelligible, voices. Those who fancy that they can perform, typically over-act and often branch out into commercial online classes. Those who are humble about their skills, but sincere, hardly experiment or innovate. They believe that a teacher's job is to not to sing their own praises or propagate their reach, both of which may happen, given the nature of the internet, if they kept improving their online presence. 


Speaking personally, I read out books, told stories, taught rhymes, explained topics, all with verve and energy. I kept observing my efforts and strove to improve daily. My failure lay in my reach. Of my 200 students perhaps 20 saw my videos. Of non-students, not even my best friends. 


The technology of Online Classes does not come with an accompanying technology to make your student sit down at their desk and pay attention to you.   


O is therefore for ownership. A good teacher creates a classroom in which each child feels that they have ownership over the space and its processes. Indeed a child should feel ownership over the whole school. The ideal school is where a student can greet a visitor, "This is my school. Come with me, I will show you around." And everything is a 'we' and an 'our.' 


In such a school the teacher makes rituals that bind the students to the classroom world. The teacher makes rules that enable everyone to participate in the everyday life of the classroom. The teacher is in tune with the moods and sensibilities of the students so that there is one holistic group called the class and not rival groups of adult and child. 


These ownership challenges that are so central to good teaching and learning are out of the question in online classes. Teaching does not lie in merely good material being well presented, and learning doe not lie in the sharpness and the dedication to imbibe this. Schooling is a "rough magic," neither science nor art but a higher version of both, a profoundly human process in which the teacher is called on to continuously observe, interact, learn, and thus keep developing their teaching strategies. 


Those who developed Online Classes were clever and appropriate for the disaster we all went through. They were not teachers, however, and all teachers should now drop Online Classes as a needless threat to their profession. Or at least make them second to Offline Classes, aiming at the goal that Offline is the term used normatively and Online is the qualification. It will take some doing, because linguistically speaking, On is positive and Off is negative. 


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