The pandemic has left many of us in the teaching profession with a craving to be back in the classroom. The last time I walked into a classroom was in the Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane, Australia) when I delivered the concluding lecture for my course on data analysis – a unit that I had coordinated with an enrolment of over 900 students.
Brisbane is a global city that invites students from Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa with open arms. The university life facilitates valuable cultural intermingling where many can know each other and learn from each other – perhaps with a subtle acknowledgement that knowledge can really come from just about anywhere.
In the process of transiting between that job and my current job (where I have just started teaching), I have had the good fortune of teaching two courses (for first-year masters’ students), in an institute in India that offered me my first experience with online-teaching. Clearly, the ‘classroom’ was virtual, and therefore, my (about a hundred) students, being in the first year of their masters’, did not get the opportunity to interact with each other and know each other like they would on campus.
In the introductory lecture, therefore, I announced that group assessments will constitute a major part of the evaluation, hoping that that would force them to interact with each other. I asked them to create their own groups by the end of my first week of teaching.
When my students got back to me with their preferred set of group members, I was immediately reminded that ours is a nation with at least 20 different states – a hundred students were divided into roughly 20 groups of about five students each. The Punjabis made up one group, the Gujaratis had their own, the Bengalis formed a third group, and so on. To be fair, in the absence of any information about strangers, it is natural to look for a common ground – something that offers a unification of sentiment, or of thought, or of preferences – something that helps people connect easily. Added to this was the possibility that some students had already known each other from their prior undergraduate institutes. Simply put, more information can facilitate quick decision-making.
All this was in sharp contrast to my previous country of employment. Australia has less than ten states, and in all my traveling experiences, I never felt any significant difference in the ethnic diversity between them. I strongly believe in the common social good that ethnic diversity can offer – and fortunately the cultural diversity of India has great potential to first create, and then contribute to the common good. My first task as an educator, however, was to realise that a natural tendency to mingle with one’s own kind, needed a natural fix. So I turned to Nature (like I said before, knowledge can indeed come from anywhere).
Two species of cicadas (basically noisy insects) in the US are known for their almost perfectly synchronised periodic mass emergences. These cycles of mass-reproduction are uniquely prime-numbered: 13 years for one specie and 17 for the other. As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for these prime-numbered cycles. Cicadas that go into mass-reproduction in specifically prime-numbered years have an evolutionary survival-advantage. To offer an intuition, let us think of a cicada specie that has a mass-reproduction cycle of six years (a non-prime number). A predator (fond of cicada-based meals) with a cycle of three years would not have enough food (prey) in its first episode of mass-reproduction (at the end of three years).
In the second episode, however, at the end of six years, there will be a coincidence of mass-reproduction between the predator and the prey, and the predator-numbers will flourish because of greater food-availability, making the mass-extinction of such cicadas more probable. With prime numbered years, it is easy to see that the chances of this coincidence is significantly reduced – for instance, the first coincidence between our imagined predator and the cicada with a 17-year cycle would happen at the end of the 51st year, i.e. after 16 cycles of mass-reproduction without a corresponding rise in food-availability – and less food for predators would mean less survivors. Consequently then, most of the natural predators that only depended on cicada-based meals would have become extinct by now, thereby ensuring the survival of these periodical cicadas.
That was it. I just needed to think of a strategy to avoid cultural-coincidences in my group-assessment list. While this margin is too narrow to contain a detailed mathematical explanation of my approach, it will suffice to say that I used prime numbers to create five new lists out of the one that my students had originally given me – one for each group-assessment item (each of my lists had 20 unique groups of five people).
Remarkably enough, I could also ensure that for any group-assessment, each student was put together with four completely new classmates that they had not worked with in any of the previous assessments. Overall, my first experience at online-teaching turned out to be very fruitful in ways that forced me to create the common social good. Since I wound up my teaching requirements in this institute, I can only hope that my students know each other more.
Subrato Banerjee is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, and a Behavioural Scientist at the Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Queensland University of Technology.