Teaching in the Times of Coronavirus

In December 2019, I was part of a panel along with my colleagues about the future of learning. We discussed the idea of teaching digitally and how it has become a reality in many parts of the world.

Of course, there were the naysayers: “Teaching is not possible online,” they said. “I need to look my student in the eye when I teach.”

And BAM! Since the last two weeks, the world has been under a lockdown because of the global pandemic of coronavirus. We are here. We have to go online. Whether you like it or not – educators need to do it. We will need to adapt. No longer can you use a 20-year-old model of a standard classroom to educate your students. There is no dais and no tables and chairs where you dictate and students make notes. Nope.

This will prove to be a massive task for educators across the world for sure. Not that design (or media) education has not been digitised, but much of the curricula is still old school. In many parts of India, even outdated. The taskforce and the time required to make an effective curriculum to teach online is big and long. And to implement it within a few days in all but a stop gap arrangement.

Added to this conundrum is the fact that many of the teachers themselves are not trained to handle the digital teaching style. Out of these, many are unwilling to even adapt. Perhaps a judgement on these teachers would be a little harsh. It is, of course, easier for the younger generation to learn and adapt to newer technologies. However, I also witnessed a teacher well into his 70s learn how to operate a online meeting app yesterday to make sure his students don’t suffer.

The reality in India is that while school or higher educational institutes Tier 1 cities like Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata may be able to adapt very quickly, there is little hope for students from Tier 2 cities, suburban areas and rural areas. Many of these institutes don’t have proper computer systems within their premises. Many of these teachers are paid a pittance. I know of a teacher in a suburb of Kolkata whose monthly salary is a meagre Rs 8,000. She can’t afford a system at home, let alone teach from quarantines. Which brings me to my next point.

It is improper to say this, but from an education point of view, we are lucky that this lockdown has come at the end of the yearly education cycle. Most schools and colleges are almost at the end of their planned curriculum for an academic year. If this had happened sometime in October or November, we would be prancing around like headless chicken.

Teachers in government schools in India are often required to cover vast amounts of syllabus over relatively short periods of time. Plus they are teaching cohorts that are typically over 35 students sometimes as big as 60 students per class.

This puts a burden on teachers to stick to old pedagogical practices to finish the curriculum. The teaching in itself is based on textbook based learning. Online learning however is known to take the students away from text book based learning and more towards critical analysis and self motivated education. The pedagogical styles of the teachers also needs to be adjusted and is a relatively new field.

Also read: A Fastidious Student on Coronavirus: Is Panicking My Only Plan?

Many schools that are continuing lessons are simply recording teachers conducting theory classes in classrooms. This is because of the lack of any initiative and innovation from the institutions who are just doing these token classes as a means to not disrupt the academic cycle too much. This also allows them to not go into losses.

Some schools and higher education institutes have initiated worksheets and other online courses from Coursera, Udemy, Upgrad etc. and introduced them to the students so they are supplemented with information. There are challenges and perhaps the shift in education would have to be done drastically and through a lot of trial and error.

Even if we were to assume that the modified curriculum has been implemented at its best and even rural areas are covered and teachers have been trained to teach digitally – this situation has brought forward the inequity that capitalistic private education brings with it. Let alone India, many students from across the world don’t have access to uninterrupted internet connections. Until the situation improves, students from lesser income households with patchy internet connections will suffer the most.

While apps like Zoom, Blackboard, and even Skype and Google Hangouts have actually been very helpful in planning virtual face to face classes, the ground reality remains that many teachers as well as students will not have complete access to these.

This is the crack in the mirror that we have been ignoring for a very long time and the coronavirus hammer just split the whole thing wide open. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has earmarked Rs 99,300 crore for the education sector, in the Union Budget 2020, out of which Rs 3,000 crore has been allocated to skill development.

The issue is that ITIs (that pioneer as the skill development training centres in India) across the country struggle to even get proper desks and chairs for its students. Especially if they are located in rural areas. The softwares that are taught to these students are many a times outdated. And skills like electronic repair, car repair, etc cannot be taught online effectively. Plus the GST rates for online education courses stay at 18% which adds a burden on the already burdened student of India. It is time that governments across the world reassess their strategies for training educators and especially in the rural sectors of their countries because this change needs to start ground up.

The impact of coronavirus is going to be massive on young graduates who will step into an economy that has been hit the worst in the last 90 years. Jobs are going to get scarcer in the near future as markets across the globe are crashing. Which is also a very depressing prospect anyway. In a failing economy many students and young adults, especially from economically backward families may choose to not even enroll for higher education in the coming academic year which will be a further pressure on private institutes.

The situation looks rather bleak and a pandemic of this scale is likely to impact the economy and hence the education sector for the next few months if not the next few years. Yes, the number of deaths are a small percentile of those who are infected. But the quarantine is a necessity. We can’t avoid it or it will only get worse.

We have to make the best of this situation and the only way that can be done is through self innovation and breaking the norms that many of us have been avoiding. Online education and technology is here to stay and avoiding it or making statements like why this can’t work. It is not the future – it is here, in the present.

Being an ostrich and waiting for this to pass away instead of getting prepared is the worst thing educators can do now.

Aparna Mudi is an assistant professor at Pearl Academy and a graduate from NIFT, Delhi. She has dabbled in many things including fashion design, lifestyle journalism, fashion blogging and in the social sector. She now teaches media and design students and helps them navigate ‘adulting’ while learning the art herself on the go. You can read her blogs here.

Featured image credit: Unsplash