The total student population in India is about 32 crore, give or take a few. It is the largest student body in the world, and almost touches the entire US population. While life is slowly limping back to normal for most segments of the population, the trauma continues for students as they miss their schools and colleges. Studying in college sitting at home can’t be charming, isn’t it? What started as a unique fun experience of no classes and exams because of Covid-induced crisis, is now making the students edgy and frustrated as the shadows of uncertainty shows no signs of shortening.
The government and educational institutions have done an admirable job of “keeping things going.” There is a general agreement that Covid-induced online education emerged out of necessity and at best can be a stop-gap arrangement. However, standing in the cauldron, I believe we can realize some positive impacts from the current extenuating circumstances. Dark clouds have a silver lining. Here I present three.
Look Ma, no back benches!
“Please make my ward sit in the front bench,” is the first request goes to the class teacher from the parent. It is as if students in the front benches get more value. Teachers, too on the other hand, look askance at the back benchers. The perception is that back benches are the refuge of late comers, sleepy students, cat-callers and classroom mischief makers, which is quite often strengthened by portrayals in movies. So, when the class teacher in one of my higher classes decided in his own wisdom to make the seating arrangement as per alphabetical order instead of height, and I got a position in the back bench, my parents were mortified, to say the least.
A beautiful thing of online classes is that Back Bench is passé and all students get a front row seat. The mental stereotype that exists of the back benchers in the minds of the teacher is completely broken. Online mode of teaching and learning has democratized class room setting and removed prejudices in a way that is so constructive for learning. And it is important that it stays that way even when students start arriving to the classrooms. The biggest change is in the mindset of the teacher. Entering the classroom without the notion of a back bencher can benefit both the teacher and taught and reinforcing the mindset developed in virtual spaces when we return to physical spaces would positively impact education.
Irrelevance of cheat sheets
Preparing cheat sheets is not a skill that everybody has. Of course, most of us have heard about that student who has a cheat sheet to inform about other cheat sheets. A major portion of Indian education system has long been criticized for the practice of rote learning. While it served to achieve the objective of quickly educating a large populace, modern world requires new tools and techniques. One of which is the emphasis on thinking, analytical and problem solving skills.
Exams and tests can play a major role in developing these skills, apart from pedagogy. Conducting exams for rote learning in a virtual environment can be really challenging. I mean, students do not even have to take the trouble of preparing cheat sheets because the entire book can be at their disposal. While proctoring can be done online, setting up exams that requires original thinking by the student rather than repeat what is in the book is the best way to prevent student cheating in online exams. Unbeknownst, the virtual learning environments have compressed the time taken to move away from the traditional rote learning.
The transformation of a teacher to a performer
Within the walls of the classroom, sanitized of all diversions, the professor can make eye contact and question an inattentive student. But in a boundary-less online environment, the professor must prevail over technology deficiencies, competing diversions, self-doubt, and what not to sustain the attention of the student. Grown on a diet of stand-up comedies, memes, and short videos, students expect their teachers to educate as well as entertain. And as if that’s not enough, the boundary-less classroom allows anybody to peep in to check out what’s happening and make snide remarks.
Instead of withdrawing into a shell like a tortoise when faced with a hostile environment, the teachers have come out blazing by meeting the challenges head on. Whether it is getting used to technology or new ways of teaching the teachers have stood up and delivered. This transformation at a deep personal level from just being a teacher to that of a performer will surely elevate the learning experience when students come back to the classrooms.
Covid has been an unannounced guest and has stayed longer than we had anticipated. The impact has been cataclysmic. But to despair at things beyond our control is accepting failure at the face of adversity. Covid has necessitated several innovations in education sector. Many of which would have a long-lasting impact, so that whenever normalcy resumes, it would not just be a new normal, but it would also be a high normal. For the teacher as well as the taught.
(The author is a faculty in the department of management studies, Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He is also an Associate at Mossavar Rahmani Centre for Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. He has been leading the publication of the India Venture Capital and Private Equity Report since 2009. He also founded the Ynos Startup to help and mentor other startups. He can be reached at [email protected]. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)