From the Managing Editor’s Desk: As we publish this article in the May of 2021, India has seen a massive second wave of COVID cases. From the constant calls on social media for oxygen cylinders and beds to media coverage of people dying because of no oxygen, it is difficult to explain the deep dissonance that we experience in our daily lives. While some institutions have been fairly reasonable about expectations from students and teachers, the same cannot be said about many others, still insisting on submission of exams and assignments. The video of Seema Singh, a professor at IIT Kharagpur hurling casteist abuses at her students and still insisting on classroom ‘decorum’ went viral. It makes us question: What does it mean to be an educator in such a moment? What does it mean to be empathetic? What challenges do students face? Should we pause and allow ourselves to recover from the grief ? How can we push back against a constructed idea of “the show must go on” ? These are questions that require collective thinking and coming together.
In this article for May, Manasi Nene, Coordinator of DHARTI’s Special Interest Group on Pedagogy spoke to three people in the educational sector about challenges and adaptations. These interviews were conducted before the second wave of COVID cases hit India and therefore may not necessarily reflect the dissonance that has only intensified in the last few weeks. All opinions and views of the interviewees are personal and do not reflect the position of DHARTI.
Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. Read on…
Through 2020, we’ve had to face a sea of changes, and one of the biggest ones has been moving our workspaces online. For students and teachers, this year posed unique challenges, and many of the answers they were seeking are still works in progress. It has been a constant series of trials and errors, and every discipline and every level of study has seen its own learning curve.
In this blog post, I have spoken to three people who have engaged with online education in completely different ways this year. Students are unaware of the challenges faced by teachers, and teachers can also end up taking their students for granted. Public and private educators have also faced different challenges; and my hope is that reading about someone else’s experiences and challenges can help shed some light on some of the collective ways we can support and educate our communities better.
Mridula S is a Teach For India fellow, who teaches Mathematics, English and Social Studies at a government school in Pune
What technology have you been using over this year? What have been some of the challenges?
We’ve been using Google classroom, but to be honest there’s been a huge access problem. A lot of the students didn’t have devices. Even if they did, it was a smartphone that the parents needed for work. To give you an example, there are some parents who work in grocery shops so they have to keep taking online payments and they need their phone; there are parents who are tailors and they get their designs over WhatsApp so they need their phones.
We paired up with a large tech company to do a device distribution scheme, so that we could equip the children with low-end tablets, low-end smartphones at least. Sometimes we’d also pay for the data recharge. We could do 1 GB a day, which allowed for an hour-and-a-half of screen time, but sometimes the kids would exhaust the data in the morning, and not be able to attend class in the evening. Sometimes they’d run out of memory on their devices, and so they wouldn’t be able to download any educational apps. And a lot of them are living in small spaces, sometimes six to a room, so even when they managed to log in, there were a lot of distractions. Someone’s TV is on in the background, someone’s pressure cooker is going off, there are brothers and sisters running around in the background.
What are some ways you’ve tried to overcome these challenges?
A big problem was that even if the students had devices, they would just not show up. So I tried to implement a buddy system — have some of the more diligent students call up the others, and bring their buddy to class. Once this lot became regular, they would be tasked with calling up more of their classmates, and making sure they’re in class. I even taught a lot of them how to set alarms on their phones, which was tough to do individually.
In the teaching itself, retention has been a big problem. Students have been forgetting things they’ve learned, even letters, and dropping to lower reading levels. So I’ve tried to incorporate a more blended approach — going off-syllabus a bit, but I try to take different subject matters and find a common thread and link it together.
For example, I covered a story about different species of wildcats in India. There was a story, and they had to answer questions based on that, which was the English segment, and then for the mathematics segment we had these statistics on the tiger population, and we did some art activities on that as well. Then there was a geography section, and we learned about habitats, and things like that. So you’re bridging three, four things using one topic.
Have there been any unexpected positives from this situation?
I don’t know how much of a positive this really is, but I’ve also taken this opportunity to teach kids about sources of information online. How do you tell a source of information apart from one that is politically motivated? A lot of content in the syllabus is just not relevant to their lives — for example, the emphasis on things like the Chola empire, or the Mughal dynasty, children can’t see what it has to do with them. So I try to bring in material about Dr Ambedkar, about Mahatma Phule, even the farmer protests. Children have questions like, what do they eat at the protests, where do they sleep? So I open a Google search and share screen, and ask the students what to search for in English. So we keep up with some of the syllabus in that way, while also taking them through how to avoid misinformation.
I think we’re also realizing slowly what is relevant to children’s lives, and how to teach things they’ll actually relate to. A lot of online teaching material is not from India, if you search for stories they’ll all have ‘snow’ and ‘thatched roof’ and ‘Mrs Margaret’ and the children are like, what are these things? They don’t understand anything. A lot of it is also app-based, not web-based, and the low-end smartphones that we give the kids often doesn’t have that much memory. So we’re constantly looking for more material that can help the students learn better.
There’s one web-based game for teaching prepositions, which is pretty cool. Instead of filling in worksheets, there are graphics that the kids can move around, there will be a room and children have to place objects on things and between things and under things and move them around like that. Finding material like that has been a big positive. But overall, that’s just a drop in the ocean.
Supriya Nene is the principal of Marathwada Mitramandal College of Architecture in Pune
How did you adapt to online learning, what technology have you relied on?
When lockdown was initially announced, we had been using Google Classroom a bit, and use it for all our presentations and notes for different classes. Then it became obvious, just this much would not be enough. First, we had a workshop for all the teachers, on how to move online — how to upload files, how to keep track of student submissions, how to review classwork, things like that. We also had a workshop for the students, on how to upload their sheets.
A lot of the teachers were not comfortable taking classes from home — due to distractions, other family members and so on — so we set up a computer, camera and screen in each design studio, so that the faculty could go online from the campus. They would also use the computer lab for submissions.
Architecture is a pretty unique subject, in terms of the drawing, studio work, all the creative and practical components. How are you handling that?
It’s been hard, definitely. For the first two years, students have a lot of physical submissions, like drawing sheets, construction sheets and basic design sheets. It was not always possible for students to procure the full-size sheets, so some ended up whitewashing newspaper sheets, or worst case drawing on the walls of their home. They would then scan it, using a scanner app on smartphones, and upload that. From third-year onwards they CAD software (computer-aided drawing) and we could provide them with student versions of the licensed software.
For some other subjects, there is a lot of physical modelling with clay, plaster of paris, thermocol, and other materials like that. Again, this was not always available to students. There’s a very famous exercise in architecture where you use sculpture to explore the Inside-Out approach and the Outside-In approach, and students ended up using things like bread, cake, even atta — whatever they could find — and they would upload pictures of their work.
For the final-year thesis students also, it has been difficult. A big component is the site visits, where students carry out research on buildings that have already been made, but obviously that was not possible this year. Also, we usually give them an 8 feet by 4 feet space of wall, to display all their sketches, references, ideas, and so on — now they had to create it all as a PDF. It was difficult for the teachers as well, to guide and grade these.
Have there been any unexpected positives here?
In terms of design and student work, no. One thing that did become easier was collaboration from different places. We have a series of talks, called the Samvaad Series, where we invite people from related disciplines for guest lectures. This wasn’t possible physically, but we ended up calling architects from 8 different cities for the webinar-version of the Samvaad Series, something that would not logistically have been possible before.
There are not a whole lot of positives though. The quality of student work has dropped, and it’s very difficult to give them the kind of individual attention they need. We cannot hold their hands through the creative process, there is a lot of trial-and-error and discussion through which the student gets better at designing. Online, it’s not possible at all. Theory subjects have been a little easier, since that’s just delivering information, but the practical subjects have been much more difficult.
Is there anything else you’d like to communicate, to those who think online teaching has made things easier?
It’s not easy at all, in fact it’s much more difficult for teachers this way. Not only do they have to learn new technologies, but also new methods of communication. It’s tough for the students also, obviously, but it’s much more difficult for us to teach, now, than it is for them to learn.
Atharva L is a student in 9th grade, at a private school in Pune.
What technology have you been using, over the last year?
A laptop, mainly, and obviously you need an internet connection. My school used to use an app called SchoolDiary, but that was very buggy. So then we switched to Google Classrooms.
What have classes been like?
They’ve been very different, obviously. You don’t get the feel of the classroom, from your own house. The teachers connections sometimes go on and off… it’s already hard to understand and concentrate, but it’s even worse if the teachers don’t have a good connection. There’s a lot of “am I audible” and “can you hear me now” happening, so you don’t always get the feeling that you’re learning something.
How have you been giving tests and assignments?
In our school it’s very strict… we’re asked to turn on our cameras randomly, and show the teacher around the room. They want to make sure we’re not copying from any books. Also, sometimes, parents sit in the same room and give answers, so they want to make sure that’s not happening. Still, it’s more cheating-friendly this way than before. Students can just copy answers from Google search, but even then the teachers will come to know.
For example, in our Geography paper, the question was to list the types of volcanoes. The answer, in our textbook, was “active, dormant and extinct volcanoes”. But one boy decided to copy from a Google search, and he gave high-level answers — composite, shield, cinder cone and supervolcano. So obviously he didn’t get the marks, the teacher knew he was cheating. When I talk to some of my other friends, one of my friends told me they didn’t have to join a meeting or switch on camera, just submit their work… so I guess every school has been doing it differently.
What have been some of the big challenges through all this?
Mindset was the biggest challenge. You wake up, brush your teeth, stay in your pyjamas and attend the online class from your bedroom. In school, if the teacher is always around it’s harder to get distracted, if you’re up to any mischief then they’ll know. Over here, it doesn’t feel like school, you’re also away from your friends. Now that we’ve been doing this for over a year, it’s become a little easier, but the mindset is still the biggest challenge for me.