Besides technical issues, such as broadband and bandwidth, there are other factors that impact the setting up of virtual classrooms. Some of these factors are social and cultural, peculiar to India, over and above the economic factors.
The spread, or the fear of infection, of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has shut down almost all educational institutions, of course besides other establishments/entities too, all over India. In the wake of such an unprecedented lockdown the different authorities in their respective domains and realms, at the school level or in higher educational institutions, have been proposing the ‘setting up’ of virtual classrooms for e-teaching towards imparting ‘lessons’ remotely.
What is to be remembered here is that for almost everybody it is a first time experience. It is not something that has been implemented, practiced or honed over a period of time. The assumption seems to be that since at an educational institution we have the technology — computers, web cameras, microphones, and Wi-Fi — we should be able to connect with the learners, provided they have a laptop, desktop computer or a smart phone. At the teaching/lesson imparting end it is expected that at least an almost dedicated studio kind of facility exists.
To what extent is that supposition valid? Besides, we also take it for granted that at the receiving end (the students) there is some uniformity as regards the requisite technology, in terms of a microphone/web camera, reliable broadband connection, steady power supply, and for those who rely on a smartphone, a consistent 4G Internet data plan. To amplify, there are inherent class factors that have to be considered.
There are two ways in which an e-teaching facility could be brought in. One, prepared lesson packs — pre-recorded with the content monitored, checked, and revised, time slots taken into consideration after obtaining feedback. This is very useful in terms of the learners going at their own pace, and also going back to the lessons as often and as and when they can. Much like pre-cooked meals, the ingredients and quality is checked and can be had at one’s own convenience.
Here, learners have the disadvantage of not being able to interact with the instructors the moment they find something that is not clear. Needless to say, developing such modules involves time besides the cost and other related factors.
The second way is to go live and expect that the target group is in attendance and is alert to what is being ‘taught’ and have their eyeballs as well as ears attuned to the event. Interface with the instructors happens here in real time and the exercise can be highly interactive. Here, the dining experience is more like having the meal prepared in front of the diners.
Indian IT scene is quite different from any place/institution in the West. Digital divide operates and does so in a big way in the Indian context. The penetration of IT is not to be taken for granted given we still have about 70 percent of the population in the rural areas which happens to be in a shade of dark grey.
Not that there is seamless, smooth and uniform distribution of IT and allied resources in the so-called urban areas. Many a pocket in the urban areas too are inhabited by sections of population that are underprivileged if not quite de-privileged. Broadband and bandwidth is not to be taken for granted when one is envisioning preparation for e-teaching and envisaging setting up of virtual classrooms.
Besides the technical issues delineated above, there are other factors that impact the setting up of virtual classrooms. Some of these factors are social and cultural, peculiar to or that pertain mostly to India, over and above the economic ones alluded to above.
Given the gender aspect and the way socialisation happens in India, there will certainly be discrimination in terms of access to a limited good such as a laptop or desktop computer in most households right up to the upper middle class segment. Girls will find that priority is given to their male siblings (as in the daily intake of food and nutrition) in most families.
Also, access to technology gets hampered if there are more children in the family; all of them may require access to the equipment at the same time. The elder and male siblings will end up hogging access to the resource.
There are many imponderables in the exercise that is being attempted and unforeseen insights will definitely emerge in both the recorded as will live remote teaching. The level of success will indeed depend on quite a few unanticipated positives as well as negatives. However, the effort will definitely make us learn quite a lot from the experiment.
It is also quite possible that it may make us aware of how things may unfold in the future, and enable us to modify the existing technology and innovate based on the feedback received.MA Kalam is dean — administration and regulatory affairs, and professor of anthropology, Krea University, Sri City, Andhra Pradesh. Views are personal.
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