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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Online schooling: Possibilities and concerns

Coronavirus pandemic: With the possibility of shutdowns in certain countries going into months, students will need to be given learning environments where knowledge distribution is regulated, graded and personalised.

Written by Haris NP | Updated: April 3, 2020 4:26:26 pm
While engaging students during this time away from school is important both for academic and emotional reasons, it is crucial to remember that technology has to be seen as an aid to schooling, not a substitute to it. (Representational Image)

As the world is made to go into a terrible shutdown due to COVID-19 fears, there is a lot of renewed interest in online teaching and learning methods. A lot of schools across the world have already started taking academic activities online — setting up classrooms, sending notes and sharing assignment prompts — many through free apps and some through customised learning management systems.

While engaging students during this time away from schools is important both for academic and emotional reasons, it is crucial to remember that technology has to be seen as an aid to schooling, not a substitute to it. Software experts and educational products often trying to make it look like they would be able to replace teachers is among the difficult relationship they have with teachers.

Now that we have met with a crisis, even teachers seem to think there is a necessity to use the possibilities of technology. The fear that school managements won’t use this in downsizing the number of teachers, once the Corona-scene is over, is not completely misplaced given many for-profit managements have always been obsessed with profit-maximisation. Managements should remove this unnecessary fear for the involvement of the teachers if this transition is to become wholesome.

Wise use of technology in schooling would necessarily require good teachers. Its task is to improve the conversation between teachers and students, not to abandon it altogether. If all of us understand schools as not just delivery points of learning and qualification but also as spaces of social growth, then technology will become a more comforting and effective participant in the process of schooling.

Information, Interaction and Self-Study

There are three sides to the act of schooling: information, interaction and self-study.

As for the first, the Google revolution has empowered us with a lot of information and provided access to teaching and learning mechanisms across the world. These help teachers prepare and integrate the learning schemes of much of the world better. As for the third, students now have access to materials much beyond their text and notebooks for better understanding and revision. Getting good material only requires orientation and cultivating of online surfing around studies, and a provision of time for such works. These work perfectly during term time in schools, when actual teaching goes on.

It is in the second area, teacher-student interaction, where cyber technology has a crucial role when schools are not functioning regularly. Online classrooms, starting from Google Classrooms, Zoom, Skype, Electa, Goto Meeting, Tokbox (Vonage) are supposed to stand in here.

The first thing school authorities have to take care of is to make sure that teachers have been provided with laptops/tablets and a steady internet connection for such exercises, for it is not something to take for granted in a lot of places, especially in India. Assuming an IT infrastructure and capacity might turn out to be a mistake when you get down to working on the ground. Teachers should have basic operating skills in computers and good typing speed. These are investments school managements have to make. Though they might look trivial, there is no take-off for a digitisation project without these infrastructural facilities that equip teachers.

Classroom Interaction and Online Interaction

There is a major difference classroom and online teacher-student interactions. A lot of things that are taken care of unknowingly in classrooms will need to be planned into the online scheme: lessons have to be broken down to smaller units, key takeaways in each section have to be identified and spelled out, everyday small little online tests have to be made available so that students get a concrete idea about the interaction, videos and notes have to be given for clarity and revision. What works for in-person classes won’t naturally work for online work compels us for such a reconceptualization.

In this, Learning Management Systems can be of help: they create an online means of mediating the teacher-student interaction. Without such a mechanism to organise learning and teaching, the process can become hazy, ineffective and stressful to both students and teachers on an everyday basis.

The other important requirement is the online window LMSes provide for this interaction: school children don’t usually have phones, social media accounts or even e-mail IDs. Much of it requires a legal age and giving primary students email IDs and thus access to a lot of online materials might be a cause for parental concern. Hence, a learning management system, with dedicated usernames and passwords, for each and every student can be handy.

IT Integration and Experts

Those schools which don’t want to work with LMS solutions could always benefit from consulting with e-learning experts who can advise teachers on online teaching, mentoring and evaluation. Schools have to figure out a practical scheme that works for academic digitisation as per its conditions and capabilities. There is no one single method that works globally.

Though Learning Management Systems are already available with some of the high-end schools, they are often noted to be under-utilised. This is where IT consultants who work closely with the teachers and school leadership become important. Without an expert from the IT field, technology integration is going to be time-consuming, cumbersome and ineffective.

Consultants are most crucial for schools that are thinking of free solutions available online. Experts with experience in online solutions and schooling can help in getting the project of online learning started and hand hold all the stake-holders- teachers, students, parents and management-into working as a team. Or else, IT in schooling might continue to be either an administrative tool or an add-on academic aspect, not one that makes learning more fun, more effective and more powerful for a time like ours today.

With the COVID-19 disrupting our lives so fundamentally and deeply, and the possibility of shutdowns in certain countries going into months, students will need to be given learning environments where knowledge distribution is regulated, graded and personalised. That has to be one of our concerns in the time to come.

(Haris NP, the London-based CEO of BAABTRA and conceptualiser of CYBERSQUARE, works on teaching programming for primary schools).

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