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CPS Home > Talking policy > The Pragmatics Of Online Teaching

DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

By Anurag Mehra

I have been tempted to write this blog because of several messages that I have received in response to an op-ed piece that I published on NDTV a few days ago (Mehra, 2020).

The key takeaway that I have culled from many messages (and conversations) is that there are many who are uneasy with online teaching, and perhaps even more with online learning in general, and the op-ed piece verbalised it, all together, in one piece. 

I have also been discussing with some colleagues regarding what should be done or what are the ‘best’ options, given that we are stuck in this situation of not having physical classrooms available to us. I am sure that many among us have also thought about these issues, but let me still put together my ideas of what will work and what could be done. It goes without saying that many of the problems that I mention in the NDTV op-ed piece will remain; we will have to live with some of them, while moderating the ill effects of others.

My first thought is that most of us are in some state of anxiety about what may happen to us or our loved ones – the Covid-19 pandemic remains on the top of our minds. Given this very unfamiliar and life-changing moment in our lives, why do we think that covering the ‘full syllabus’ or ‘sticking to the academic schedule’ is so vital? I would suggest letting some courses go, lightening the load. We should, of course, be thoughtful about what to exclude and what not to. Departments can mull over how the load can be reduced, what courses can be done later and what we need not worry about if these are not taught at all.

The second thing that strikes me is the inevitability of the unequal digital classroom. One colleague sent me NSO data of 2017-2018 (pages A-74, A-75) regarding internet penetration within the general population and the figures are very disappointing (MoSPI GoI, 2017-2018). More updated statistics (Statista, 2020) paint a similar, though somewhat improved, picture about internet access. Of course, this picture may not be properly representative of the student population inside an IIT, so we wait with bated breath to see what the institute-initiated surveys will reveal about internet accessibility in relation to our students. A friend, from Pune, pointed out that even in some of the bigger cities, internet access is not guaranteed to be of high quality everywhere. Another colleague has noted that the ‘daily data packs’ (like 1 GB/day) may not be enough to enable live classes in absolute terms or because sufficient data may not be available when the class is scheduled. It may be a good idea to give students from disadvantaged sections 4G packs, or even smartphones and laptops (standard, branded), perhaps under a hardware loan scheme, to create greater digital equity. In any case, as things stand today, it is very likely that we will have some students in our digital classroom who will not be able to attend live (synchronous) lectures. 

This gives rise to two questions. Should we simply conduct live online sessions for as many students who can attend and simultaneously devise ‘some other’ compensatory mechanism for those who cannot, or should we eschew live online lectures altogether and just ensure that video recordings of lectures are made available to all? The former deploys interactive, live options but is not equitable, while the latter does level the playing field for all. 

For the former case, what could be the offline (asynchronous) options that we could offer to those students who cannot attend live lectures? We could, for instance, provide for low bandwidth-requiring email-based discussions on Moodle. However, I am not sure if that would be sufficiently ‘compensatory’.

For the latter case, that of using only recorded lectures, the problem will be getting students to watch the videos. To twist a common saying, the water may be there but the horse may not be interested in drinking. If we cannot do this properly – and this is willy nilly a flipped classroom – there will be no meaningful discussion ever in such a course, nor much learning. 

Therefore, the third issue which is bothersome relates to exams and assessments. Because ‘attendance’ does not have much meaning in the current scenario, the only method to get students to ‘participate’ in the course may be to conduct multiple quizzes and tests, throughout the duration of the course. It is here that we hit obstacles in conducting these tests. Live tests may not be feasible for some students for the same reason that live lectures are not – poor access to the internet. And even if these tests are feasible, un-proctored tests have no meaning for assessment of any sort. 

The only test we have left is the take-home exam which can be submitted without the need of a continuous internet connection. This mode of testing has been thoroughly discredited in our system by the very high extent of cheating and plagiarism. Honor codes have no meaning (our department has one) and students mostly treat it as something hilarious. This is why so many of us do not like to give much weightage to home assignments for grading. Even if we did run anti-plagiarism software checks on student submissions there is no way of ensuring that the work has not been done by someone else or paraphrased from someone else’s work. So now we are kind of stuck. This might yet be the best assessment option yet but is unlikely to be ‘fair’.  Institutes are apparently trying to figure out what software/vendor/app we could use to conduct proctored exams for students sitting at home though I am quite convinced that such a thing is conceptually not possible – it will be entirely feasible to beat any such system. We could possibly use take-home tests and allot them moderate weightage and conduct a final exam of heavier weightage once the students return to campus. This should work for some courses and for some batches.

The fourth issue is with respect to a digital divide of a different kind – that of devices. While it may not be very important whether we listen to a video recorded lecture (or even a live class on, say, Zoom) on a smartphone or tablet or laptop, this issue is important for work that is computational. Many engineering courses demand a reasonably powerful computer, typically a laptop, for doing numerical and programing work. Students who do not own a laptop either borrow it from friends or use desktop computers in the department labs. This access is gone now. And it is unlikely that we can find an immediate solution for this. 

The fifth issue that I want to flag is about using other people’s material for our slides, presentations and videos. Using bits and parts here and there, with acknowledgement, because they are so well made, is fine but taking material from others in copious amounts is ethically very inappropriate, and a form of plagiarism. I have even heard some faculty ask if there is any harm in using Prof XYZ’s NPTEL lectures instead of having to make their own (and a similar logic is applied for slides as well). The simple answer is that if I am the instructor, then the material should predominantly be prepared by me – as a supplementary resource I can use whatever else but not for the main instruction.

Beyond these specific issues, some general guidelines which may help us in being effective are:

If we are lucky to have all students with internet access in our course, a live lecture should be worth it – with full awareness of the problems that we have already experienced. Class sizes should be kept small. Floating lots of electives (with caps on total enrollments) will also help in achieving this. Anything above 20-25 will render the experience ineffective. This means departments will have to redo course allocations!

For large batches, using the option of recorded lectures, we will need small tutorials or discussion groups, either live or on email/Moodle.

It may be a good idea to avoid slides and presentations, or perhaps use them minimally. The best thing to do is to simulate the chalk and talk method that we are most at home with. For this mode we will need a writing tablet with screen recording or do a Zoom/Webex recording. Though, another good alternative may be to deliver our lecture in a classroom and get a colleague to record the video. In this context, it will help if every department can have a classroom or two with basic lighting on the dias, tripod, black or white board, projector and screen, and a ‘system administrator’ who can help to process video recordings (format, resolution, size, among other details).

It might also be a good idea if departments scrutinised each and every course and kept some record of what kind of strategy is being followed for different categories of courses.

The website, created by Education Technology (2020), an Interdisciplinary Programme at IIT Bombay, is very useful for exploring techniques and technologies that may be helpful for preparing ourselves.  

References: 

Mehra, Anurag. (2020, June 2). After Weeks Of Online Classes At IIT, Here’s The Truth. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from NDTV: https://www.ndtv.com/opinion/online-classes-sound-cute-on-paper-heres-the-reality-2237464

Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation. (2018). Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from MoSPI GoI: http://mospi.gov.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_Education_75th_Final.pdf

Statista Research Department. (2020, May 8). Internet usage in India – Statistics & Facts. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from Statista: https://www.statista.com/topics/2157/internet-usage-in-india/#:~:text=Despite%20the%20large%20base%20of,access%20to%20internet%20that%20year.

Education Technology. (2020). Online Teaching. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from Education Technology IIT Bombay: https://sites.google.com/view/iitb-teachonline/home

1 Response
  1. Atanu Ghosh

    Very valid points raised and own views articulated. I believe around faces of 40-45 students can get cover on a lap top screen. Therefore some faculty members feel that class size be capped at 45, to enable the instructor to observe engagament of the students .

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