With the large scale adoption of virtual learning, Prof. Vishal Garg takes a look at it from the teachers’ point of view. Through useful tips and pointers on making it a wholesome experience, he reveals how it’s much more than just turning on the camera.
When educational institutions were forced to shut down worldwide in response to the Coronavirus outbreak early this year, it forced educators to move to the online medium of instruction overnight. While some institutes were already following a blended learning approach, virtual classes were adopted by the vast majority of others as a stop-gap measure. The intent then was to ensure continuity in the academic calendar and achieve closure of the sessions with some degree of normalcy. Going by the continued uncertainty caused by the pandemic, what seemed then as a temporary plug to ‘save the semester’ is here to stay.
Responsibilities of Teachers
There exist umpteen arguments both in favour of and against streamed education. From issues concerning accessibility and affordability, unhealthy amounts of screen time exposure, to interesting advantages afforded by this any time – anywhere pedagogy, the overall impression is favourable for widespread adoption. That said, the case is not for continuing e-learning as the *only* approach but as one parallel to traditional in-class engagement. For this, the role of teachers assumes significance. We’ve come a long way from the traditional gurukul system of yore where the students or ‘shishyas’ lived with their ‘guru’ or teacher whose responsibility it was to guide, evaluate and qualify them based on their progress. With industrialisation and the advent of the printing press, the teacher is no longer the sole proprietor of knowledge dispensed. There are textbooks and other resources that one can tap into in the pursuit of knowledge. The delivery of instruction too does not rest solely with teachers anymore. They can often be found directing students to well-known resources such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, Coursera, NPTEL, edX among others. But far from getting redundant, the role of the teacher has morphed into one of a facilitator or a mentor. In the new age, with access to a plethora of online resources, the teacher’s responsibility now includes reviewing of available resources and selection of suitable ones based on the learning objectives of the course and goals of individual students.
Commonly misunderstood as a mere conversion of classroom lectures into an online format aided by PowerPoint slides, either recorded or live-streamed, the virtual pedagogical approach is more complex than that. Here, the focus is on the learner. Only a shift from synchronous instruction where everyone is present at the same time, to less synchronous activities will make it more learner-centric. There are four major aspects with respect to the online method of instruction that make for a comprehensive learning management system (LMS): Content Creation, Content Delivery, Collaboration, and Evaluation. There exist free and popular LMS such as Moodle and Open edX that can assist educators in creating effective online content.
Content Creation: Creating content for the online medium is time-consuming. For recording lectures, a desirable scenario would be to have campuses boasting of top-class studios with recording facilities, much like production houses. E-learning content, however, is much more than mere videos. To corroborate this, studies have revealed that students’ attention span for watching online educational videos drops substantially after 6 minutes. While a traditional in-class lecture can last for an hour, the same content when online is more effective if it is broken up into smaller digestible chunks. Student engagement of such material can also be maximised when interactive learning strategies such as active learning is present through discussions, problem-solving, case studies, role plays and other methods.The simplest way would be to insert a quick question after every 3 minutes of video presentation and a discussion forum along with every video. This would not only serve as an assessment tool but also reenergize the learner and help in understanding the content covered. One of the best approaches to determine the right kind of activities required for your course is to use revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. Even though the model itself was created for traditional classroom teaching, it has been applied to fit current trends. From the first level of learning which is Remembering to the highest level of Creation, one can design appropriate activities to measure learning objectives at each level. Finally, there are new-age techniques of enhancing interactivity through integrated applications in the curriculum giving constant feedback on the learner’s progress. Think DuoLingo or other applications typically used to learn languages, musical instruments and others. For creating such effective virtual learning materials, one can utilise a range of resources. The setup can vary from a humble laptop equipped with a web camera to a sophisticated studio setup on campus. Several free as well as paid-for tools to record and create animated, interactive content are now available. For subjects where teachers would prefer to use a blackboard, new technologies such as Lightboard, smart pens, document cameras, digitizers and so on can be used. One can even build a simple teleprompter to record lectures while looking at the camera.
Content Delivery: Keeping in mind that there is a huge variation in the kind of resources accessible to learners, we must avoid synchronous teaching and instead use diverse channels to reach out to them. These could vary from something as simple as a regular landline connection supplemented with presentation printouts to recorded USB drives, beaming recorded lectures over satellite TV, to the usage of more sophisticated tech tools such as browser-based Microsoft Live presentations in PowerPoint which not only allows for more interactivity but is also available to those with low internet bandwidth. The MS Live feature allows real-time transcription and translation of the spoken words into various languages during the presentation which will be a boon for non-native speakers of the language being presented in. Many video platforms are widening their scope, especially for the pandemic-era teaching. One interesting development is the “Together Mode” in MS Teams. Currently utilized by many teachers during online assessments, it is an immersive feature meant to give the feel of being in the same classroom. Polls can be used effectively for real-time feedback during live sessions. With the advent of browser-based virtual labs, it is now possible to conduct experiments online.
Of course, complex engagements requiring delivery across multiple channels will require institutional support to the teacher both in the creation as well as delivery of content and needs to be explored.
Collaboration: Much of learning happens with peers when students are solving problems together. But since they are not together in a physical location, that is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of online education. To deal with this, many online collaborative tools exist, such as Google Docs, GIT and others. Plus, this is where a Teaching Assistant (TA) plays an important role. The TA not only adds value to what teachers do, but also provides academic and technical support to students. When TAs create student groups, they foster student-to-student discussion and collaboration and play the part of able facilitators. By being present online during courses, they help in getting valuable instantaneous feedback and liaison between teachers and students.
Evaluation: Synchronous testing of all learners who sign up for a course should give way to assessments in the form of discussion boards, quizzes and asynchronous tests. In addition to techniques such as running answer scripts through anti-plagiarism software to check instances of cheating during online testing, other methods such as randomisation of test questions should be explored. One way to motivate students to uptake project work and improve the quality of their submissions is to make their reports and demos public. Likewise, peer reviews where students take responsibility for assessing the work of their peers against set assessment criteria help when there is voluminous student work. It is also a transparent way of marking grades. That said, assessments and testing in the traditional sense itself ought to be done away with and instead evaluation of real-life problems should be encouraged.
Rethinking Education Delivery: An option worth exploring is the possibility of an online collaborative education system especially at the national level. This can be done via the creation of consortiums of academic institutions much like the alliances that exist in the hospitality and airlines sector. When this happens, not only will there be an elimination of needless duplication of resources (for instance, base lectures in every discipline) but also students can dip into the collective strength of resources of the alliance that individual institutes bring along. It will automatically raise the standards of excellence. With complete access to the alliance’s digital infrastructure, physically relocating to another city where the particular institute is located will become unnecessary too in a scenario like this. Using the physical infrastructure of a particular institute will be a necessity only in instances where students need to exercise their choice of electives or project work that certain institutes are specialized in. A situation like this is likely to be win-win for both students as well as faculty. While students get access to the best resources, faculty can also attract more students in the absence of physical constraints.
Conclusion: In order to make online learning a better experience than in-class learning, and I daresay a delightful one for the learner, we must leverage technological advances and utilise new-age tools. This might need developing appropriate infrastructure and upskilling of all stakeholders. Any-time access to content created by world-renowned experts in the particular field, coupled with the availability of TAs 24×7 and AI-based chatbots at the learners’ convenience will be a game-changer. Online education can serve as an enabler for collaboration among institutions at the national level. Rather than competition among institutes, joint efforts in the dissemination of instruction will provide access to the best resources and benefit all stakeholders.