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If Online Education Is The New Face Of Learning, Are Our Teachers Ready?

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The new normal?

The pandemic has been a great teacher. While the quote has multiple layers of meaning, I would like to draw your attention towards two words – ‘Pandemic’ and ‘Teacher’. The entire world has changed a lot in the last one year, be it for migrants, doctors, nurses or educators.

We all were halted abruptly when the pandemic entered our lives and we started to enter the tunnel of uncertainties, finding some rays of hope to unlock the situation amidst lockdown. So would it be okay to say that we have adjusted to the new normal? And before answering it, try and answer for yourself, what is the new normal?

I have been working with the education sector for over five years now. The never seen before situation was evidenced last year in 2020 with the onset of lockdown. Being the year of pandemic, surprises, uncertainties, difficult times, hope as a scope and what not, it brought a new scenario in every field. One of the biggest shifts was evident in how schools function.

Representational image.

Imagine a school in rural India with three prominent stakeholders – the head master, teachers and students. Everyday, students come to the school to learn, grow and have some fun time with their friends. Just then, a pandemic hits, there is a lockdown announced in the country and everything is shut down.

No school, no playground and hence one of the key ways in which learning happened comes to a pause. Desperate times call for desperate measures. What happened next was our response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, like a teacher giving the toughest of questions, educators across states found different ways to upskill themselves to handle the situation, and learnt various new ways to connect to students online.

Not just this, there were also efforts made to create engaging and interactive space even despite going online. The shift has not been easy to adapt to. And for educators, it has been the toughest for several reasons.

In the words of Rohini Nilekeni, “In a perfect world, we would want universal access to the internet, and for young children to be protected from damage to their eyes or minds. We would want them to be in caring, engaging classroom settings and learning well, too.  Unfortunately, we were not in such a world before the  pandemic and we are certainly not in such a world now.“(Lockdown-online-classes-let-s-plan-not-ban).

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the new normal has started seeping into our normal lives.

Ground Stories

This section will throw light on how stakeholders from remote areas of UP and Bihar dealt with the new normal in an efficient and smooth manner. In the state of Bihar, government training institutions’ (DIET, PTEC, CTE and BIET) role is seen as vital in strengthening continuous professional development of teachers.

The major task of these training institutions is to offer superior–quality in-service and pre-service training to D.el.ed (Diploma in elementary education) students and primary school teachers respectively. Currently, there are 66 training institutions in Bihar.

After lockdown was announced across the state, the imperfect situations led the educators trying and finding out different ways to reach their students across the country. The lecturers at training institutions did something similar. Institutions were shut down, the students pursuing D.el.ed were also prevented from accessing education.

Online classes were the only option left for  them. They took the command and started planning to conduct online classes under the guidance of Directorate, Research and Training, to set up the virtual classroom spaces for their students.

online education
Representational image.

One of the lecturers of DIET Sonepur, Bihar shares her experience of transition from teaching offline to online. In her words, “Probably, we were not ready to switch our methods completely until pandemic hit us and I believe we would never have been more ready. But in the long run this would act as a boon for us given the change in times and how technology plays an important part in our lives now“.

There were multiple layers of challenges in the beginning,” she adds, “top most being not being able to be present while teaching-learning is taking place.” But these challenges didn’t stop them and they turned a disaster into an opportunity. With the mode of session or classes being online now, there has been a  regular  discussion on how to make these learning spaces the most powerful and useful for all the participants.

This process not just includes understanding the needs of the participants but it also provides them with the right knowledge and skills along with post session readings/ articles/ courses etc. The online classes are a blended model of synchronous and asynchronous learning styles.

In another example from Uttar Pradesh, the education department, with the aim of providing the best of the learning experiences for school heads, created a balance between providing synchronous and asynchronous learning to stakeholders. Self-learning courses are specifically designed and distributed through DIKSHA platform for different stakeholders like school heads, teachers etc.

Asynchronous Learning And Students

On their learning and preparation to fight with this situation, lecturers from training institutions in Bihar also struggled to reach each of the students due to lack of access to the internet, students in remote areas also do not have adequate power supply.

One of the lecturers shared that in order to overcome the challenges of reaching out to every student he created PDF of online classes and created a buddy system with students who had access to the internet so they could share and solve problems related to topics taught in any particular class.

They also were provided a question bank which they were supposed to solve in the form of PDF and in case of doubts, they could reach out to me anytime,” he adds. The educators saw these hurdles as an opportunity to learn and experiment something new.

They further add, “It has been a learning experience for me as now I can easily create PowerPoint presentations and have been teaching the students through audio-visual resources. This time also helped us connect with students without any time boundaries and the work hours definitely became more flexible.

I also used strategies like ‘Flipped Classroom’ to drive the class with more energy and enthusiasm as students were supposed to come prepared from home on a given topic and roles of the lecturer and the students were swapped.

During this time asynchronous learning resources proved to be a boon to these educators. Probably one of the best usages of asynchronous courses is that participants do not need to worry if they miss to take notes or want to refer to any of the important points later, they always have the courses/notes with them as their guide.

What works at scale when it comes to planning for online classes – The online class is a need and trend now, so if it has to be planned at scale (for more than a school or a district), there are certain things that we should keep in mind:

● Know your audience – Do a simple analysis before designing the courses or planning a class, to get an estimate of time and internet availability stakeholders would have. There is a constant struggle for stakeholders to get access to the internet, so plan accordingly.

● Go far, go together – Engage stakeholders (learners) in the process of designing and dissemination of courses/ lesson plans, it will build more acceptance and investment from their end.

● Create chances for collaboration – Sometimes the learners also require the space and time to discuss the courses/ reading with peers or facilitator(s). Design the program in a way that it creates the culture of peer-learning or collaboration. A blended learning which includes synchronous as well as asynchronous resources, is proven to be the best.

● Review it, before releasing it – To increase the participation of stakeholders, make the courses/ lessons more relatable and easier to learn. Taking help from the department or from senior officials, setting up a review committee also helps.

It must go on – There seems to be no other option but to continue, to continue the process so that learning doesn’t stop, to continue the online classes with a blended learning model, it is also the fact that face to face learning is irreplaceable but what the educators have been trying has at least brought an enabling environment to some of the beneficiaries (children, other stakeholders learning through online mode).

If schools/ institutions do not open in the near future, the priority must remain on continuity of learning. Research and data also show that maintaining emotional connection with learners and their meaningful assessment is not possible in online spaces. Hence, we are left with just one alternative, to create physical spaces with utmost safety and with  maintenance of protocol. Until then, the question that lies ahead of us is -if this is the new face of learning, how much are we ready for it yet?

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