How must we not teach our children
Prof. Debarshi Mukherjee
We erred once; we erred twice; let’s not make a hattrick out of how we are managing the teaching-learning practices under the gradually reducing pandemic fear. Suppose we could split our time frame in three portions of first, second, third wave. In that case, we could see that from March 2020 to February 2021 the entire world was reeling under severe spread of Corona virus and the entire education system completely crumbled, sending a distress signal to every nook and corner of academia. Depending on their availability technology infrastructure, universities across the globe switched to online teaching. The voice of dissent among the students and guardians soon started populating the media and other digital spaces. Even for an ardent advocate of online teaching like me felt somewhere deep inside that something wasn’t right! The comedy of errors just began. A severe misunderstanding of the difference between emergency remote teaching and planned online learning followed by infrastructural bottleneck earned online learning a terrible and negative publicity which certainly it didn’t deserve. For a simpler analogy, will you shoot the car you are traveling by for reaching the airport late and missing the flight to your destination? Why didn’t you start early? You may fire your driver, buy a new car or may choose to buy a new airline but never would it undo the mistake of not being able to prognosticate. Teachers across the institutions tried a hold a grip on technology-mediated learning practices that many of them had never heard of ever, slogged day and night only to learn how to communicate with their pupils, content, and engagement to be talked the least. As institutions started retrenching the teachers across academic institutions, the teachers were facing a double whammy; if the first one was of pandemic fear, the second would obviously be the lack of skills to hold online classes. It’s a predicament to think that a teacher who was an asset to the institution just a couple of months ago suddenly handed over a pink slip or a generous management sends them on a long unpaid vacation only to return none knows when.
The plight of the graduating students was worse. The students who got awarded their degrees in 2020 and 2021 were stigmatized by etching their hearts as batch who escaped the hard grind of the physical examination. During my long interaction with the students and their families, it surfaced that financial constraints coupled with poor technical skills managed to foster a smear of distrust for the academic institutions and, as a result, came down heavily on online learning missing the big picture thereby.
Every time the decision to close at academic institutions was taken, it caused more damage than good. Instead, it proliferated the growth of ed-tech products only to widen the digital divide. In India, government schools offer the backbone of primary and secondary education, mostly located in rural areas with zero or minimum technology infrastructure. In many areas the schools reopened after complete closure of almost two years, forcing many students to drop out.
Another interesting decision was to conduct classes with 50% attendance which meant that the teachers had to repeat the same content to the two different groups of students of the same class either in blended mode or on alternated days thereby causing quick a burnout of teachers – an important part of the society considered the most dispensable. Moreover, it doesn’t need any expert to deduce that the efficacy of teaching cannot be the same in both sessions, thereby depriving one in the process.
Daft & Lengel (2006) in their neo-classical media richness theory (MRT) advocated that as the quality of digital media improves, the students will enjoy higher learning gain. However, the theory proved itself so brilliantly when we saw the hue and cry during online sessions as unstable media, power disruptions, and low internet bandwidth crippled the learning experience indicating that we didn’t plan well. Technology-mediated learning pedagogy is a planned intervention supported by adequate support infrastructure. In the absence of the same, the whole exercise becomes futile despite the best and willing efforts of the teachers & students alike. When we switched to emergency remote teaching, none of us could anticipate that we were looking at a gleam scenario that would sustain over a year or more but never planned for a long haul.
Another classic failure model is the neighborhood schooling system for middle and senior grade students. In one of my previous articles, I explained how Rabindranath Tagore propagated the idea of curating happiness in learning, and setting up a sudden classroom in the open-air works on the contrary (source: https://www.eastmojo.com/top-news/2021/07/18/deriving-happiness-in-learning-from-rabindranath-tagores-ideals/). Must we not be mindful that one-size-fits-all pedagogic practices do not deliver instead develop a repelling effect in the psyche of young adults, i.e., graduating sophomores.
Caught between the maxims of naturalism and idealism, we often remain prisoners of our own beliefs duly subverted by the colonial dominance confined in fractal dimensions that prevailed over us for centuries. The ideas of mentoring young minds to creative pastures rarely cross our minds.
Japan was perhaps one of the first to open their schools even for the primary section around September 2020 when we struggled to find a solution. By altering the teaching pedagogy, glass wall around every desk, revised game routine, reinforced dietary regime, and most importantly obeying the ‘time-honored’ decision of wearing masks in public places, the country's schooling system never had to flinch in thin air for a working solution. Till date the country reports the lowest rate of Coronavirus casualties in the world with respect to population (Japan records 159 deaths/million, which is lower than India 362/pm and much lower than USA 2819/pm, source https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries).
Many would blame me for comparing the situation between two countries differ in developmental aspects, be it resource availability, population overload, or infrastructural insufficiency. I would like to attract the readers' attention towards one important research finding that suggests the pedagogy adopted in the pre-primary and primary sector provides discrimatory evidence towards development and the contrary between two juxtaposed countries. We did an experimental study with primary school children in the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh and used a design thinking approach to help them learn and found excellent responses in terms of positive engagement and application of creativity when the teachers meet them with empathy. More importantly, another recent study revealed that for countries like Russia, the guided learning support by the teachers is not as much important in tertiary education compared to India and Bangladesh, highlighting that the primary and secondary sectors in Russia sufficiently groom young learners for a self-learning environment. Moreover, an ongoing study on the impact of pandemic fears among the college students of India and Bangladesh revealed that the fear of COVID-19 is no more having an impact and receding at a faster pace supporting the government’s decision to reopen the schools and colleges. Invaded personal spaces coupled with constant parental supervision in the confines of the homes were causing adverse effects on the metal health of the school children. Different studies suggested a sizable section of the school children suffered from various mental health issues ranging from irritability, anxiety, fear of missing online classes and cyber bullying indicating a stressful life for the young learners (source: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(20)30109-7/fulltext).
Online education has been proved to be an effective learning medium only when it is ingrained in the learning ecosystem duly interlaced with formal learning routines rather than using it as a surgical strike to counterbalance the situating emanating out of an emergency situation. All developed nations have successfully remodeled their teaching-learning practices through consistent and planned interventions with concerted support from technology capacity-building exercises in terms of making budgetary provisions for resource mobilization and infrastructure augmentation.
None had envisaged the dark spell of pandemic situation would cloud the learning aspirations for so long; hence the benign acceptance of ad-hoc deployment of emergency remote teaching seemed the ‘fail-safe’ mode but the use of fractal dimensions or cliched teaching practices by insufficiently trained teachers rendered less than expected outcome only to find the challenges become malignant while questioning the efficacy of online mode of teaching. Therefore, I would like to reiterate that our grand designs may fail, but we mustn’t plan to fail.
Prof. Debarshi Mukherjee is Professor and Head of the Department of Business Management, Tripura University (A Central University) and the founding Head (i/c) of the Department of Tourism Administration. He has established the state’s first business incubator fully funded by the Ministry of MSME, Govt. of India. He is the State Coordinator of the AICTE sponsored Student Induction Programme for Tripura. He has been nominated as a Mentor by AICTE for newly inducted teachers of technical education besides being nominated as an expert for AICTE’s NEAT 2.0 initiative.