Teaching Digitally: Reflections On Delivering Virtual Lectures Amidst A Pandemic
As with many industries, COVID-19 disrupted the tertiary education sector: by loss of students and their fee contributions, by the rapid transformation of the structured university learning environment, by the increased stress and isolation for students and staff, and by the very sudden move to online course delivery. This switch to digital teaching in early 2020 was on survival mode to keep the students and faculties, both teaching and non-teaching staff, safe. This meant not only shifting to online course delivery but also digitalization of teaching materials, which is not specifically a consequence of the pandemic, but its objective was to make knowledge accessible and available online through collaboration of teachers and IT professionals to record online lectures, making reading materials available. The goal perhaps was a continuation of knowledge as a service provision but critical academics began to pause and reflect on what new structures were being built and how do we envision a digital pedagogy in the foreseeable future? With advancing physical and mental health impacts of burgeoning screen time for students, families and teachers alike, there were larger questions about surveillance and privacy which were debated, discussed and eventually relegated to the backburner.
The Impact on Student Participation and Peer-to-Peer Learning
Most Indian universities, relaxed attendance rules, put in place COVID-19 protocols for academic teaching and research and held surveys and discussions with students and parents to allay fears, misconceptions and worries about a digital mode of teaching for coming semesters. As a discipline, environment studies draws on global expertise and insights: ecologies, cultures, histories and geographies, theories, practices and policies, understanding of contexts and communities, over time and place. As a student I had benefited hugely from the rich learning environment that was enabled through peer to peer and student led learning. I became critical of theories and practices because my peers were positioning themselves as such. Reflexively, I developed my ideas through peer learning, group discussion and consultation, mainly because they encouraged self-reflexivity and constructive, critical approaches through listening to others while clearly articulating my own ideas and opinions. As a teacher though I found it difficult to replicate this in digital settings, how can one facilitate peer to peer interactions through group work, critical debate and discussion of readings when we do not have even our cameras turned on. Those with language barriers faced further difficulties in conversing online compared with face-to-face in small groups.
Online debates on synchronous and asynchronous teaching list out the pros and cons but for majority Indian Universities the task was to replicate the face to face teaching using digital methods. The onerous task of reworking practice-based and experiential modules which required extensive changes fell on lecturers and teachers with minimal support. While students, who were expected to replicate their participation in an online world, were expected to turn up and participate while experiencing slow internet, surrounded by young children or other family members, living in shared accommodation, and mostly with sub-optimal IT facilities – working off their telephones or without proper microphone or video facilities.
The Impact of Gender and digital teaching
Although teaching in higher education institutes is lucrative, especially for a female teacher, like me, I doubt how much flexibility, and freedom do I really benefit. I reflected upon my personal responsibilities of childcare and home-schooling during the pandemic.
Here I reflect on my role as a teacher and my relationship with students within hierarchical and digitizing institutions. I inspect for patterns of teaching and shifts within knowledge production and learning through the intangible tasks such as creation of safe spaces, building solidarity and trust amongst students.
“How are you doing? What’s the one thing that’s keeping you sane in these times?”
Of the three semesters, I have taught 90% of my lectures beginning with this question.
More than a teacher, my unspoken job has been that of a counsellor, while juggling other personal responsibilities of childcare and home-schooling.
Through the difficult months of the pandemic I left my classes unstructured in such a way to offer a space for students just to be themselves with their abandoned reading assignments, tiresome screen times and complicated family and home arrangements. Some students were sharing computers and tablets with their siblings and timed their online classes accordingly.
While online education provides an opportunity to engage with students far and wide, and learn from global experts who are invited as speakers virtually, the significance of peer to peer learning model remains underexplored while teaching digitally. Regularly checking with students on how courses are structured, designed, delivered and assessed, what worked for them and what did not, has to inform courses taught in environmental studies. We indulge in creating digital doodles on some days, while watching films instead of lectures and seminars. We pause and observe nature around us and share our reflections in class.
In the absence of eye-contact, and other crucial non-verbal communication cues, students’ feedback is often relegated to and flattened along the side chatbox. How do I engage my students if I cannot notice their shifts in attention, how do I offer them reassurance, probe their understanding through questioning and encouraging collaboration without actually witnessing them paying attention. The proverbial raising hands is now limited to a mere icon on my screen and the silence after posing a question is deafening as I see nothing flickering on my screen.
What does this mean for the future?
COVID-19 offered numerous learning opportunities while also imposing significant constraints. Some students were forced to drop the class; many other students struggled because they or their family members were suffering from was hospitalized with illness, possibly COVID-related. Students taking on the above stressors alongside the requirements for assessment, examinations, submissions puts a great pressure to perform well, even excel so that further career and learning opportunities are not deterred due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Critical and reflexive teachers who question the balance between longer lectures and shorter tutorials, re-evaluate the structure of learning, opportunities to build trust and solidarity online without ever having met each other and providing a safe space to each and every student so that they feel heard and seen are resisting the neoliberal capitalist approaches towards commodification of education. The least we can expect universities to do is to not overlook these fundamental issues and brush them under the carpet. We owe this much at least to the generations who will shape the future.