For All Students In Online Classes, Your Teachers Miss You


A decade or so ago, in a faraway continent, in those distant times when people could sit together at less than arm’s length and chat at coffee shops, I heard a conversation about good education that has stayed with me.

Two friends were arguing fiercely about how to ‘fix’ the Indian educational system – a topic that is a well-beloved trope among the Indian diaspora. My first friend – a ‘randomista’ (at least at that time) – was arguing that India should do many experiments with the new computer technologies available that could show the authorities the truth about “what works”. Carried away with excitement, he raised his voice and said something like “Good education is about the quickest way of making young people learn, and with new technology and thanks to experiments, we know now how to do this”.

My other friend was visiting from India and had spent years in the mire of what is unequivocally a struggling public school system. He had listened carefully till this point but now raised his hand and countered “Actually, no – good education is about relationship and trust, it’s about recognition, about mistakes and wrong paths, and even about love, and we are still learning…we’ll always be learning.”

I was unused to thinking about the process of education in these hopelessly nebulous and emotional terms, but the years that have followed have made me lean to the side of my second friend. We have exams and tests and other more sophisticated ways of assessing learning outcomes, and for many, these are the final consequences of interest. But it seems to me that the process of educating is irreducibly relational, and difficult to break down into general algorithms.

This is not to say that there are no good tricks or aids that work, but rather that it seems like beyond a point, the motivation for learning depends on the quality of relationships between teachers and students. And this, by its very nature, then appears to be a hit or miss operation. We have all had wonderful and inspirational as well as dispiriting and terrible experiences as students (and teachers). Each year of school or university involves enormous time and energy without a guarantee of success at its end.

One of the promises of ‘EduTech’, as it is sometimes called, is that it will serve to streamline this expensive and haphazard process. Technology access will, the idea goes, serve as a way to centre students and their interests. The process will be more effective, democratic and scalable if the student’s own volitions, capacities and interests drive the process of learning. I am not here to bury or praise this contention, but do want to note that the brave new world of technology replacing human interaction in this sphere has certainly been a long time coming and isn’t here yet. From one laptop per child to MOOCs to AI to various learning apps, we have had many very highly publicized and monetized interventions, but we are yet to see a convincing widespread alternative to human classroom teaching.

Now, born of necessity, we are in the middle of a giant global experiment in which the use of technology is not an option anymore. Across the board, we have to figure out how best to teach and learn when we cannot meet in person. We know that this will involve some serious loss. All the elements of human contact that make any class enjoyable – the spontaneous jokes, the metaphor that pops up organically to illuminate a concept, the effervescent energy of a sharp debate, the discussion that follows a contentious class – these are things that will be hard to replace. But we must adjust as we can.

While we may have been caught unawares last year, this time around, there is more time to prepare, to understand the promises and limitations of technology. This is all unchartered territory of course. At my university, my colleagues have been experimenting with various new tools: Miro, Perusall, offline journaling, Movavi, breakouts, etc. to try and solve some of the issues involved in the online transaction of content.

But these are not an unequivocal blessing. As much as these technologies help, they also exacerbate differences between students. The digital divide is real and harsh, crushingly so in India. Across the country and across families, a great many invisible and visible constraints make access to, and engagement with, even the best online content deeply uneven. Without taking this into account and trying multiple ways of transacting material, online education is likely to simply worsen these long-standing educational divides.

NDTV gave me the space to write this column because of an episode which I tweeted about that captures these issues. At a faculty meeting to discuss how best to go about the online trimester, my colleague Divakaran described how he would call students to join class when they did not log in. When he called one student (who lived in rural Karnataka), over the phone, he heard crashing rain in the background. The student was sitting under an umbrella, in a rainstorm, obtaining a signal at the only spot possible. The student was motivated, aspirational and had enough of a bond with his professor to undertake physical discomfort to learn mathematics. And Divakaran was motivated enough to call students for hours after his class was done to see how they were doing and how they were learning. 

In an online mode, we all work harder and at different registers as a result. If it works in the end, though, it will rely fundamentally on this ethic of mutual care and responsibility.

I think now about my two friends; strangely, if we had that conversation today, they may have more agreement than before. As educators in a pandemic, we have to experiment with the best way to use technology to help learning, and we also simultaneously have to discover how best to establish the bedrock of relationship with students across a flickering screen or a crackling telephone line. We don’t know how to do this-but as with all things in education, we will always be learning.

(Arjun Jayadev teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.)

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