Teaching in the Time of Isolation

Will universities just need humans or robots to record lectures and upload them on the internet? Is the human teacher in an actual classroom a dinosaur, on the verge of extinction?

“Swipe down diagonally from the top right corner of your iPad,” said the instruction on the website. After a few random attempts at swiping in various directions, and during which I nearly dropped the iPad, a few buttons finally and suddenly appeared. One of them had the magic words “screen sharing” under it. Excited, I started speaking over my slides to test. I played the video back to discover there was no sound.

Was the experiment a failure even before it had started? After some more juggling and more instructions, I realised I had to keep the screen-sharing button pressed for a few seconds to allow it to access the microphone. I tested again, and it worked.

I put my phone on silent, shut the door and sat down with my iPad to record my first remote lecture. With three decades of teaching experience, walking into a classroom and teaching is second nature to me. I was confident I would breeze through the recording, once the teething troubles of finding the right buttons to press had been sorted out.

I should also confess I was secretly pleased at having been spared the long commute to the Ashoka University campus (at that time it was just a two-week closure, not an indefinite lockdown, and that unexpected short break seemed very welcome, like a precious rainy-day holiday we would cherish as schoolchildren). Some of us have often joked about an Ashoka campus in Delhi, closer to home. Now, for a few days, the campus was not only close to home, it had walked right into the living room.

I started speaking and the first few minutes were fine. In the classroom, a few minutes down, I typically look at my students’ faces and gauge their reactions. Do I need to wake them up? Tell a joke? Say something provocative? Give an example from a movie? Locked in my bedroom, I got distracted trying to imagine what their reactions might be as they listened to this.

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I had to force myself to focus on the lecture, as there was a disjunction between the act of speaking and the act of listening. Not only was nobody listening to me instantaneously as I spoke, I didn’t even know when the students would eventually get around to listening to the recording. Of course, in theory, I knew about this as I decided to record my lecture but the implications of this disconnection, in practice, of what seemed like a relatively minor deviation from the routine way of lecturing were completely unexpected. I found myself rather disconcerted.

As I got deeper into the technicalities, I was desperate to ask: Are you with me? Is it clear? Should I repeat? In the classroom, I tend to make eye contact with students repeatedly, and pick up on a frown on someone’s face even if they haven’t asked a question. Which part of this is unclear? Did you read the paper I had shared beforehand? How many of you read it? I spent a lot of time on this in the last class, remember?

But in this virtual non-existent classroom, there was nobody but me. And I was talking to my inanimate, unresponsive, expressionless iPad. I went through the lecture, occasionally repeating, occasionally pausing and completely clueless about whether I had managed to make a connection.

I sent an email to students requesting feedback on my first experience recording a remote lecture. I had done a few podcasts earlier, but those were always interviews, i.e. I was speaking to someone in the recording studio, who was asking questions and responding to my comments. But alone with my gadgets, staring at the walls, I felt like a novice despite three decades of teaching, with the same nervous energy I had felt after my very first lecture. The relief I felt when students started responding with positive feedback was palpable.

However, after a week of experimenting with recorded lectures, I realised that a defining feature of the classroom is the interaction between students and the teacher and between students themselves. Students feed on each other’s energies, positive and negative. Students are also very astute: anticipating their questions and preparing for hypothetical questions that might get asked keeps teachers on their toes. Starting week 2, I have switched to online lectures, where I can see my students on the screen as I am delivering my lecture. It’s not the same as being in class together but as close as one can get to recreate that experience.

When teachers work from home

The pandemic has forced all of us lucky enough to have regular jobs to work from home (WFH). Middle-class freelancers have always done this but teaching is – or was until now – intrinsically about human contact, about the real-time communication between teachers and students. As one transitions into WFH for what looks like the indefinite future, one begins to wonder… Could this be the future of pedagogy? Is the classroom being permanently replaced by Zoom or Google Meet? Looking further ahead, will universities just need humans or robots to record lectures and upload them on the internet? Is the human teacher in an actual classroom a dinosaur, on the verge of extinction?

Digitally available lessons are not new at all and have continuously been evolving over the last decade, and more to very sophisticated forms. The internet is a treasure trove of amazingly well-curated content and pedagogical tools. Only a Luddite would deny the positively revolutionary role that several virtual platforms have played in disseminating knowledge by releasing concepts, tools, scholarship and ideas from ivory towers and rendering them accessible and usable to those who have internet access and know where to look.

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Yet the real-world classroom has features that no digital medium can replicate. The science students can’t perform experiments virtually and science teaching is incomplete without experiments.  The arts also needs physical lessons, especially for the more creative side. A good vocal music teacher will look at your posture and be able to correct you if you are not producing the sound from your stomach. Humanities and the social sciences might fare marginally better at being able to deliver basic content online but face-to-face discussion and blackboards are indispensable for advanced learning.

Learning is not a solitary activity. Far more important than the interactions inside the classroom are those outside it. Students exchanging notes, studying together, teachers discussing ideas over coffee (or drinks), chatting about the latest research, arguing, bonding – all these are essential for our brains to remain active, alert and inquisitive. That’s why coffee houses are integral to the vitality of university life. And this is one aspect online platforms accessed from the confines of the home are unable to recreate.

The H in the WFH

Finally, and unrelated to everything above, is the question of the suitability of the home as a space for learning. Only a small minority has spacious, quiet, happy homes. Even if everybody had uninterrupted electricity and high-speed internet, there would be several teachers and students for whom the home would not be a conducive setting – especially in developing countries where homes tend to be small, and personal privacy a luxury. Teachers, especially women, would find it very difficult to convince children or elders at home to maintain silence for the duration of their lectures.

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Time-use surveys for women across different cultural settings have recorded how women multi-task routinely: cooking, cleaning, feeding the toddler, supervising the older kid, serving food to the parents-in-law, while checking emails (if they are urban professionals). Homes can also be oppressive and abusive spaces: the college classroom, by forcing both teachers and students to be physically away from their homes, has the potential to allow them to free their minds temporarily from the tyranny at home.

In these extraordinary times, we the teachers have no option but to shift online, lock, stock and barrel, and thousands of us across the world have risen to the challenge. As we adapt to this new reality, some are wondering if this is the beginning of the end of our species, the Homo magister. Ten days into the world of online instruction, as I crave for my classroom, I feel optimistic that it is not.

Ashwini Deshpande is a professor of economics at Ashoka University.