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A Teacher Discovers What Is Wrong with Online Teaching in Higher Education?

Forced by the coronavirus into a hastily designed virtual education mode, a college teacher discovers such classes are fraught with problems and students learn better when left to their own devices rather than pushed into frenetic online lectures.

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College students at Gargi College in New Delhi participate in online teaching-learning.
College students at Gargi College in New Delhi participate in teaching-learning in an online space. All teaching at Gargi College, which is affiliated with the University of Delhi, is now online due to the coronavirus pandemic., Muskan Vishwas

I was teaching American philosopher John Dewey's influential essay My Pedagogic Creed, first published in 1929, to women students of a teacher education program when the pandemic struck. The college I teach at declared closure even before the country locked down. The University of Delhi, of which the college is a constituent hastily, mandated a transition advisory to shift teaching into online spaces, even before the underlying pedagogic issues could be scrutinized. 

As a subject of the state (the college is state-funded) I followed up this allegedly authentic state of exception. This meant an uncritical transformation of my teaching work into the exceptional measure of online lecturing.

The practice of freedom

The university's advisory was to undertake a systematically planned immersion routine of providing e-resources, remaining virtually available to students during time-table hours and presenting live lectures resulting in a packed schedule resembling a corporate work culture. Such tight-fitting corporatization of education smoothers creativity, imagination and innovation for students (https://armchairjournal.com/are-schools-and-education-system-killing-creativity/) as well as for teachers; becoming a barrier to the practice of freedom as also to unconventional pedagogical breakthroughs.  The introduction of new statist, off the rack, teaching structures by a top-down directive robs a teacher of imaginative possibilities. It left no scope for an educational imagination of how to teach when the students were physically separated from the teacher. The personal agency to envision creative possibilities was lost as re-thinking already centered on the existing point of focus: online teaching. 

There is another aspect of the denial of freedom, which is distinct to woman students in their domestic sphere, which is now site of education. The home is not free of gendered iniquity in which finding private-silent time in a separated physical space is particularly precarious. The coming out of home into the physical classroom provides a free space for independent pursuits that is especially enabling for woman-students. (https://www.epw.in/journal/2020/23/commentary/what-so-wrong-online-teaching.html). 

Revisiting My Pedagogic Creed

The essay is an essential reading of the course that I teach bringing theory and methods from social philosophy to educational reform in school education and community life. Its influence has only expanded for over a century as it continues to shape educational theory and schooling practices the world over. The educational reformer Dewey was the first to propose that individual growth be based on social processes and recommends a school education that introduces young children directly into social life through a curriculum that is based on their immediate environment.

The essay still resonated in the student's working memory when it was morphed into the virtual modality of zoom  and google spaces. My Pedagogic Creed is divided into five articles each of which examines the fundamental themes of what is education, what the school is, what constitutes the subject matter of education, its nature of method and finally the relationship between school and social progress. I decided to undertake five video conferencing lectures discussing each one of these articles, which seemed like a thorough teaching arrangement. 

The first video lecture attempted to address the first theme by proposing that all education takes place by the 'participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race' because the student is 'a social individual' and society an 'organic union of individuals'. This co-constitution of student and society becomes a lived experience in a classroom simply because students and teachers come together to occupy a shared physical space with immediacy in contact. In the absence of direct human engagement this participatory aspect sorely morphed into the surreal abstraction emblematic of the pixelated faces of an asocial screen. 

For the second lecture addressing the theme: what is a school, the essay author unequivocally believes it to be a social institution, 'a form of community life'. He writes:

"Much of the present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed."  

In the barrage of black rectangles, squares and polygons interspersed with erratic texts of names where is the room for a social formation of a community life? Moreover the adaptation to an online pedagogy compromises interactivity necessary for experiencing the social context to classroom teaching-learning. 

The third session on the essay's third article defines the subject matter of education as the social life of a child, in correlation with not the school subjects like science, history or literature but the 'child's own social activities'. Even an unmuted virtual interaction was too superficial to allow for experience of a thread of interconnectedness that could feel anything like a social activity. The lack of physical presence in a virtual space with students on mute was feeling like a silence of the social in the teaching-learning process. 

The fourth talk on the nature of method; found affirmative resonance with the students, as they were themselves passing through an upsetting pedagogic transition. Here too the essay author's suggestion to base the method on the active side of the learner was in contrast to the scale- at- will technology oriented solution provided by the passive online transmission of knowledge. 

My last talk examined the relationship between the school and social progress, of which, according to the essay author, education alone is the basis. The online teaching was not even remotely an education of this kind. Instead it was simply degenerating into a training of individual-students with little scope for formation of authentic social life necessary for social progress. The essay concludes with the pronouncement that progress cannot take place merely by enactment of law, which is precisely what the state of exception's teaching approach was premised upon. Teaching of this last article provided the final coup de grace that turned into an epilogue for online teaching of this thick reading.

My teaching experience  

There was a persuasive teaching realization that my live yet passive online lectures to teach this essay needed to discontinue. The adaptation of video-conferencing type lectures was in complete divergence with the very pedagogic creed it advocates. So wide was the schism between the essay and the method to teach it that after a few zoom lectures the dissonance was agonizing as well as mind-melting. This kind of online teaching simply had to stop. 

This stoppage was just the intermission that the students needed. It facilitated their escapade into practice of freedom, responsibility of self-time management, opportunity to step backwards for quietude and a search for an intellectual togetherness within the lost immediacy of personal contact. It was the right requiem to sequester back to the essay re-arranging the previous classroom discussions in their minds. Left to their own mental devices the students identified key phrases, wrote reflective comments and deepened their personal responses to each of its articles.

In this process I discovered that letting students be with what they have already discussed during personal student-teacher contact was more valuable than frenetic online teaching. The former is accompanied by a cognitive overload caused by supplementary stressors that tax the mind's attentional processes attenuating learning (https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting). The insight that asynchronous solutions like calling, emailing, texting scaffold notes and reaching out worked better than synchronous solutions like zoom classes and goggle meets; was illuminating. It was closer to the traditional writing of a simple letter albeit shared electronically. Perhaps the former left the students with time, freedom and openness to explore their own psychological devices for learning. 

Contemporary research in psychology has started paying attention to how the unprecedented practice of video calling in the name of online teaching wears adversely on human psychological functioning. The mind degenerates into paying only continuous but partial attention not merely to virtual experiences but even to real, direct experiences too. This is neither conducive for meaning-making apart from devastating students as learners in the longer term (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/).      

Banality of online teaching

Some of the limitations of online teaching are apparent and have received the attention they merit particularly as virtual models portend to a post-pandemic new normal. On the issue of access to online modes the sharp digital divide is an oppressive instrument disadvantaging already disadvantaged students who are living in communities with less developed connectivity infrastructure. The divide even ends up excluding several sections of students. Online education thus exacerbates the already prevailing educational inequalities associated with class privileges, regional disparities and other injustices (https://portside.org/2020-05-12/empire-has-no-clothes-classroom-zoom-built). Educational practices and egalitarian policy interventions should aim at modes of teaching that realize equalizing possibilities through education. In contrast policy-makers world over are scrambling in the opposite direction by moving teaching online for mitigating the loss of teaching time. The current state of exception has provided an unwarranted policy-thrust to online education as the methodology to boost enrolment in higher education. This is particularly disturbing in the context of developing countries with poor higher education participation rates as social divisions of class firm up with those on the other side of the digital divide further marginalizing the marginalized. 

However a far deeper qualitative issue that merits independent attention on educational grounds relates to its pedagogic efficacy to serve the purposes of higher education. The curricular content of higher education in the social sciences is predominantly aimed at recovery of critical thought. This is particularly important in the context of emerging critical social science frameworks. The inadequacy of studying My Pedagogic Creed through online teaching demonstrates the inherent banality of such limited modes in engaging with curricular content of this kind. In the teaching of this essay the classroom was to learning what a scaffold is to a building. Online teaching collapsed learning and knowledge into inert information in the absence of an active pedagogy that fosters meaning-making essential to the development of this kind of knowledge. Authentic learning involves construction and deconstruction through the intellectual tools of analysis, comparison and synthesis in a dynamic meaning-making process. Active immediacy of contact between the teacher and the student facilitates this process. Didactic online teaching is least amenable to this kind of a meaning-making process. It's continuation in higher education presages to turn social sciences into an uncritical acquisition of a pre-defined body of static knowledge. Before the higher education arena is re-shaped by new roadmaps for universities, departments and colleges in view of an unprecedented phase of protracted campus closure; research based evidence about the pedagogic compromises intrinsic to online teaching merit highlighting.

[Jyoti Raina is Associate Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Gargi College. She is also the Anti-Discrimination Officer of the Equal Opportunity Cell of the college. Portside’s moderators thank the author for sending this article to us.]