After Weeks Of Online Classes At IIT, Here's The Truth

It is very likely that the next full semester (likely to start around mid-August for IIT-Bombay) will be "virtual" as campuses will continue to be locked down, and we will have to resort to online teaching. Due to this sudden fallback on the online mode, e-learning evangelists have found a new lease of life - they seek to build the credibility of the all-digital classroom by suggesting that it will quickly bring us "back to normal". In this article, I focus only on online remote teaching to students at home, not on the broader canvas of online education covering MOOCS, blended learning etc which may be effective and beneficial in their own context. 

Doing some form of academic activity online has been a learning experience for many of us on the IIT-Bombay faculty. We have familiarized ourselves with, and used, various video conferencing tools to conduct live (synchronous) lectures. We have also thought of new ways of collating course material, preparing digital-friendly notes and presentations, and experimenting with video recordings. But after the initial excitement wears off, it becomes monotonous and exhausting to talk to a computer screen with occasional interruptions by disembodied voices.

Most IITs are blessed with high-quality internet connectivity and uninterrupted power supply. But this is not true for students at home. Many students cannot afford high-speed internet access, a very significant section have homes in cities and towns that have electricity outages for many hours and where only mediocre-quality internet connectivity is available. Those from rural hinterlands are constrained by facilities worse than this. Further, while some students own laptops or even expensive tablets, there are many who do not. They depend upon desktop computers available on campus; at home, they have only only smartphones to connect to the internet.

Therefore, some students cannot attend live classes because their internet connection is poor or their devices do not have enough charge. For some, it is feasible only to download low-resolution video recordings or even just text notes. This is a big issue - of unequal access - and there is little that the institute can do to rectify it. Apparently, surveys are being conducted to find out what is the exact nature and extent of this problem for IIT students but the fact remains that there will be a significant difference in the quality of access - and, therefore, learning - that different groups of students will experience. A somewhat representative estimate of this digital divide can be obtained from this recent survey conducted by the University of Hyderabad. Of the 2,500 respondents, only 37% students said they could attend online classes; 18% said they could not. Over 90% said they would prefer to watch lecture recordings rather than attend live classes. The digital classroom is indeed far more unequal than the physical classroom.

The "classroom", in an online class, is far more impersonal than the physical one. It is not possible to "scan" all the students, peering out of their boxed windows on the screen, in one sweep; the larger the class size, the bigger this problem. Mostly, I could not see anyone's face in the windows because the video had been switched off. This "facelessness" accentuates the already impersonal ethos. In a physical classroom, there is eye contact with students. I see their facial expressions and body language, and use these visual cues to emphasize, repeat, reorient material in the middle of the lecture. In the online class, I could not figure out when to ask a question, and to whom, to check or provoke. I missed cues like the collective buzz of the students on some topic, the curious murmurs in one corner or too many students suddenly looking at each other with puzzlement! Discussions were much harder to sustain despite all sorts of provocations and multi-people interactions barely nucleated. At the end, one does not even know whether the lecture "went well" or it "was a disaster"!

One of the biggest advantages of the evergreen chalk-and-talk lectures is that usually the students are in sync with the instructor. The teacher writes and explains while the students make notes. The use of slides and presentations, or even graphics and videos, tends to be much more in online classes simply because sharing these audio-visual items is easier than having a proper "whiteboard" (needs a computer with a writing stylus, unless the teacher is in an e-classroom equipped with cameras and a real black/white board). Often, sharing material (screen-sharing) will "disembody" the teacher so that students are just staring at the presentation accompanied by a voiceover. The pace of teaching speeds up quite a bit "naturally" because of the already-written material on the presentations, the students "unsync" and are "lost". Perhaps a saving grace is that students can revisit recorded lectures again and again, whereas chalk-and-talk sessions are usually just a one-time presentation.

Of course, some of these defects can be controlled if the teacher consciously avoids these pitfalls but that is an extra burden on the teacher to be aware of with content delivery. Tips like breaking the lecture into chunks separated by some interactive activity are easier said than done. Imagine asking random students in (often faceless) boxes to answer a question or comment on something, and then asking some other random student to continue the discussion. In the physical classroom, I do this easily by looking at students to decide who should speak. Another suggestion often made in the context of online teaching is that teachers should curate existing "suitable" material rather than prepare their own. I think this is an inappropriate suggestion in that it ignores that teaching is an intensely personal "art", and preparing original content (other than the flair for delivery) is at the heart of the experience.

It is an irony worthy of rumination that even within the IITs, many times we have to "force" students to "participate" in a course. This is done either by making attendance compulsory or by scheduling regular tests, in a bid to ensure that students keep in touch with the course material. Some students say that these measures are to coerce them to participate in "boring" courses, and while this may be partially true, the deeper reasons for student disinterest has more to do with other factors. As I have argued in these columns, the effects of JEE coaching pedagogy - an obsession with "cracking" exams - and the disjunction between engineering domain knowledge and the kind of non-engineering jobs that students end up opting for, are the primary culprits. In the context of online teaching, student disinterest is exacerbated. Many of my colleagues and I have found that the attendance was lower, often much lower, than in a physical class. Of course, behind the student window on the computer screen, with video and audio switched off, one does not know what the students are actually doing. Are they even in their seats, listening? We often have a hard time getting students to stay away from their laptops and mobiles while in a regular lecture, and now in this scenario, it is impossible.

The problems in holding remote problem-solving sessions and group discussions are equally amplified because there is, in essence, a very poor learning environment. Chat boards and discussion fora simply cannot replace physical tutorials, recitations and even banter.

We also anticipate a severe problem with laboratory courses. It looks like we will be reduced to making videos of experiments and perhaps getting students to analyse dummy data. But there will be no hands-on work. For engineering education, where there is great justification for getting "hands dirty", this will be a great loss in learning.

Some instructors seem to think that the flipped classroom technique may be very useful in the current situation because it can avoid most of the lectures. Students can just read assigned material or watch pre-recorded videos and "attend class" only to clear doubts and indulge in "learned" discussion. It sounds cute on paper but works poorly in the ground. Ponder for a moment how many students, more so disinterested ones, will actually read or watch anything? Even at the best of times, getting students to actually learn by self-study (and even home assignments) so that they are in a state to indulge in meaningful discussion is hard. In the current situation, it becomes even more opportune for students to simply skip all study and prepare "at the last moment" for an exam.

The greatest bugbear of online teaching is assessment of students via exams or home assignments. The problem is one of integrity - how does one conduct assessment tests online that are devoid of copying and plagiarism? In the physical classroom, exams are proctored by teaching assistants and teachers; in the online system, this is very difficult to do. The tendency to use unfair means and in general indulge in unethical behavior "when no one is watching" ensures that unmonitored exams are quite useless for any kind of assessment. There are suggestions that students should take the exams in nearby schools or institutions where someone can be deployed to invigilate physically.

For the same reasons, take-home exams or home assignments will also not work as a means for assessment. Even as a regular practice, homework is given out mostly for students to practice; their weight towards the final grade is usually low because it is recognized that many submissions will contain plagiarized "cut and paste" passages or paraphrased material from someone else.

There is currently a lot of hype and hoopla in the market about software-enabled proctored online exams. Companies offer camera-based face and body tracking, device screen monitoring (what other apps are running on your machine), and frequent camera scans of surroundings. Some even tout the use of artificial intelligence to detect if you are doing "anything wrong" (monitoring facial expressions, lip twitches). Much of this is unproven and impractical, good only for sales pitches and science fiction. There are easy and sophisticated ways (remember how good we are at "jugaad"!) to beat all this highly invasive "surveillance".

In any case, the possibility of online exams stands defeated by the vagaries of electricity supply, the quality of the internet connection and the lack of suitable devices. A simple and viable option may be to hold exams only after the students return to campus.

It is good that we have online options but let us not kid ourselves into the illusion of normalcy. It is worrisome that despite ground realities of this sort, a sense of digital triumphalism seems to hang in the air. Tech-obsessed policy-makers, driven by arguments of "efficiency", low costs and scalability, are beginning to fantasize that in the post-Covid world, there may be no urgent need to build new schools and institutions; all that is needed are video recordings, artificially intelligent teaching bots - hosted on the internet - and a device to connect. 

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.