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'Most of the impediments to online learning are socio-economic… I don't see a quick tech fix for those'

Is online learning everything it’s cracked up to be? That is the question academics and students are still responding to globally. Ashoka University’s Mandakini Dubey weighs in.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   23-09-2020

Mandakini Dubey
Mandakini Dubey

On the face of it, the move made by educational institutions world over to online platforms due to the pandemic has been applauded for multiple reasons. Shifting what has customarily been done (mainly) in physical classrooms to virtual settings has required a range of skills both for teachers and students. However, are technology or its tools able to, or even expected to, match the irreplaceable quality and richness of classroom teaching in university settings?

Here is what Assistant Professor of English, Mandakini Dubey at Ashoka University has to say about this and more in our Q&A with her:

How has the pandemic impacted your teaching and your students’ learning?

The pandemic and the resultant switch to online classes has been an enormous shift for all of us, both teachers and students. At one level, things are much the same. In my case, I teach English. We are still discussing literature and literary theory, we are still talking about texts and ideas, and still engaging through dialogue and discussion…except that it is now from rectangular screens rather than seated around a seminar room.

At its best, online class can feel like a real class, with that same intensity and dynamism that characterises any classroom interaction. At another level, though, it is a completely different beast. We have had to evolve new kinds of 'netiquette', to do without the sense of personhood and space that we operated from instinctively.

Time management and classroom dynamics change as a result of online learning. People sometimes cannot have their cameras on because of technological issues, and that can mean an even more disembodied form of engagement. In fact, the whole issue of technology and connectivity takes centre stage. One wouldn't normally be interrupting oneself to ask, 'Can you hear me?', but this is the plea that bounces around the virtual classroom more than any other!

I should also say that there are particular difficulties for students who may be in situations of hardship at home, whether because of logistics and connectivity or because of familial and psychological problems. And I'm not even getting into more fraught areas—for instance, what does it mean for a student from Kashmir to log on when access to connectivity is denied to the whole state?

Have there been any welcome outcomes that the shift out of a reliance on teaching in person has resulted in? What have these been?

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I can't wait to go back to what we now call 'in person' teaching (previously simply known as 'teaching')! I guess the best thing about it is that the commute is shorter. This has further repercussions. One can imagine that there's now a way to make classes happen even if there are logistical obstacles.

On a day when the Delhi/NCR smog is bad, for instance, rather than having to cancel classes, maybe now we could reconvene online? Apart from that, it's possible that some of the students who found it hard to speak up in class now feel a bit more emboldened to engage—for instance, they can even add a response or a question on the live chat, whereas perhaps they may have found it more intimidating to share these in person.

And finally, I suppose that it's useful that one can record classes and go and revisit sessions if necessary. That said, it doesn't compare to sharing the same space and learning together, and I know my students and I are longing for that. University life is also about a lot more than classroom learning, even if that's at the heart of the experience. There's a lot of learning that students undertake together, outside of the classroom, and that is hard to replicate online.

How do you think the changes that have taken place now will affect how higher education will be imagined/structured in the future?

I hope it doesn't. The nature of neoliberalism is such that it always wants to press towards efficiency--now there will be a new drive towards MOOCs and online education and webinars and so on, but it doesn't compare to intensive learning in a real classroom situation. Every time I hear someone trying to put a positive spin on this online education as the way forward in the future, I have to suppress unprintable words and the urge to see them as the Antichrist.

What changes would you like to see to the thinking/tools currently being deployed to enable online/remote learning?

It would be great if we weren't working through essentially repurposed corporate tools. Not being a techie, I can't really put in words what I wish would happen, but I do wish that in terms of how people respond to each other, and how conversation can move amongst the members of the remote learning community, that there could be a greater fluidity. Basic things like being able to see all your students while sharing a presentation screen feels like it's stuck at a rudimentary level. I think the support for students with learning differences could be better—there could be automatic closed captioning, for instance. But most of the impediments to online learning are socio-economic—there are such huge disparities in access to online learning across the divides of rich/poor, urban/rural, and no doubt the divisions of caste and creed as well. I don't see a quick tech fix for those.

What do you wish for yourself as a teacher/university faculty member and for your students in the coming years?

I wish for my students and myself: above all, continuing academic freedom and the ability to question; the ability to retain our privacy and our rights even while dependent on online systems and platforms; better and more responsive technology. Most of all, we need to institutionalise support to those communities and individuals that are disadvantaged and underprivileged, to enable better access. There has to be an understanding of the tremendous material and familial obstacles to learning for many students. We need a government and a social system that works hard to protect the right to education.



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