In the past few years, pocket internet has become friend, advisor, and entertainer among lesser things for at least three co-existing generations of people living in the present day. The Internet-enabled smart phone is like an oracle who has a vision about the traffic jam at 5:16 pm at the signal on the way home, the “cabs near you” and how much they will cost for your ride, the nearest coffee shop which stays open till midnight, the best colleges in the world for marine biology and how to apply, … the oracle’s knowledge is endless. This information, whether correct or otherwise, is picked up by the user in an informal and disconnected manner. Imagine a world where the “smart phone” or tablet can be the classroom, a world where the touchscreen connects a student to competent faculty and course content in a subject of the student’s choice. Students can access this classroom whenever and from wherever they wish to and stay attentive to the lecture only as long as they want to. This is the developing world of online education.
As a teacher who trained IIT – JEE aspirants, I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the touchscreen. I took some lectures during which my speech was video recorded and whatever I wanted to write for the students was done through a touch-pad which was exactly like an unused notebook. I could turn to a fresh page with the swipe of a finger or turn back to what I had written on the previous page with a reverse swipe. A touchscreen stylus which looks like a pen is used to write on the screen. This stylus worked like a colour changing pen, with a dozen changeable colours to write with. The entire lecture was aired via satellite to a classroom a couple of hundred kilometres away. As it was aired live, the students were seated in a room which was visible to me and I could address their queries directly similar to a face to face session. I somehow didn’t feel like it was a face to face class, because while teaching concepts I subconsciously read the students’ expressions which give me clues about their understanding of what is being taught. In this case, from the students’ images on the screen, it was not possible to see or read their expressions. The picture shows a schematic of how a lecture is transferred via a satellite to a classroom which is in another location.
Later on I registered for an online course offered by the University of Edinburgh on the science and technology of astronomical discovery. I also did a course on genetics which was offered online. In both cases, I found myself learning a lot more than I expected when I had gone ahead expecting little gain from an online course. One reason these courses were effective was that the instructors were knowledgeable about what they spoke apart from a clear and well-paced speed of instruction which allowed the listener to assimilate the content. These video lectures can be re-wound and heard in parts that dealt with more involved topics. The courses were also developed well, beginning with the easy lectures and moving on to tougher ones once the tone of the lectures became familiar. The courses were for a fixed duration of typically six or eight weeks and they had weekly quizzes which were marked. The other reason adding to the merits of the course was a deadline for submitting each quiz so that the unanswered quizzes don’t build up for the learner. The best part of the quizzes for me was that after the deadline, an explanation was provided with the answer keys as to why each answer is correct or wrong. This was especially helpful for the questions I had answered wrong. Though I took the courses where the medium of instruction was English, there were courses offered in other languages like Dutch, Chinese, etc., for those who are more fluent in languages other than English. There were also some instances wherein the same course was offered in multiple languages. Forums were available where people commonly taking the course from all over the world could discuss their questions among themselves and with the instructors. The courses ended with student feedback asking questions about the amount of content, its nature, pace and quality of the quizzes.
Combining the merits of both live student interactions with requirement based learning, I began taking one-to-one classes online for students mainly in 12th standard or equivalent levels. My students in general come to me with specific difficulties in certain topics of their mathematics, physics or chemistry syllabi. There are also few who have the luxury of time and want to re-learn the entire subject to the level required for their final examination. Each student has different chapters that they are not comfortable with and hence I teach only one student in each session where I address their specific problems. I always teach a mix of theory and exercises which I let the student solve so that I know how well they are able to apply what they have learnt. I have found that with some students they understand what I am saying and respond well during the theory lessons, but it takes a lot of practice for them to approach related problems in the right direction. I generally take one theory session for an hour, but if we solve exercise questions and discuss the methods to arrive at the solution, then I find one and a half hours is a good duration. With younger students at 10th standard level or below I have observed that they find it difficult to sustain their attention and focus for more than 50 minutes to an hour at best. For children below class 7 or 8, the usefulness of an online session amounts to almost nothing. The actual presence of a teacher is very important for the very young learners who love to mix play with learning their lessons. I had a very bright and motivated student who was in class five when I started teaching her. By the end of half a year when she had got very familiar, she enjoyed taking little breaks and playing with me on and off. I daresay I enjoyed that as much as she did!
The advantages of taking a class online are that the student, teacher or both save the effort of commuting even if they stay in the same town or city. If it is a city, commute time will most likely be twice the time spent on the session itself. Students from all over the world can be taught by the teacher, only taking the time difference of the two countries into consideration while scheduling the slots. However, the disadvantages of a virtual classroom manifest the most if the student solely relies on online teaching. Education does not happen only in the classroom, a lot of it happens outside. A campus life with other faculty members from various disciplines, group activities like music clubs, film societies, etc., are completely missing. The face to face interaction with peers is another important component in a student’s life, and is absent in a virtual classroom. As a teacher I find online classes very rewarding, but not quite as much as teaching a collection of students in a classroom. Nevertheless, I feel very glad when my students finish their examinations and tell me that whatever I taught helped them understand the subject and gave them better grades. Whether it is online or offline teaching, the teacher – student relationship is a special one and is as gratifying as the subject itself, if not more.
The author is doing research at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) under the Department of Atomic Energy. She can be reached at email@example.com.