Individual vs collective learning

Anuradha C

The present virus pandemic has forced us to stop and rethink about several of our life and work choices. A rethink on education too is inevitably on the agenda. Governments, education departments, schools and colleges are facing their share of churning. The result is yet to emerge in whole, but the first visible signs of change are the mushrooming of ‘online classes’ or ‘webinars’ for students.

From banking to food delivery, every business or leisure activity is moving into a virtual “contactless” mode in the post-Covid world. So why not education, one might ask? Online mode of teaching might sound like a simple way out of the present situation. But can education really be delivered from a distance, will it be effective? Let’s brainstorm.

Collective learning at education institutions
Formal education for the past century or so has become a mass delivery product. Build massive schools, enrol hundreds of kids every year, split them into section A, B, C…. appoint class teachers as proxy guardians, in charge of dozens of kids at a time. Deliver subject after subject in fixed quantities everyday, for a decade and half. And lo! There you have your finished product – an educated young person ready to face the world!

The mass manufacturing mind-set of the industrial revolution has spilled over into the education field. With growing populations and increased urbanization, the collective learning method of educational institutions has become the mainstay of formal education. It’s not rocket science to figure out that this collective learning format is far from perfect. It’s a system that assumes all children have more or less the same acumen and interest. It leaves no scope for honing individual talent or providing extra care for the needy child.

Individual learning – home tutoring
Historically, education has been a more individual and personalized process. Of course, a vast majority did not have access to formal education at all. So they would simply pick up skills required for the family vocation, on the job. This was especially true with the working class – potters, weavers, priests, builders, and so on. It is still true to a large extent in rural India.

Receiving lessons from a dedicated home tutor was a privilege limited to the upper classes. A distinguished tutor would arrive at the children’s home and lead the children through vivid learning experiences. Each child would get individual attention. Children with special needs or learning disabilities were ably catered to. Even today, there are accomplished people in all walks of life who have never been to school, they have been entirely home tutored. The only learning that home tutored children often fail to pick up is social interaction – working in teams, sharing, leadership, public speaking and so on.

It’s patently obvious that home tutoring alone cannot suffice, it works well only for the privileged few. Lower income groups cannot afford the time, space or money required for this. However, sending the child away to a school with the glorious hope of a better tomorrow appeals to them immensely.

Online lessons – individual or collective, or a bit of both
Learning online is a loosely coined term that covers a wide variety of learning formats.

  • A valuable one-to-one music lesson with a violin teacher who lives in a different country.
  • A private tuition facilitating mobile app that aggregates students of a locality and the closest living mathematics teacher.
  • A school conducting regular classes with the entire lot of 70-80 children sitting in their respective homes, pretending to listen to their teacher over Zoom or Skype!

All these are myriad forms of online learning. When online learning happens in small, focussed groups, it is quite individual in nature. It can be interactive and great fun. It also saves precious commute time lost in traffic. When computer technology is used to match students and respective skilled teachers, it’s a huge convenience.

However, when it becomes a broadcast session for a large audience, it is highly ineffective with young children. One way lectures work well with motivated adults attempting to learn advanced subjects. But it’s too much to expect the truant spirit of the 7-8 year old to sit quiet and learn when left unsupervised!

Eureka moments during ‘lockdown’!
When a couple of teenagers were making a startling discovery about their young lives, I happened to be present there! We were in the same lift in my apartment building, you see. This was when the word “lockdown” was still an unknown, exotic new concept for us. The conversation was along these lines:

Student 1: “During the lockdown, only essential services are allowed.”
Student 2: “The first thing that they close every time there is a bandh or heavy rains are the schools and colleges. Same thing happened now. The first headline was educational institutions would be closed. Does that mean education is not an essential service?”

Student 1: “It’s certainly not! In the last week, I have already realized that cooking your own food, washing your clothes, managing with scarce resources are more important than learning at school!”
Student 2: “I wonder why they don’t teach such essential things in school!”

I found that conversation between those two hapless high school students to be a solemn and realistic judgment of where things stand. Perhaps, in the form of this virus, nature has given us a chance to press the reset button on the education juggernaut. Let’s hope a better order emerges out of it all.

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at

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