The COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, and the world has scrambled to find alternative ways of interaction. Nearly all areas of human endeavour depend upon some level of face to face relationships. Social distancing has effectively put paid to that.
Resilient as the human race is, it has been a struggle to find the “new normal” everyone is talking about. As expected, corporate office interactions have been replaced by virtual ones with relative ease. However, other kinds just don’t have an alternate, remote collaboration option that emulates the real experience sufficiently well.
Look no further than education, that most vital of human virtues and needs. All institutes have been closed since the lockdown was announced in late March, and the new school year, which would usually have been well under way, has had to twist itself into unfamiliar contortions. It’s hardly a wonder, then, that there have been teething problems.
Here, we take a closer look at a few of the problems specific to live online classrooms. These observations relate to off-the-shelf solutions that are being adopted by schools, training centres, and colleges alike.
Contrary to corporates, the end users of online teaching tools (teachers and students) are not experts at them. Tools such as the ones being used are specialized and require training and practice. The suddenness of the onset of the pandemic and the subsequent measures adopted worldwide afforded hardly any time for any of the parties to plan and train beforehand.
Up to 15 minutes of class time are being wasted on taking attendance on attendance registers.
More time than normal is being spent struggling with microphones, accesses etc. This time can completely be avoided since attendance can easily be automated. In fact, more insights than usual can be provided — such as entry and exit times, questions asked, disruptive influence — that will provide immense perspective to educators later.
All videos in a class are always on, by default. This is a legacy of meeting tools, that are being used for classes. Now, office meetings do have this requirement of all participant videos being on unless turned off by the participant. However, these many videos is unviable in a class of, say, 40 students. Not only is it extremely distracting but it has a direct impact on bandwidth consumed. The overall class experience deteriorates radically if one does not have the requisite bandwidth.
One cannot manage to grab everyone’s attention anyways (can’t happen even in a real, in-situ class, where the backbenchers are not participating or even paying attention). You cannot force it.
Perhaps the way is to make the class more engaging :-)
Also a legacy from meeting tools, all audios are always on. If anything, this is even more distracting than videos. Remember that the same tools are being used for 5 year olds as for older, more disciplined students. Imagine being the online teacher in a class of 40 distracted, energetic 5 year olds bawling, shouting and thumping!
Despite the noble intention of faithful emulation, a remote conferencing solution can’t help but differ from a “real” gathering of people. The participants are all located in different environments with varying levels of background noises. When all the background noises add together it makes concentrating on what is being said very hard.
All the student mics should be off most of the time and by default. The teacher should have the ability to turn on a student’s mic at will.
Of course, this also needs the software to have the ability to allow a student to “raise hand” to get the teachers attention without breaking her flow.
Because the logins of the students are not controlled, every class has some miscreants who join in and disturb the entire class, and the teacher has no control over it. Neither can it be found out who it really is, as anyone with the class URL can join.
All classes should have registered students who can enter only. Perhaps there should even be a PIN generated per class. No guest logins should be allowed.
A cool feature would be to have an intuitive way to “locate” the most noisy participants, and be able to take corrective action e.g. take away their mic rights, send them warnings, or even evict them in extreme cases.
The de facto tools being used suffer from being less than suitable for teaching purposes. At the very least, they should have a shared canvas/whiteboard, and an ability to share content. Advanced features might include in-class tests and assignments, and plugins to teach specific subjects. For instance, a sheet music plugin for music classes, a powerful equation editor on the whiteboard for math classes etc.
It is more stressful to hold or attend an online class than it is to do an actual one. Why is this? I think there are several factors, some of which are technological. Others are psychological, since in a virtual gathering everyone feels as if they are held to the same standard irrespective of personal traits or aptitude. Teachers also feel the heat, since they can hardly take a minute to relax unlike in a traditional setting. This is an area that perhaps requires research — at the very least, schools must take cognizance of this and be sensitive.
Free Zoom accounts
Most schools are using the free versions of Zoom and other comparable collaboration software. These versions, while functional, are severely restricted in their features and scalability. Schools and other institutes must cease to look at the infrastructure cost as a drain on their resources. Going forward, the quality of online education might be the very difference between an average institute and a great one.
So what are we recommending? Quite simply, that schools must invest in a customized solution that is tailor-made for teaching. Using a technology that was customized for a completely different need might be a clever stopgap arrangement, but this is the right time to build for the future. The few points above are sufficient to understand that technology is not a big barrier.
If the institutes have the will, that fabled “new normal” is perhaps not so far off after all. It is for schools and other educational institutes to be pioneers, if they want to paraphrase Megadeth, “Teaching is my business…and business is good!”