Areport in The Statesman on 6 July stated: “In a newly acquired daily ritual, students in Haryana’s Jhamri village open their textbooks at the sight of the teaching cart that arrives near their homes, filling the vacuum left by closure of schools due to the lockdown and lack of digital infrastructure such as feeble internet connectivity A teacher imparts lessons using the loudspeaker attached to the cart. Experts say the digital divide in the country may turn online classes into an operational nightmare.”

The immediate impact of Covid-19 has been to ensure that learning should remain a virtually continuous process. Although there is a big surge in the use of teaching apps, video conferencing tools and online learning softwares in the past few months, all this has proven to be insufficient for the classroom experience of student-teacher interaction. During an online teaching session conducted by a Chandigarh teacher recently, a pornography film appeared on the screen.

Most of the teachers who have been asked to conduct virtual teaching are not properly trained in handling the particular app and are actually struggling. In the absence of clear guidelines from the authorities, the schools are asking most of their untrained teachers to use unsafe free apps for online classes. Their issues range from basics to internet connectivity and erratic power supply to more technical issues such as teachinglearning methods.

Apart from their primary job, teachers are expected to perform duties relating to census work, electioneering, pulse polio campaign, ration card verification and other non – teaching activities. Naturally,they are not familiar with online teaching tools. Unruly pupils are making it worse. Teachers are sometimes being locked out of their virtual classes by tech- savvy students. It is, in fact, not possible to check whether their students are paying attention to their lectures. How is the child growing as an individual?

The distinctive attributes, as the report card would suggest, are communication skills, vocabulary, critical thinking, and a scientific aptitude. These are hard to assess through the remote system. Toddlers are dragged to the computer screens. Parents working from home during lockdown cannot spare much time for the children who wish to attend online classes. There are parents who are not comfortable with the technology themselves.

And if they are pandemic warriors, particularly in nuclear families today. Taking a class without a student requires a high degree of self-motivation, self-regulation and organization on the part of educators. Also, it requires a different attitude because communication between students and teachers is asynchronous.The most important challenge for the teachers is to focus on the overall elements of a well developed course which may support the instructor and the learner as well. This would mean devoting appropriate time and framing the right course components in accord with the applicable course into the e-mail learning environment.

At the same time, students in educational institutions across the country who even struggle in traditional classrooms are being drive to online learning. The negative consequences may not be obvious initially because the pass rates might suggest otherwise. However, it is generally found that students who complete online courses tend to perform quite poorly in subsequent tests of academic knowledge. The performance of a large number of students at DeVry University in the US was examined some time ago.

The university offers online and contact versions of all its courses, using the same text books, assessments, assignments and lecture materials for each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enrolled online performed worse. As a result, the online students are more likely to drop out. The hardest hit are the unwilling few and those who enter the online class with low grades in their previous examinations. The weaker sections of students are the worst sufferers of the online format.

An overwhelming advantage to student learning by thrusting information technology has not been perceived as yet, when simple chalk- and- talk methods could have done equally well. Clearly, online teaching in view of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot benefit the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers. Online resources, undoubtedly, supplement traditional instructions, but may not replace it. Of the various instructional methods used for teaching, the use of computeraided instruction is generally limited to PowerPoint or video primarily to break the monotony of a long lecture. We do not think of an equally good alternative to classroom lecture ~ the discussion method that has been at the heart of the teaching- learning experience.

No instructional technology has been developed to replace cooperative learning that takes place in group projects, field studies, recitals and presentations. Excessive use of Power- Point in the classroom can be a barrier to engaging students. Many of them resent the technology because it tends to limit exchange of ideas. It is generally agreed that students do not learn only from the textbooks, otherwise teachers would not be required.

Only when text books along with supplementary study materials are brought to bear upon a topic to be discussed in the classroom, does the teachinglearning process become live. This is further accentuated through projects and assignments followed by midterm and final examinations. Students as well as teachers miss a lot when there is no face- to -face interaction. They also do not reach such dramatic moments that occasionally result in witticism and humour that help to enhance the joy o thef teaching- learning process.

If a colourful presentation using PowerPoint fails to yield a lively classroom discussion, it will be of no use. But the teacher in front of a number of students can do wonders. It is always challenging for the teacher in the traditional mode to get his point across without facial gestures and vocal cues. He can create classroom animation ~ the thrill of being with the students, which is absent online. Many teachers prefer classroom teaching because it affords a sense of participation in the learning process.

Physical proximity and face-to-face interaction can bring out the best in students. Engaging all the students and encouraging them to be active online becomes a Herculean task. The rush of the adrenaline, that is felt in the class when there is something awkward, the sudden laughter, the body language and voice inflection, the mimicry, the instant feedback including yawning and the backbenchers’ bantering ~ all are missing in the virtual classroom. Since most of virtual teaching is done through words, it is expected that the lessons are exciting enough to kindle the imagination of the learners. So the real challenge is how to bring one’s personality into the virtual classroom.

Instead of keeping ahead in their academic field, teachers are expected to master newer technology every now and again. On the contrary, the chalkboard in the class and the test tube in the laboratory have been a tested and trusted art in the teaching-learning process. It is useless if a smart presentation, using PowerPoint, does not lead to a lively discussion. A mathematics teacher might not feel comfortable to teach abstract concepts to his pupils online; it would perhaps be better performed to draw them step by step towards some intricate topic in the traditional mode.

It becomes quite a difficult proposition to expound online the mystery of black hole; the string theory; or the inherent meaning in the lines:” Beauty is truth, truth beauty and that is all”. The present crisis, when educational institutions are closed across the country, could be used as an opportunity for educational technology interventions. China has been able to continue its education system in the active mode through the internet and distance learning. Italy, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia have also turned to distance learning.

In Bulgaria, publishers have been mobilised to open the digital textbooks and learning materials. In Singapore, distance learning could be provided by making teachers and administrators familiar with educational tools and processes. Though e-learning is still in its nascent stage in India, our educational policy makers need to have suitable strategies in place for successful deployment of the e-learning process.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata. He is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University)