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Teaching Virtually: Lessons From The New Norm

Anusha N P, Research Associate, Department of Physics, Prayoga

 

Introduction

While most people were still preparing themselves for work after the lockdown, online education already has been gaining momentum as a quick response to the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Things dramatically changed for students after the lockdown hit us in March 2020. For the first time in history (to the best of my knowledge) students got prolonged summer holidays, that too without final exams! But the situation also created a sense of apprehension and anxiety in students and especially in parents about the future. Teachers themselves were left scrambling to prepare for a hitherto unknown adventure. This is the chronicling of my experience as one such teacher who has just begun her journey in the online teaching jungle.


Preparation for Classes

While the doors of schools, colleges and universities remained shut for students, there opened a new window of virtual classrooms on their laptops, tablets and even smartphones. A lot of new apps were developed that made learning convenient for the students and new websites were created that catered to delivery of the content and helping to make online classes engaging and thriving. The new norm quickly established itself. Though it ensured safety to students as well as teachers, it also forced every teacher to miss various aspects of the physical classroom such as chitter-chatter of the students, hushed breaths, etc.


I was given the opportunity to teach the chapter ‘Air and Water Pollution’ to a grade 8 class with 32 students from a CBSE school in Bangalore. Being a novice with no prior training or experience in online teaching, I opted for some self-learning on how to teach online. I primarily looked for videos on online classroom engagement especially since I was teaching these particular students for the very first time.


I explored Google Meet and Zoom since they were the most popular platforms. I decided to go with Zoom and the main reason was due to the students’ pre-existing familiarity with it (in fact, they were way better at it!). To my luck, I realized later that the unpaid version of zoom itself comes with appropriate tools for the smooth running of a virtual classroom. One feature worth mentioning here is the ‘Save Chat’ option! I could save the conversation easily at the end of the class, so that I could then go through the questions/unanswered doubts and have a discussion on those later.


I prepared a powerpoint presentation on the topics I wanted to cover. There were also some technical challenges that came to light while preparing for the class. For example, during one of the discussions with my colleagues, it was noticed that Zoom was not sharing my screen properly and I got help to resolve it.


The Online Classes

The day finally arrived! I was excited about my very first online session (and a little nervous too!). Students were really excited about their first science class after holidays. All their excitement was evidenced in ‘thumbs up’ and ‘clap’ reactions on the Zoom screen.


Overall, the introductory class ran smoothly. But “I can’t hear you, madam!”, “could you please repeat?”, “you are not audible, students!” filled up half of the 40 minutes session. One of the drawbacks of Zoom (unpaid version) is that it only provides 40 min for a meeting after which the meeting ends, and everyone has to re-enter the meeting. This results in a lot of disruption.


A frequent issue encountered during the online classes was the fact that audio quality kept fluctuating. We concluded that all this is due to one major issue – bandwidth! A high bandwidth Internet connection for all participants is the primary necessity for a successful online class and it was beyond our ability to ensure it despite having video off for all participants.


I soon realized that in 40 minutes of the class, I could only cover around 60% of the concepts I had planned for. Even though the class was running slow, we were having an interactive session. Despite the fact that I was a new teacher to them, the students were very forthcoming in their interactions with me. I got several interesting questions from them. For example, relating to air pollution- “How does air pollution affect non-living things?”, “Does air quality change during this time (lockdown)?”.


After a couple of sessions, I noticed that there were only a few students that I was familiar with, which meant that only those few students were active during the sessions. Others were a little too quiet and answered only when prompted. Though this is not dissimilar to a physical classroom experience, it was far easier for students to disengage in an online setting. To address this, we came up with the idea of giving students a task such as giving a short presentation, so that they open up and actively participate in the class.


Another drawback of online classes was that the teacher cannot actually have eye contact with the students, and the teacher cannot assess the engagement and focus of the students as they do in the physical classroom. In fact, since the video is off, the student might not even be physically present at times. In a bid to overcome this, I tried cold calling the names during the sessions and in the presentation, I intentionally avoided long textual explanations and added more images and visual clips. I found that this helped me to keep students more actively involved in the class.


As we progressed towards the end of the chapter, students started to interact more and started to answer the questions enthusiastically. They shared their insights and ideas regarding how to prevent air and water pollution. For example, ‘the polluted air can be purified before it reenters the atmosphere’, ‘the sludge can be reused in road constructions instead of leaving it to water bodies’, etc. Since students are using gadgets during the class, they can easily get distracted. My main takeaway from these classes was to keep the energy high since it is very easy for the students to otherwise disengage and drone out.


Final Word

Online teaching was a sudden necessity and consequently could not be well-planned initially. But it is instructive to remember an essential truth “The job of an online teacher is the job of an offline teacher is the job of a teacher”. If teachers allow the students to develop a good connection with them and with the dimension of the new world where they are leading, then he/she can easily make the online session a success. With all these lessons in my basket, I am waiting to engage classes in a more effective way, and eager to learn much more!


Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Dr. Prathik Cherian, Senior Research Associate, Prayoga for his constant encouragement and constructive feedback.


Useful References:

  1. Teaching in the time of a pandemic, https://www.thehindu.com/education/teaching-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic/article32533237.ece (accessed October 2020)

  2. 5 traps that will kill online learning (and strategies to avoid them), https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-05-01-5-traps-that-will-kill-online-learning-and-strategies-to-avoid-them (accessed October 2020)

  3. A Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-03-13-a-letter-to-educators-teaching-online-for-the-first-time (accessed October 2020)

  4. Google Meet vs Zoom: Choose The Best Video Conferencing App, https://www.appventurez.com/blog/google-meet-vs-zoom/ (accessed October 2020)

  5. So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/11/practical-advice-instructors-faced-abrupt-move-online-teaching-opinion (accessed October 2020)

  6. The pros and cons of teaching with zoom, http://www.teachingushistory.co/2019/09/the-pros-and-cons-of-teaching-with-zoom.html (accessed October 2020)


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