Revisiting the discourse on online and face-to-face classes amidst Covid-19 lockdown: Digital outreach, strength-weakness analysis, and constructivist view

Covid-19 lockdown: Amid e-learning push, parents wary as ...

by Nawaz Sarif 7 June 2020

The global Covid-19 pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has wreaked country-wide lockdown nearly in 166 countries that exclusively led more than 87 per cent of the students (1.52 billion children) stranded at home and about 60.2 million teachers remain no longer in the classroom as revealed by the UN Secretary-General (2020) in his report, ‘shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19’. As the concern mounted over the continued disruption in learning, the HRD Ministry and other international bodies had urged all educational stakeholders to look at options for resuming teaching and learning activities from home.

The e-learning, which was at the outskirt of academic discourse and pinned down in a blended form of university evening education program, now amidst the Covid-19 lockdown crisis, has emerged as the mainstreaming mode of learning. The students who used to go to schools and sit in the physical classroom to listen to teachers, now are accessing all just sitting at home before a smart device. The teachers, who have had engrossed in chalk-blackboard teaching, now eventually are scrolling computers for online classes. The so-called digitally immigrant teachers are now operating different online tools for creating instructional designs, uploading contents, and establishing connections with their students over virtual classrooms.

India’s e-learning sector that involves in knowledge expansion and skills development has become a game-changer amidst the Covid-19. The country has the world’s largest digital support system next to China and the USA. At the time, India with its market size of about $1.96 billion dollars online education has set to rescue over 300 million learners. Both central and state governments have taken several strategies to continue online education. The various stimulus programs such as PM e-Vidya, Bharat Padhe Online, and VidyaDaan 2.0 have been launched by the government of India to amplify e-learning opportunities in the country. Besides, the initiatives like Diksha portal (e-pathshala), Swayam Prabha, and NCERT’s YouTube channels have also been facilitating e-contents for students of different grades amidst the crisis.

Moreover, the programs like SMILE (Social Media Interface for Learning Engagement) in Rajasthan, KITE’s Victers TV channel in Kerala, ‘Abhiasa’ in Andhra Pradesh, ‘Ghar Se Padhao Abhiya’ in Haryana, ABP Ananda and DD Bangla in WEST Bengal, ‘Unnayan–Mera Mobile Mera Vidyalaya’ in Bihar, etc. are some of the most incredible initiatives launched amidst the pandemic. Many state governments even reinforced their institutions to continue education through online using different centrally-sponsored e-learning platforms such as e-pathshala and Swayam Prabha. Teachers share lectures and study materials with students using different apps such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Google Classroom, WhatsApp, and others across the country.  

The recognition of virtual classroom gets momentum day by day. The use of ICT-enabled technologies and various digital devices has reached to an unprecedented peak amidst the Covid-19 lockdown crisis. The HRD Ministry has revealed that in the lockdown condition, the country has experienced a 5-fold growth in the access of e-contents. The digital platform like Swayam Prabha has recorded a tremendous increase in demand for online classes. Besides, various apps like unacademy, Udemy, Adda247, Vedantu, Khan Academy, Gradeup, Toppr, BYJU’s e-learning platform, etc have registered millions of new users including teachers and students.

So, herewith it can be said that there have been overwhelmed responses received from government and non-government bodies to teachers, students, and parents to take up online classes. However, the questions arise about whether the vibe of online learning is going for a sustained future? Can it replace the traditional teaching-learning model? What do the experts and constructivists say about the compatibility of e-learning over conventional classroom learning? Are the educational institutions ready for this digital transformation? Here, it has an incredible time-long discourse on the possible inclusion of ICT-enable online classes or the complete paradigm-shifting from the physical classroom. 

The ICT-enabled platform has brought a plethora of learning opportunities for both students and teachers at home. It edges over the physical classroom teaching in many aspects. Learning can happens ‘anytime’ and anywhere’ at learners’ ease through availing digital infrastructure such as computers, tablets, or smart mobile phones and high-speed internet establishment. E-classes connect young learners to a virtual reality that provides a deep learning experience in digital settings. It also provides enriched e-contents, prepared using various graphic techniques that evoke not only a widened thought but promotes creative insights among learners. Moreover, there has greater equity in curriculum transaction between instructors and learners at e-learning platforms. Also, the e-contents shared at virtual classrooms are more transparent and accessible to all.

Students’ interaction and floor participation remain as constant concerns in today’s physical classroom. Also, due to sometimes, class size and often due to perceived classroom stereotypes, teachers are more likely to focus on frontbenchers who odds-on to interact in the floor participation. The backbenchers are not prone to interact often because of shyness and low self-confidence in their communication skills. However, the online classes do away from all such kinds of problems and dilemmas arise in learners. Virtual learning does not merely attract learners to lectures but provide space where, with no dilemma learners can put queries in chat-box wherever they need any clarification. Smith et al. (2002) had interviewed 22 college instructors and found that web-based classes use a variety of communication styles compared to face-to-face classes. The components of virtual classrooms such as integrated lectures of text, audio, video, graphic, and gaming outfit, etc. provide better learning engagement compared to lecture-based face-to-face teaching in the physical classroom.

Further, the conventional classroom teaching has been grappling with the problem of its class size. In many schools especially those run by government bodies, the number of students in a single classroom is higher than what was recommended (N=40) by the Right to Education Act, 2009. Besides, there has been learning as well as treatment gaps between girls versus boys and frontbenchers versus backbenchers. The virtual classroom has brought an unparalleled transformation in the teaching and learning process where class size and treatment gaps are no longer remain as concerns. In a lecture session, a hundred learners can easily get access to lectures without any subjective biases. Further, an individual learner, irrespective of gender, caste, and even the state of classroom hierarchy (frontbenchers versus backbenchers) can be an active participant at digital learning platforms.

E-learning encourages a principal maxim of learning that is ‘let’s learn at own pace’. In a research, Wuensch et al. (2008) revealed that students from 46 different universities in the USA had rated online classes as superior to face-to-face classes in terms of convenience and allowing self-pacing. In the physical classroom system, those who are slow learners and have difficulty in following teachers’ lectures are left behind. The instructional materials are designed for the whole classroom irrespective of individual differences in interests and abilities to grasp things with varying paces. However, in online education, an individual learner can stop and redo the lectures if they miss any part of it and watch it again for revision. Besides, the attention is also paid to individual abilities and interests in designing instructional lessons for learners. 

Furthermore, online classes are also able to secure students’ high attendance during lectures. In the physical classroom, we still remember that few of our classmates often get scolded for their late entry in the classroom may be sometimes due to traffic and other reasons. However, at online classes, educational institutions especially those run by private bodies record students’ 90 per cent attendance against 70-75 per cent during regular classes. There has also a well-timed persistence in students to finish their assignments within the given deadline.

Online learning thus, has potential advantages over the physical classroom in terms of convenience, self-pacing, enriched contents, and objective-based instructions, and so on. However, this has another flip side story too. The antagonists of online education uphold different standpoints. They have been skeptical about the implications of e-learning for learners’ all-round development of personality. They viewed learning as the process of reconstruction of experiences rather than aggregated objective-based instructions. Jean Piaget (1970), a child pedagogue treated it as the construction of what individual learner already knows through constructivism. Similarly, John Dewey (1859-1952), an American educationist well-known for his work ‘Democracy and Education’ (1916) stated learning as a ‘continuing process of reconstruction of experiences’. He treated ‘school as a miniature of the society’ where students are exposed to similar kinds of societal problems in campus settings.

The opponents also argued that learning is not an acquisition of a piece of information that e-learning facilitates. In education, there is something called 3H which means head-on, hands-on, and heart-on. It upholds the progressive development of a child’s personality including physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and moral aspects. Online classes prompt students to go and apprehend the decided amount of knowledge like the ‘banking system of education’ as undermined by Paulo Freire (1921-1997). The e-learning fosters a culture of knowledge deposition in learners’ minds. It has no concrete way-out for the development of students’ problem-solving skills as underscored in ‘conscientious education’ by Paulo Freire in his book ‘Pedagogy of Oppressed’ (1970). The online learning provides merely a need-based time-specific limited knowledge that only focus on the cognitive component and left out other aspects of personality development which mounted concerns at virtual classrooms.

Social interaction is the crux of today’s teaching and learning process that a virtual classroom has completely left out. The child psychologists like Piaget (cognitive development theory, 1970), Vygotsky (ZPD-zone of proximal development, 1978), and Bruner (discovery learning theory, 1961) all had unequivocally emphasized on learners’ consciousness and interaction with immediate social environment for their all-round developments. Alfred Bandura (1977), a renowned social psychologist stated that young children learn things through observation, imitation, and assimilation in social settings. Interacting with teachers and peer-groups in school campus not merely helps learners to develop social abilities and language skills but nurtures broadened outlook towards life and society. The campus environment make learners feel empowered. They forge new social relationships and learn coping strategies, and improve understanding skills of how to live in a multifaceted society. Besides, the process of observation and imitation involves in the physical classroom also evoke moral thinking and a sense of judgmental skills amongst learners.

The comfort home-based learning is all about staying out of schools and study thorough online. The hastened lockdown has no pre-context for skills training for learners in operating different digital apps to access online classes. Lev Vygotsky (1978), a Soviet psychologist, stated that the young children need learning support and incentive at the earliest stage that he calls ‘scaffolding’, a temporal support given to individuals under the constant supervision of instructors. At virtual classrooms, as both instructors and learners are not physical there face-to-face so, such kind of learning-based ‘scaffolding’ become impractical.

Furthermore, there is incredulous about the inclusive outreach of e-learning programs to the learners from disadvantaged sections of the society. According to the Mandal Commission report (1990), the other backward castes including STs and SCs constitute 52 per cent of the country’s total population. Also, as per the India Census (1991), SCs population accounts for 138.2 million out of which 81 per cent live in rural areas. The children from such backdrops, unfortunately, do not have digital access at all. Further, there are digital rifts between government versus private, and rural versus urban schools, girls versus boys, and rich versus poor students in terms of availing digital infrastructure and internet access.

So, as an inference it can be said that the importance of face-to-face classroom learning is undeniable because of its laid principles of 3H, democratic equity, and social constructivism. E-learning, no doubt, is the most emerging mode of educating young children amidst the Covid-19 lockdown. The online classes edge over the traditional classes in aspects such as enriched contents, variety of communication styles, transparency in curriculum transactions, self-pacing, and floor interactions. The problems like class size, treatment and learning gaps difference between girls versus boys and frontbenchers versus backbenchers are also become minimal in virtual learning. Notwithstanding, the current pandemic has proven that educational institutions are not yet ready to embrace online classrooms due to the existing digital divides and lack of internet penetration across the country. The initiatives taken by both central and state governments are not able to avail e-learning opportunities for students those from economically weaker sections of the society and those live in remote villages. So, here it can be said that the online classes cannot be a sustained solution during and after the Covid-19 crisis.

Besides, online platforms endorse institutions to foster ‘banking system of education’ that emphasizes on the deposition of a need-based time-specific limited knowledge in the minds of learners. It merely evolves learners’ cognitive aspect of development and left out other important aspects such as physical, social, emotional, and moral development. Further, the inclusion of collaborative learning, problem-solving tasks and place-based learning has possibly become impractical in virtual classrooms. Hence, it can be said that e-learning can be used as a supplement to the physical classroom learning, not as a replacement. In addition, underscoring the significance of classroom learning, NCERT director, Prof. Hrushikesh Senapaty also expressed his deep insights into the present crisis and e-learning at the national webinar conducted by the Department of Education, Rajiv Gandhi University (A Central University), Doimukh, on ‘dynamics of online education: a dialogue on policy and practice’ on May 27. He stated that online learning is not the permanent solution and it is not something that is going to replace the mainstreaming classroom model. It is temporal and after the end of this crisis students will come back to schools.

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