Online classes have become much more of a reality and necessity, to say the least. As the world collectively deals with a pandemic, both developed and developing countries are forced to find alternatives to conduct their businesses. Thanks to digital technologies- a large number of people, at least in the developed world, can still do their work from home. Teachers, like other intellectual professionals, in all developed countries, have adopted teaching online through an array of available tools. Developing countries may have to follow suit pretty soon as the nations see the peak of the curve. I don’t even want to imagine the gap that will emerge and exist in terms of people’s access to technology. This gap is not only between the developed and developing countries; rather, there will be gaps even in the rural and urban populations living in developing countries.
Education is a difficult one to categorize- is it an essential business that must stay open during a pandemic, or is it non-prioritized during an epidemic and hence should remain shut like other non-essential businesses? Can developing countries afford to make education a priority while the public and private resources are exhausted with mitigation efforts? I am sure there are arguments on both sides, and priorities will shift depending on how long this pandemic wreaks havoc. But for now, the world collectively needs to prepare for the massive transformation from a “physical world” to “a virtual one” in all front of their lives. And us educators need to prepare for a new environment, with possible consequences that could hurt the students more than the institutions or us.
The future of online classes, as I foresee, leads to three main trajectories that we will need to reimagine: access to technology, learning, and privacy and security. First and foremost, there will be no online learning if there’s no access to technology. And by access, I don’t only mean having access to high-speed internet, or a desktop, or a laptop; access can also mean having the necessary skills to be able to navigate a digital landscape. The problem of access, therefore, affects the educators and students alike. Last week a couple of students of mine complained about the unstable internet. One of them had to use mobile data to complete assignments. A colleague of mine who is also an educator complained that her ISP (internet service provider) was very slow in responding to the internet trouble they were having last week. Faculty members in my department, in general, are going through a learning curve to learn new tools to conduct video conferences and utilize other available tools to conduct online classes. Students are lost amidst notifications from several classes they are taking; they are exhausted.
The prospects for online learning are good, but only up to a certain point. Many universities worldwide offer online classes where materials are distributed through video lectures. Engagement in those classes is garnered through discussion boards and other interactive and creative assignments. However, there is a reason why universities restrict online classes to one per semester. Online courses are offered to ease the course loads to students who deal with heavy course loads, professional training such as internships, and other extracurricular activities. True that there are online master’s degree programs that are designed to be completed online, but those too are for working professionals who need an advanced degree. I have taught undergraduate courses, both online and in-person classes, and also in hybrid environments. And my experience says that I can only utilize my full potential only in a face to face class. In a face to face class, it is easier for me to create engagement, give my students voice, and be their mentors and facilitator besides being an educator. One may argue that the same thing can be achieved through web conferences that started to mimic real-life class experiences- thanks to Zoom, Blue Jeans, and other such platforms. I would refute and say that I found it hard to make individual connections with students through these virtual platforms. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think I was right to assess that my students felt the same way. And if that affects their learning, then it is safe to say that on-campus learning may be a quality differentiator after all.
Lastly, security and privacy- the two fundamental aspects of our civic life that seem to be continuously fading in the highly invasive digital landscape. There are already cases where Zoom sessions are being interrupted by unwanted and unrecognized users. It is worrisome because we are not only dealing with interruptions here but also dealing with someone invading the intimate setting of the learning environment of a class. And this can raise privacy concerns for students and the work that they do and create an intimidating atmosphere where they are no longer able to articulate their thoughts. From an educator’s side, this can mean someone toying with my lesson plans and disrupting my valuable time with my students.
I am a huge advocate of digital tools, but I am not a technological determinist. I believe that we could and should use digital tools and virtual platforms when it is necessary. But we should be mindful of those who lack access and find alternatives for them. If online classes are the new normal, then educators like me need to spend way more time with each student of us, making sure that they get the right amount of nourishment from us that they deserve. And by all means, we should make sure that we can ensure a secure and
an open environment where everyone can learn and share without fear.