C Gopinath

Covid leaves big gaps in the learning experience

C Gopinath | Updated on June 30, 2020

Neither students nor teachers are full prepared for online classes. This, coupled with challenges such as external distractions, leads to an incomplete education

The Covid-19 disruption to well-established educational systems around the world was managed with the ready availability of online learning management systems (LMS) by institutions which at least partially already using them. They made the switch rather seamlessly. For others, the availability of communication systems from Google, Skype, Microsoft, Zoom, etc allow some form of teacher-student contact.

It is time to reflect on whether learning is actually taking place, and what we have achieved. There are two sides to the learning process: the transmission of knowledge from the teacher; and the absorption of said knowledge by the student. Various forms of communication software handled the first part quite easily and efficiently, synchronous or otherwise. Lectures were delivered (or at least recorded and listened to), assignments given, work was completed and submitted, evaluation done — and thus far, we adhered to the basic structure of what we believe learning has to be.

What about the absorption part? An area of research in education examines passive and active learning. Think of passive learning as sitting in a lecture hall listening to what the teacher has to say and digesting it. Active learning involves doing things and thinking about what is being done. The former is particularly suited for some subjects (say, philosophy) and the latter towards others (say, art), and many require a combination of the two.

Empirical studies show that individuals lean more towards one or the other. We all know the student who could never sit still in class but excelled in the workshop. Good teachers try to blend both passive and active learning pedagogies.

When Covid-19 forced us into online learning, the stress on the structure and delivery protocols seems to have made many do away with absorption. Learning is not complete till we complete the secular equivalent of what our ancients termed as manana (reflection) and nidhidhyasana (knowing), which needed to follow shravana (hearing).

Many educational administrators are convinced that the present student generation spends so much time on hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets that once we put anything on one of these devices, our job is done.

What appears to be forgotten is that many of these students have not been prepared to learn from these devices. The structure and discipline of a supervised classroom environment, peer activity, freedom from distractions have all been all up-ended. The new context for learning comprises poor Internet connectivity, a distracted parent focussing on his or her own job, a dysfunctional family atmosphere, playful siblings, and so on. It is very easy for even the most serious and interested student to be challenged by a combination of these distractions.

Moreover, many teachers have not been prepared with the training required to teach effectively with the new medium. Merely emailing lessons to students or recording lectures can be a very ineffective lesson plan. On top of it all, many teachers have been told and the evaluation systems tweaked to make it easier on the student. Of course, we need to acknowledge that we were suddenly landed in a difficult situation, but as we continue into the new academic year, not much seems to have changed in our education preparedness. Even in the best of times, the grade a student receives does not fully capture his or her learning. Their progress now may well turn out to be a flimsy cover of a big hole in their learning.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on June 29, 2020

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