Online classes: Are students coping with the virtual-learning reality?

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By Diki Choden Bhutia and Shradha R. Chhetri

Ever since the first reports of positive coronavirus cases in India, state governments have declared all educational institutions to remain closed till May 31, some were one of the first things to be shut down, even before the lockdown was announced.

It has been almost 3 months that Indian students have had to stay home and while the students have been introduced to a new way of learning- online classes, the fact of the matter is while digital classes might get the job done, the same level of education isn’t provided to all. While there is bad connectivity even in the state’s capital, it is worse for rural areas, and with summer and monsoon season leading to frequent electricity cuts, the problem worsens.

Smartphones have brought the world to our fingertips but the lockdown has shown that the Internet is both a necessity and a privilege.

In Sikkim, Nar Bahadur Bhandari Degree College (NBBDC), Sikkim University, ICFAI University have implemented online classes for their students. NBBDC even issued a press release to announce the results of a survey concerning conducting online classes for more than 30 days.

The survey was conducted to assess the satisfaction and efficiency of online classes. It was designed and analysed by the HoD Chemistry, Dr Satyadeep S. Chettri and 1781 students took part in it, almost 60% of the college’s student population.

Key findings of the survey show that digital penetration is at almost 97.3 per cent with almost 64 per cent of students saying that the internet connectivity was continuous or with some problems, with around 2.7 per cent places not having internet connectivity. The overall satisfaction level to digital education given the situation was at 55.9 percent overall. But if broken up, it shows that:

Humanities (B.A) students: 59.7%

Science (B.Sc) students: 49.4%

Commerce (B.Com) students: 48.7%

B.Voc students: 58.4%

Satisfaction levels were reported more in girl students (57.0%) than in boy students (47.3%). The preferred digital platforms for such classes were Audio and Video exchange, notes, Facebook live classes and Google Classes; Zoom and Webex had low preferences. Efficiency levels of the digital classes are only at 30.6%, with the survey believing that it will grow substantially with finishing the course.

With the efficiency level in mind, SC spoke to numerous students pursuing their undergraduate degree at NBBDC and Sikkim University.

Joseph*, a 2nd year student at NBBDC says that for his batch, there was an incident in their department where the subject teacher finished an entire syllabus by the end of April, when the course was designed as a six-month-long syllabus.

“With digital classes being implemented, she finished the entire syllabus at neck break speed, finishing an entire classic novel in a span of 3 days. Tests are also happening online, which obviously won’t be fair and with 50 marks being in the hands of the teacher, it is an added worry to us.

When we spoke to the HoDs and the Principal, it was advised to the teacher not conduct online tests right now, but with no audio and video notes being sent out, this has caused a huge problem.”

He adds that simply assigning projects and being asked to “YouTube/Google” lecture topics is not okay. But he also says that it’s not the same everywhere. “Some teachers are very understanding; one particular teacher let us make a video as an assignment, to give us a break.”

*Srijana M, pursuing an Undergraduate degree in Science at NBBDC speaks for the students who come from rural areas. She says that due to the lockdown many students have relocated to their villages. Keeping that in mind, she says that the biggest drawback is the network connectivity.

“Teachers are sending notes through PDF over WhatsApp and tests are also held the same way, which is difficult for us. As such there aren’t a lot of advantages, there are more disadvantages. Our normal routine has completely been wrecked and as a Science student, not all classes can be conducted online, for practical lessons, it is impossible to do this over WhatsApp – which right now is the primary medium of online classes.

“Added to that we are not aware of attendance, what counts and what does not. This has also affected our mental health, the constant back and forth and the pressures of online classes and assignments during a time of the pandemic. I feel online classes are completely unnecessary,” she said.

When it comes to network connectivity, even teachers/professors agree. Sunita Kharel, Associate Professor of Urban Studies says, “More than anything, the problem is with connectivity. We have routine classes but not all students can attend those due to the connection making students miss out. The main goal of online classes is not only finishing the syllabus but rather to engage the students and give them a sense of direction.

“They will be out of touch with the syllabus and online classes have helped to a great extent. As students, their primary purpose is to study and with online classes, it has helped a great deal. We can’t deny that the lockdown situation and the online classes harmed the student’s mental health, my students used to call me and ask me what to do, once the direction of the online classes was given to us by the administration, it has helped boost their morale to an extent because it gives them a purpose. In my opinion, also, not all classes can be conducted digitally, especially for lab-based subjects, it is difficult to conduct and attend the classes.”

Tshering*, another professor, says that the digital classes are a way of engaging the students and diverting their minds while also keeping them in touch with their subjects since the lockdown may continue for a longer period, and adjusting to this new model of learning would be the wisest step.

“We have chances of making it work but due to the situation, we might have only this option. UGC is also considering conducting exams online, so if everyone had good connectivity it could be a success. When we give assignments to students, we make sure we give them ample time, but since not all students are on the same level of learning and some might find it difficult due to the physical and mental condition. So, it has caused some pressure on their mental health because they have to work in a new model of learning in a stipulated time.

“On the brighter side, as a teacher I feel this has kept them engaged, assignments are syllabus based, we have experimented with making videos of hobbies, or cooking videos or videos showcasing their talent, we have also given students assignments where they can do what they think they do best. Since this is a first of its kind experience for both students and teachers, we are trying to take it slowly while focusing both on syllabus and engaging the students. But I believe that finishing the syllabus cannot be expected by the teachers, even if teachers have the resources to, the students might not, so they will miss out hence we as teachers have to go slow.”

The overall consensus among college-level students and professors is that online classes cannot replace classroom learning and that the primary drawback of the digital classes is Sikkim’s bad connectivity.

Sumnima Rai, an Assistant Teacher of Psychology at a private school in Darjeeling, and a therapist holding an M.Phil. in Clinical Psychology, says that some students are not able to afford gadgets to supplement online education, along with bad network connectivity. So as a solution, her students have started doing audio and video lessons on YouTube, where they have their own YouTube channels and send notes/lessons through WhatsApp as well.

“As of now, we do not know if the syllabus will remain the same or it will shorten, so for now the purpose is to divert their mind from all the negativity of news channels or conversations with family. Since they are missing out on their journal routine and since some students come from difficult households, school is oftentimes a haven for them.

I feel the digital classes are working if they are executed in the same manner. Some subjects can be taught digitally, but senior classes and especially Science subjects where they need practical knowledge, it is tricky but if they were to use the whiteboard technique of teaching digitally, it might work but based only on voice lessons it cannot and will not work. Not just students, us teachers also suffered due to a new technique of learning, so now we have adjusted the setting if learning according to the convenience of the students and teachers and now the students are also coping well as well as the teachers,”

Not just within the state, but the Nepali diaspora studying abroad or in bigger cities in India feel the same as the students inside Sikkim’s borders.

Subham Rai, pursuing Master of Digital Communications at Queensland University of Technology, says that he feels strange to pay so much money for an online class, but understands that it was nothing they could have anticipated and prepared for. “I don’t feel like I am being deprived of anything because so much of my degree is dependent on my ability to research and learn, lockdown or not. The lack of physical class, however, has left me feeling very unmotivated. Going to class forced me to pay attention and focus on my assignments and with that gone, I find my performance deteriorating”.

Posts on social media by students attending online classes often point out the ridiculousness of fishing assignments and strict deadlines, failing which they gain no marks, in the backdrop of the new normal provided by the lockdown.

Change has never been easy and it never will be – almost 7 billion people on Earth are afraid of tomorrow. Some are scared that they might be infected by the COVID-19, while others are starving from the halt in activities due to the lockdown. Then some are on the frontlines, working every hour to save lives and find a solution.

A lot of students complain that this shift and the ongoing tension of the pandemic is problematic to their mental health. Prajal Chhetri, another Masters degree student at Amity Noida, agrees. “We are so used to enjoying the company of our friends that a sudden lack of a social environment takes a toll on mental health. Surely we have the immediate company and love of our family members, but this is very subjective. Also, sitting in front of a screen for 8-9 hours daily causes eye strain and fatigues, as well as back and spine issues. Ultimately these health issues pile up to affect mental health as well”.

“Since I am an Applied Chemistry student, my field requires a ton of practical classes rather than theoretical. So, not being able to be physically present at my laboratory at the university makes it difficult to cope up with the theoretical classes. There’s so much research work halted altogether because of the pandemic. So that way it makes things kinda difficult,” says Chhetri.

It has only been five months since the virus spread. The students and teachers were forced into online classes without warning or proper training. Of course, there would be more stress and incoherence in acquiring information. Neither party is at fault.

But it should be noted that most students are at home – if not living with other people, some could also be living alone. That in itself poses many distractions or commitments that the individual must pay attention to while also being present for class.

Having to do their chores, the stress of being locked in 24/7 with people (if living with others), the mental fatigue from excess screen time and loneliness that comes from the lack of physical human interaction can bear heavily on people.

Joseph’s understanding of his classmates, the confusion that comes up when they’re at the middle ground of whether it is more important to complete the syllabus or understand what they’re learning. He states that these are not online classes but online sessions and the administration should understand that. “Education is not just for grades, it’s for the character development of an individual; the current method is just going to make the students into robots”.

With regards to the survey done by NBBDC, he says, “There are almost 3000 students – half of the student body is not even aware of the online classes. The survey is incomplete with not even 50% of the students participating.”

Sumnima explains how to better understand the repercussions that the lockdown and the digital classes have had on students who are younger.

“Of course, it has affected their mental health, but it is not mandatory to make them learn. The goal would be to keep them occupied with something since they cannot venture outside. The environment may also not be such where the children feel comfortable and safe especially in houses where parents fight, so these online lessons more than anything are a way to keep them occupied rather than overthinking and as an added perk they also learn.

“Mental health depends on family members also, how the family members are coping with the pandemic and how the family is helping the child to learn, so right now the parents and teachers are trying to engage the children in extracurricular activities like the PE teacher uploads yoga exercises and assigned students to do the same, it is simply not just ‘books, books, books’. Apart from a regular study, we are trying to encourage extracurricular activities to boost their creativity as well.”

So what is the consensus?

Are students going to focus all their energy and time on studying, or will they get to take a breather and document their lives during one of the most unfortunate historical events of the 21st century? Have online classes become a reality that students are simply supposed to get used to now? Or is it time for the government and school administration to build systems that truly leave no child behind?

Unless students question the contents and methods of learning, there will never be answers to the above.

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