Published: 15th April 2020
Why Delhi University professors think virtual classes won't work for their students during lockdown
There are students from humble backgrounds as well who cannot afford an extensive data pack needed to attend the video conference lectures
Online teaching might be the in-thing this pandemic season, but professors from Delhi University who have been trying to go virtual since the lockdown is in place, say that it is not a viable medium of teaching in India yet. Even as the university has asked its computer centre to come up with a platform for online exams — the DU Teachers' Association (DUTA) has written to the VC saying going online is not viable for DU with its "diverse student population, and must not even be considered."
Dr Saikat Ghosh of the English Department said that even though Zoom video calls might have made it easy to have video conference lessons, students cannot always join in. "I'm taking online classes on Zoom. But the entire class is not able to join. Some students have gone back home to remote areas (small towns and villages) where the internet service is not good enough. They have to rely on just the written notes and articles which are not enough," said Saikat. "About 14-20 students out of 40-45 per class are able to join the Zoom lectures with some regularity — realistically, that's not even half the class," he added.
Hello...Hello..Can you hear my class?
The major complaint by the teachers was the same — students are not being able to connect to the internet, either because they come from a remote area or from a humble background and can't afford a huge data pack or simply because the internet is not good. "If we do not get an uninterrupted connection sitting in the capital, it is quite believable that students in remote areas won't get a very strong network. They would not be able to connect to the virtual lectures or download assignments that are data-heavy and thus lose out on a lot for no fault of their own. And if at some point I have to evaluate my students on these assignments those who could not access it will be penalised for no reason," said Dr Vijaya Venkataraman, who teaches Spanish at the university.
There's more to classes than just lectures
Dr Najma Rehmani teaches Urdu at the varsity and she finds it extremely difficult to share content over the internet with her students. "When the kids left, not all of them carried the books with them and to prepare notes on the computer for regional languages is very arduous and cumbersome. It is also difficult to share the notes over WhatsApp. A lot of our students come from a humble background. They cannot afford an extensive data plan. I am sending voice notes and parts of notes over WhatsApp but that does not help. It is difficult to teach without class interaction," said the professor. "Especially for the postgraduate students, a lot depends on the discussion, as a group. It's not just a one-on-one process," she added.
Even when students join in they switch off their video and audio to save data — this takes away the advantage of the virtual classroom. "Class interaction holds a lot of significance. If I do not see my students how can I teach them?" asked Dr Abha Dev Habib, who teaches Physics at Miranda House. "DU has a huge number of students and it is impossible to teach them over video calls and WhatsApp. The third-year students will be in trouble the most. They have to apply for the postgraduate courses and if we are not able to reconvene classes how will they complete the semester," she added.
How are foreign varsities so virtual?
One might ask how universities abroad shifted to a virtual set up smoothly — if they can, why can't we? Well, Vijaya told us why. "I spoke to a friend of mine who teaches in New York and she told me that they have been using a software called Blackboard, similar to Google Classroom that we have been using. But they have had a proper training for about a week and have been given laptops and free internet to use it uninterrupted. Whereas here, we did not even have a departmental meeting to ascertain what problems one might face," said the teacher. "My students want to come and study online or however they can. But there are hindrances. It's not just internet issues. Female students are having to help with household chores now they are at home and this makes it difficult for them to study," said Vijaya.
My Zoom class got hijacked
But these are not the only issues. Recently, there have been complaints of people hacking into the Zoom class and abusing participants on the group chats and harassing the teachers and students. "This is very disturbing. But that is also not the only issue. A lot of the teachers are not even trying to go for the online option. It's just an easy way out of work. This has actually given me more time to teach my students stuff that was not in the syllabus. But they will lag in several of these subjects that are not being taught," said a senior professor on the condition of anonymity. "We are simply not ready for this kind of shift. The shift was also made in a hurry as the lockdown was put into place but we could at least have talked about it and come up with a schedule and a plan about what we do if the videos do not work or files do not go through and how to do the internal assessment," he added.
DUTA and the duty-bound teaching populace
Most of the teachers are not very happy with the current system and as their representative, DUTA has sent a set of suggestions to the VC. "As soon as universities are allowed to reopen, examinations (including Internal Assessment) should take place after completing the remaining teaching days for the current batches of students, with priority accorded to final year students. The vacation periods may be adjusted accordingly," read the suggestion list. "Final year students may be provided provisional certificates with details of the SGPA of past semesters and CGPA (on the basis of that) and listing all papers undertaken in the course work. This will benefit students applying to other institutions for higher studies even as they await completion of examinations and declaration of results," it read.
Give priority to the third-year students
In case universities are allowed to open only in a phased manner, the DUTA thinks that priority should be given to final year students. Examinations for other years can always be carried forward to a later date, suggested the association. The Internal Assessment could be completed within 15 days of re-opening of colleges and departments. "Universities should prepare the academic calendar of the next year keeping in mind the time required to adjust the course requirements of the current batches of students. This may require shifting of semester exams or holding examinations in annual mode," said Dr Rajib Ray, President DUTA. The teachers association has always been in favour of the annual system rather than the semester system and are now emphasising that there is no other go but to get back to it. "The possibility of shifting to an annual mode of teaching, especially at the UG level, should be seriously considered. It will enable the system to respond better to such crisis situations, in case of further prolongation. Suitable adjustments in the course work can be worked out for the students promoted to the second and third year," said Rajib.
The DUTA also suggested that universities should be asked to hold meetings of various statutory bodies including faculty and departments in order to prepare how to deal with the situation. "Students should be kept informed of the measures adopted, even if the university needs to revisit some of them later because of any further developments," read the suggestion letter. The pandemic and the subsequent national lockdown have created great uncertainties for all. Educational institutions have a responsibility to create an environment which is reassuring for lakhs of young people in these distressing times," added Rajib.
At this juncture, institutions are trying to find solutions for key processes of finishing coursework as the semester was disrupted midway and conduct of examinations and admissions, said the teachers. "In the face of the pandemic, it is crucial that institutions decide on solutions which do not saddle students with more hardships and uncertainties. It is necessary to work out both short-term and long-term solutions," said the DUTA in its letter to the VC. "As institutions of higher education, including state and central universities, are of diverse nature and composition, it is important that while the UGC Committee works out guidelines about broad time frame, universities are given the flexibility to design solutions so as to respond to their specific circumstances," it added.