Since the time broadband became accessible in India (c. 2007) it has driven my learning. It was books and magazines to begin with. Videos and podcasts followed. Recordings from conferences, live feeds and forums (orkut?) enhanced it further. Although, with this the burden increasingly fell on the learner to parse through the noise and get to material that mattered. Then, social media exploded with Facebook, twitter and Instagram. While these social media channels were grabbing attention YouTube, Vimeo, Livestream and web conferencing tools like Skype were getting better and pervasive. The world after that changed! The potential for self-driven learners was near infinite now. The way we engage changed in a decade’s time.
In 2012 I went back to university for a master’s degree. In those two years, online learning platforms were launched – EdX, Coursera, MIT’s OCW and somewhere along the line our modest NPTEL initiative. The learner of 2007, five years later, had the proposition of earning a certification or a degree online. He can learn in his own time, ‘on-demand’, and earn just the credits that he wants and do away with the need of going the whole hog with a degree. Tt has been a fast changing world. All this has certainly helped in great measure for those with the thirst and need for learning and skills that are not accessible in their immediate environment. The power in these innovations has been immense. It is still unravelling for a country like India where the university system does not have a good record for inclusion, accessibility or quality.
It is 2020. The world is under a lockdown. From workers to friends and relatives everyone is glad that video calls are easy, cheap and work nearly flawlessly. There is zoom, webex, skype and similar products from Google, Microsoft, Adobe etc. I am reflecting on these changes because as a K-12 teacher I have been asked to develop a course for young learners that can be taught online. In twelve years my side of the table has changed. It helps that the state of technologies involved in teaching and learning online has improved tremendously. I am fretting over issues of management of an online classroom and observing every student in the room which is in effect a computer screen with small squares representing a student. I am concerned about structuring the course such that it overcomes the remoteness and passivity that is inherent in the process. I am worried about how to figure if a child is comfortable and feels comfortable enough to participate. Many of these signals that I could pick up from the body language of the children are not available here. The screen is a whiteboard for instruction. It is a notebook for students. It is the classroom atmosphere. It is also that social space that a classroom in real life has. We have begun to expect too much from this screen.
If there was ever a better way to live a lockdown for those who can afford then a lockdown in the technological world of 2020 is the best one. But, as I begin shaping my online course I am worried if this is the future of learning that we would like to formalise for K-12 education. At a higher level with specific skills needed, it seems appropriate to have an online course. It just gets to the point straight and doesn’t delay a learner from getting to the knowledge he is seeking.
With K-12 education turning online, I am worried that we are experimenting with primary socialisation in society. It is a bold experiment at that. It isn’t just about helping children with information and knowledge. Real life classrooms and a school space for humans have served a key purpose in the society – primary socialisation. It can be risky on several counts of what it does to a child and the kind of socialisation that the online spaces provide. But, even before we venture into those concerns there are macro level concerns of fairness, equity and accessibility of this medium to all the children in any society. High speed internet is a luxury. Computers, tablets and smartphones need a threshold level of affluence. The new world we are imagining is pivoting on privilege. Class, race, language, family endowments and location are the privileges that online learning is blind to. Let me end this post with a statement from Khan academy to offer an example of the experiment with primary socialization that is going on – The forced closure of schools around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic could create a better balance between online and in-person learning going forward.
Right now, I am not even sure where to begin with! I will develop the online course though.