I didn’t expect a full year of working from home to completely change my approach towards work.
I’m an assistant professor of civil engineering at NIT Silchar, an institute of national importance in India.
Before the pandemic hit the country, my job was pretty interesting. The regular interactions with the students were an enriching experience. The discussions and exchange of ideas with them were intellectually stimulating.
The pandemic changed all that.
Compared to walking into a lecture hall packed with students, doing online classes feels like watching a cooking show to sate your hunger when you’re famished. Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing a hall full of appreciative faces at the end of a good lecture.
After a year and a half of working from home, my whole perspective towards my job has changed. This post recalls my experiences and how online classes have turned the teaching experience around for me.
The breeding ground of ideas is now just a lecture
Before the pandemic, classes used to be the highlight of my day.
I taught the same subject to different sections. When I walked in for the day’s lecture, I knew what I’d start with, but the direction in which the lecture would go totally depended on the students.
Sometimes, some students shared anecdotes which led me to explore areas of the subject I hadn’t fully prepared for. At other times, they asked questions that forced me to venture out of the guided path of the lecture outline.
The result was that even though the starting point was the same for all sections, where we ended up at the end of the lecture depended on how the students welcomed the new ideas for the day.
My lectures were always a two-way street, with me walking out of the classroom feeling like I’ve learned something new every day.
Online classes don’t have that option.
At the beginning of the semester, I tried my best to keep the lectures interactive with slides for discussion and question prompts after every topic. But most of the students had their cameras and microphones off. They probably were tired from staring at the screen for long hours each day in the name of “online classes” and had no motivation left to take part in discussions.
As a result, very few students ever participated in the class interactions.
Lectures — which used to be my favorite part of the day — were reduced to sessions where I simply read out from a script, with no input from the students.
The reason I loved taking classes so much was lost.
Screens don’t encourage debates
Another thrilling aspect of my lectures was when I proposed a topic and let the students debate it out among themselves. It was interesting to hear them debate ambiguous topics like “Should the government ban festivals that bring communities together, but cause pollution?” or “Construction and development at the cost of indigenous people and local biodiversity.”
Since these questions didn’t have a clear-cut answer, hearing different perspectives always gave the students more food for thought. These discussions also helped them realize the complexity of the problems the world has to deal with and how several issues don’t have a simple solution.
Such discussions were difficult to conduct online. The time constraints make it impossible for every student to present their point of view. Having discussions that boosted understanding while also promoting the sense of belonging to a class was extremely difficult.
When just words aren’t sufficient
In a room full of students, even if no one participated in my discussion prompts, I could tell by looking at my students’ faces if they were enjoying what I was teaching. If I saw enthusiasm and curiosity, I’d continue what I was doing, maybe pepper it up with more anecdotes. Otherwise, I’d change tracks and start something else.
This served as a non-verbal communication tool that helped me immensely. I could be sure my lectures were short, to the point, and fun for both parties.
This was absent during the online classes. Very few students showed any enthusiasm for what I was talking about. Maybe it’s because it was too much of an effort to unmute themselves and speak up, or maybe they were afraid of interrupting me mid-sentence and being told off.
Hardly a handful of students ever participated in class discussions, and even when they did, all I had was this verbal communication to gauge the mood of my students.
This didn’t help in keeping the lectures interesting, which were already turning into a one-way street with me doing most of the talking and a majority of the students probably with their minds far away.
Who’s to blame?
I tried my best to make the online classes as enriching as the real-life classroom experiences were.
I added videos, animations, question-and-answer sessions, but nothing could come close to the amount of fun my students and I had in offline classes. Out of all the lectures I gave, a few were interesting, but those required massive efforts on my part, and once they were done, I’d be too tired to do anything else throughout the day.
As for the students, they didn’t just study my subject but had to sit with their eyes (and attention) glued to their phone screens for eight hours each day. They had to do this in their homes, surrounded by parents and squabbling siblings, with no one else probably understanding the toll engineering takes on a young mind.
Should I blame myself for not being able to engage my students much?
Probably, but it wasn’t due to lack of trying. I lack the necessary skills and tools to make an online environmental science class as interesting. Of all the “faculty development programs” I’ve attended, nothing covered this aspect.
Should I blame the students for not being enthusiastic enough?
I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.
Should I blame the institute for not providing the necessary infrastructure to engage both professors and students and making the classes as enjoyable as the lectures conducted in person?
How can I blame the institute when no power on earth could foresee the effects of this global pandemic?
Towards a new future
Online classes have been called the future of education, but it remains to be seen how the existing batch of educators can deliver on the promise of imparting meaningful lessons.
There’s no doubt that several professors have successfully learned the art of teaching students just as effectively in online classes as they did in person, but there must be others like me who are struggling to implement the same learning methods in online classes.
If we’re indeed moving towards a future where all the information we need is going to be on a computer, we need to enhance the skills of the people behind those computers as well. In other words, we need to educate the educators.
Only then will a balanced system of education take shape, where both the professors and students have fun while also learning new things and having a lot of food for thought.