All it takes for Bharani (name changed), a social work student at Madras Christian College (MCC) to take part in her department’s webinar is a mobile phone with a good internet connection. Happy to save three hours of commuting time from her home in Avadi to her college in Nungambakkam, M Varsha, a Journalism student from MOP Vaishnav College attends classes online. A BSc Maths student at Loyola College, Anto Nelson doesn’t miss the class; he listens to the live online class and notes down the sum as instructed by the professor.
These instances clearly portray the evolution of college education in the age of COVID. Organising classes through Zoom or Google classroom, discussions through webinars, checking written assignments with the aid of plagiarism software — the pandemic has clearly changed the path of college education in Chennai. Learning is no more confined to the classroom, as students with Internet access can continue the learning.
Education post COVID
Colleges in Chennai are slowly adapting to the post-COVID world by encouraging students towards extended learning. “We have started the new semester,” says Dr P Wilson, Principal of Madras Christian College (MCC).
The college is exploring student-friendly measures such as conducting classes and practicals through online software. “The college administration has created an ID for each student to attend classes through Google Classroom. A survey was also conducted to find out the percentage of students with Internet connectivity,” said Sri Loganathan, a final year Journalism student from MCC. 94% of the students have proper Internet connectivity according to the survey.
“We will do a case-by-case analysis for those without a proper mobile or Internet. This will formulate a solution,” says P Wilson.
Meanwhile, colleges are putting technology to the best use. Many city-based colleges have created inhouse tools for various facets of education such as college admissions, examinations and classroom learning.
|Classroom instruction & webinars||WebEx, Google Meet, Zoom|
|Examinations||myperfectice, PaperShala and TCS iON digital learning software. Major institutions use|
|Library resources||Remote software, Koha and other open-source solutions|
|Registration and filling forms||Adobe Acrobat and other Enterprise Resource Planning software|
|Self learning||MHRD’s virtual labs, e labs for programming and self-testing, inhouse tools|
Loyola College is creating a mobile-based application to make the learning process easy for students. “We will record attendance, assign weekly targets and track their performances through the application,” says F R Francis Thomas, Principal of Loyola College.
Colleges are exploring a complete transformation of pedagogy by conducting internals, practicals, project work and internship online. “Students will not hold the apparatus physically, but through a computer-mediated process; chemistry practicals can also be conducted thus. Lecturers in the department will conduct a demo for students,” said Wilson, adding that all the faculty members are currently learning about the nuances of virtual education.
There has been an emphasis on self-learning too, through assignments and group works. Various institutions are offering full-time degree courses online. For example, IIT-Madras has introduced the world’s first online BSc Degree program in programming and Data Science. Students can get a degree regardless of their age or location and with a wide range of academic backgrounds says a brochure on the website.
The signs, so far
From good class strength to increased participation among students, several positives have been noticed since the introduction of virtual education. “The class strength is pretty encouraging,” says Dr Sandeep Sancheti, Vice-Chancellor. SRM Institute of Science and Technology.
“We are getting daily/weekly reports that records average 85-90% and in most cases above 90%. It is better than in regular classrooms. I feel it is because students cannot go anywhere outside due to the virus and resources for learning is available at a click,” he added.
Virtual education has also enhanced the confidence of students who are no longer shy or scared to ask questions or seek clarification on doubts. “The chatbox in remote learning is a great tool for many students who hesitate to interact in a classroom setting. It also facilitates referring to other resources on the Internet parallelly, which is often not feasible in conventional learning methodology,” says Dr Sancheti.
However, as we probe a little more, some complaints begin to emerge. “It is not the same. The feeling of physically attending a seminar is more exciting,” sighs Bharani. Few of her classmates could not attend due to connectivity issues and there was no discipline among the participants, many of whom had to be repeatedly told to turn off their mic to avoid ambient noise.
Technological glitches sometimes make virtual classes uncomfortable for professors and students. “Besides missing the college ambience, I find classes from home distracting. Half of the time is exhausted in conversations like, Am I audible, hello, can you hear me?” says Varsha M.
Anto Nelson misses the kick of solving Maths problems in a step-by-step procedure. “It is not fun to watch solved problems in a PowerPoint presentation. I personally miss the classroom experience,” he mentions.
For students belonging to economically poor backgrounds, virtual education is a huge burden. Says Ananth P, a BA Economics student, “Continuing my education during the COVID-19 times has proved to be so difficult. My father has been taking night shifts so that he can save money and buy me an Android phone,” says Ananth, whose father is a mechanic.
A big leap
How ready are teachers themselves for the sudden jump into futuristic education?
A few proactive professors have used the opportunity to learn the processes and benefits of virtual education. A year ago, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS) conducted a webinar, connecting its clinical students. “We have conducted four such webinars in the past one year. Since then, a few professors have gotten accustomed to online teaching methods,” says Dr S Balasubramaniam, director of clinics, TANUVAS, adding that the advantages of virtual education cannot be ignored. “This is the easiest way to expose students to global medicine practices,” he added.
But the shift has not been easy for all professors who feel that they were put in a spot without proper training and preparation. “The attention span of a student is less than twelve minutes. It is a tough job to monitor hundreds of students online,” says Sudarshan S, Professor, IIT-Madras, who has been teaching online now for more than four months.
For some teachers, there is also the discomfort of having to adapt to something completely new, after being conditioned for years to conventional methods. “I was so technologically challenged that I could not even open my mail without my husband’s help. As the college announced the commencement of online classes, I started learning about it all,” says a faculty member of M O P Vaishnav College for Women, who did not wish to be named.
The road ahead
With all these changes thanks to the pandemic, do educationists anticipate a permanent change in the college system and pedagogy?
“Education will move towards hybrid learning and predominantly, constructivism where students construct their knowledge on their own with the support of teachers,” says P Wilson, also acknowledging that the transformation must not exclude less privileged students.
“Inclusive approach may suffer in online education,” says Principal of Loyola College, Thomas Amirtham. The college that has 30 per cent of its seats taken up by poor and first-generation students does not see virtual education as a future norm, even though measures are being taken to fill the gap under the present circumstances. “We will provide additional data for students who cannot afford it. More such schemes will be implemented,” Thomas Amirtham added.