Classroom Blues 

Online teaching is no replacement for the real thing

The shift to online teaching has been very sudden. My colleagues and I had to transform our teaching styles within twenty-four hours. Students immediately created Whatsapp groups for each class in which teachers assumed admin roles. Being young, internet-natives, and rebellious, students were more creative in their responses. Before the official lockdown began, some of them would come online in odd locations and settings. One student had her mother screaming at her in one class. Another student was stuck in traffic and everybody could hear the noise around him. Another student was dismayed during attendance: “Sir, my mother was listening and you were only calling out my initials.” In our regular class, this student always corrected my pronunciation of her name so I had started calling out the initials of her name. There was no way of guessing her mother’s presence because it is almost impossible to have more than twenty videos streaming at the same time.

On my side, I can choose to show my video and audio signals. In some of the early classes, some of the students had asked me to give them a tour of my study. I showed them my collection of books. In this sense, online classes can be more intimate than the classroom. The offline classroom is not subject to the kind of surveillance that is possible in online settings. Students can record the screen, capture the audio and make anything the teacher says controversial by creating an out-of-context clip. This is one of the risks in online teaching. While it is possible to make a video of the teacher in the offline classroom, it is harder.

The Whatsapp groups are a good way to share PDF files and e-books. But now all of my students have my personal mobile number and they can ask questions any hour of the day or night. All they have to do is post things in a group. I have had to mute the group notifications to sleep at night. In a way, when my job was only offline, I could leave work behind. Now work and personal life are running into each other.

Before a class begins, I have to inform the members of my household to not knock at the door or barge in the room or call me out because an online class is going to take place. Initially, my family was dismayed at this curtailment of their claim on me. They did not understand how I could be at home and still not be available to them. I have to guard my online teaching from real-life intrusions by giving examples of other online communication methods to my family. I am sure some of my students are also showing their family members how online teaching takes place. But online teaching is no replacement for the ‘real world’ classroom teaching where I can read the faces and see what everyone is up to. In the online classroom, I have no way of knowing if a student has left the computer after getting his or her attendance marked. Then there is also no way of interacting with students after the class ends online. I cannot ask them to join me over a cup of chai. I miss campus life already.

I also miss offline classes because of another reason. The classroom has concrete walls, glass windows and solid doors. During a lecture, the only noise from the outside comes when a loud group of students passes by. In an online classroom, I have to constantly keep muting more than twenty microphones of my listeners who keep “unmuting” them to ask questions. It is more than twenty microphones pouring their entire soundscapes into the classroom. For someone who suffers from hypersensitivity to certain noises, it is a very exhausting process. On campus, I come out of a lecture feeling enthused about the flow of ideas. Out of the virtual classroom, I stagger to my bed with my hands on my ears and, despite my technophilia, feel sympathetic to all the Luddites of the world. In those moments, I want to live like Diogenes on the margins of all human discourses.

The university, for Edward Said, was the last bastion of freedom: a thriving community of people who share ideas, camaraderie, and a safe place for expressing their views. Online classrooms are sterile, lifeless, atomised and heavily surveilled sites. I miss the organic campus lebenswelt and long to go back to it as soon as possible.

Published on March 29, 2020