On a lazy Sunday morning, Abhijith is still in bed after a tiring night shift when his mother wakes him up.
She has her smartphone in her hand and an urgent doubt. “How to get red ink pen on whatsapp? The other teachers use red ink to correct the assignments. Show me how to do it on my cell phone, I have to send back the corrected answer sheets,” insists the elementary school teacher.
Abhijith shows her where to find the pen tool and how to select red from the swatch. Draw a tick next to the correct answers and a cross next to the wrong ones, he explains.
“I recently helped her set up Google Meet for a meeting with the DEO (District Education Officer). She had a problem with the microphone at first, but she figured out the rest herself. She got a laptop but didn’t know how to access WhatsApp on it, which could save her a lot of time,” says Abhijith.
While there has been much discussion about students and their shift to online learning, stories about what teachers have had to do have remained largely hidden. Abhijith’s mother is one of many school teachers forced to take the plunge into online tutoring in the wake of the pandemic. From a lack of internet literacy to connectivity issues, these tutors had to deal with a variety of issues.
Victers TV is still the cornerstone
In Kerala, classroom sessions covering the curriculum are broadcast KITE – Victor’s TVthe country’s education channel.
The station broadcasts an episode every day and it is also made available on its YouTube channel and Facebook page. Later, the respective teachers take over and deepen this in a medium of their choice by answering questions.
WhatsApp – the undisputed king
“WhatsApp is the most popular medium among teachers and students alike because it is widely used and easy to use. There is a group for each class, with the head teacher and class teacher as administrators, where learning materials are shared,” says Thomson Tom, who teaches at St Joseph’s GHS, Paipad.
“Then there is a group for the whole school where general announcements are made. Unnecessary chatter and redirects are strictly forbidden there. If a student leaves the group, it is their class teacher’s responsibility to find out the reason and add them back,” he says.
YouTube – a distant second
It’s impossible to sit idle blaming connectivity issues, especially for science and math teachers. With labs and libraries closed, many are unhappy with how things are going.
“A practice-oriented, child-centred education is what science demands. Teachers should help students relate science to everyday experiences and things. Laboratory activities are therefore important, but at the moment we have no idea what the child is involved with,” says Rajimol Chacko of Perunna, NSS Boys High School.
Even compressed video files consume a lot of internet when downloaded, forcing students to spend on data packets. So teachers like Rajimol decided to try YouTube for a change, and it turns out it wasn’t a bad idea at all.
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“Once uploaded to YouTube, kids don’t have to worry about videos being deleted or re-downloaded. The platform doesn’t eat up all their data and they can watch it whenever they want,” she says.
Google Meet is complicated
St Joseph’s GHS Paippad’s Thomson highlights how the digital divide between students is affecting tutors as well. It even restricts willing teachers from taking E classes to the next level, he says.
“I prepare notes on the basis of victim Episode and host a Google Meet daily around 8:00 p.m. Hardly 20 students are able to do it, but I keep going anyway,” says the English teacher.
Lack of Internet skills among seniors in his profession is another hurdle, he adds.
Sorry kids, no escaping tests
Adapting e-learning doesn’t mean students can avoid assignments and tests. Because there’s no face-to-face interaction with the kids, taking tests regularly is the only way to gauge their progress, Thomson says.
“We make sure students have enough time to prepare by letting them know the exam date beforehand. Tests usually last 45 minutes and they have an additional 15 minutes to send the answers. We insist that the test should be taken in the presence of parents, but it is questionable how many follow it,” he explains.
Answer sheets will be corrected and returned. Although grades are not used for assessment, students are asked to keep copies.
Why regular school was better
A native of Kottayam, Arya Raj was teaching in a supported high school as part of her B-Ed curriculum prior to the pandemic. After completing her studies, she is now a guest lecturer and explains why she prefers a regular school lesson to a virtual session.
“A classroom gives all students equal access to knowledge. You can interact with the teacher and share all your thoughts and concerns. Maybe that would change in the future, but given the current technology that we have, it’s impossible to match the classroom experience,” she says.
Unlike in school, teachers have no idea what’s going on on the other end – who’s paying attention and who isn’t.
“In a class of 50, 20-25 will be ready all the time, some others will come in later and a handful will barely respond. We randomly call them home, but that’s not the ideal solution,” says Thomson.
Poor connectivity is a heavy blow, even for teachers. “Often in the middle of a session, students run out of data. We turn off the video option and resume our classes like a radio transmission when this gets particularly bad. Not even half of the students have WiFi at home,” Arya laments.
The unavailability of reference materials in Malayalam is also a problem as many students are unfamiliar with English. “In schools, we can explain as many times as they need to understand, but no amount of audio messages will bring that kind of clarity,” says Rajimol.
Many parents are not happy that children spend so much time on their cell phones – also for school reasons. And when guardians come home and need the device, the backlog piles up.
These few months of “working from home” have taught teachers a lesson. Virtual education can in no way match the variety of opportunities offered by the face-to-face conversation between a tutor and a student. Because modern problems require modern solutions, they have chosen to adopt, improvise, and overcome.
“We decided to give them lessons like capsules. What we could cover in a single 45 minute lesson is now broken down into small three or four parts. Not ideal, but at least the kids can follow. Let’s see where it takes us,” concludes an optimistic Rajimol.