If at all the Covid-19 lockdown has altered the perception toward education of students pursuing graduation and post-graduation studies, it is the way in which the recently introduced online classes have generated interest and curiosity in use of information technology in their curriculum. This stroke of luck, maybe a gift from the otherwise bleak Coronavirus saga, has brought higher studies in the state closer to what could hence be a futuristic norm in education.
Teachers and students from the Manipur University and the DM University in Imphal have unanimously agreed that online classes are here to stay, or at least they would like it to be, except for some reservations they have expressed regarding the less than optimal use of the opportunities the newly inducted idea has thrown open in the learning sector due to limited connectivity or some amount of student negligence.
Noni Arambam, a leading academic and Assistant Professor at the Political Science department of the DM University feels there should be a strong directive from the authorities which could streamline conducting of the online classes. The government had notified holding of online classes at the onset of the lockdown but if a kind of diktat was available the leadership could have been concrete and coordination more productive.
For instance, many students asked to enrol for Zoom classes did not accept the request, for whatever reasons, and the faculty too in some cases did not know how to deal with the situation and ended up devising their own mechanisms. All this could have been avoided, according to Noni, as when students responded well to the WhatsApp initiative in which lots of reading material including notes and capsules created by the teachers were well received by the students. One of the factors could have been that there are a few generations of teachers at the university and all are not IT friendly, posing an entirely different sort of challenge for all concerned.
Noni says the reading habit is lacking in students generally and they prefer readymade modules; especially true in the case of students from the hills who are enrolled in high numbers at the university, and who are out of network reach, messaging being more feasible for them. He sends his students voluminous reading material and as most of the other materials is available online too, along with the reference books, they need to explore, he says also observing that it’s a bit unorganised at the moment. But even schools have such classes, he quickly adds mentioning that it is a new normal and can save the universities from losing relevance at times like these.
Sylvia Yambem, a faculty of the Manipur University History department and formerly from the JNU, New Delhi says it would be wrong to say studies have suffered drastically, with exceptions like holding of laboratory-based classes in other subjects. On her part Sylvia held two assigned online classes last week and also prepared notes which were sent to the students before the classes were held. After the classes were over she dispatched audio lectures and is also available 24X7 on WhatsApp. The syllabus is mid-way and examinations are tentatively scheduled for June.
Sylvia feels students’ performance shouldn’t be suffering as the online classes is being supplemented by extended chats, notes, audio feed and continuous interaction. Students’ capabilities for the competitive examinations should also not be suffering as most of those appearing are already thorough in online learning, she avers while for the general students she says awareness in e-learning along with infrastructure problems need to be addressed. This is true for all other stakeholders too, she adds and says educational delivery needs to be more interactive and conducted smoothly without interruptions.
Though various applications like Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp and Gmail are being used for the classes there were more students participating in the normal classes, Sylvia says stating that WhatsApp has been in use before the lockdown also and the new additions give more scope for discussions, interactions, assignments, question-answer etc. The biggest constraint on this technology, though, has been the internet connectivity, electricity outages and software related issues, she says. Again, for whatever reasons, students seem to neglect this method of study which has been otherwise useful in this emergency situation for continuing the academic session.
Sylvia says it is the 21st Century and the world is moving to an IT society and the government of India also has numerous e-learning programmes, and she feels online learning is here to stay. Even schools in the state have gone online, so the attempt should be to try and scale up in terms of connectivity as well as infrastructural accessibility, she says. Instead of relying on programmes like Zoom every institution must have customised structured e-learning portals, feels Sylvia.
The students though are fiercely protective of their interests and say that if anyone has to be blamed for the mixed response to the online classes it should be the section of the students who don’t take classes seriously or the internet connectivity which at times is good but unavailable at other times. Leishangthem Nunglemba Meitei of MA Political Science fourth semester at the DM University is happy with the way their right to education has been upheld by the extra effort put in by the teachers during this global pandemic. He says full satisfaction as in normal classes can’t be expected but the WhatsApp voice explanations have been very good and they are getting lots of material to read. The rest is up to the students themselves who should be able to take the cue; the teachers are only aiding in the learning, which role they are fulfilling during the lockdown, he says.
Nunglemba says they started with Zoom but as it was not possible to fit 40 students simultaneously and with connectivity too bad they tried WhatsApp. This app is good for interaction, providing materials and raising questions while also catering to the needs of the numerous hills students for whom there is sometimes problem understanding the language and chatting is required, he says.
Yaiphaba Khumanthem, another student of the DM University who is doing his fourth semester BA course in History, Political Science and English was relieved when the online classes were announced though they had lost half a month’s time by then. He feels greatly encouraged by the technology which makes possible PDF notes, other material on WhatsApp, going live or pre-recorded through Utube and WhatsApp chatting with their teachers which sometimes goes into the night. Here too Zoom doesn’t seem to have given the desired benefit though. Yaiphaba even suggests a 24X7 online library and says online teaching has been popular since several years back in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat among others, apart from DDK studio learning.
Manipur too should join the company of the expanding online teaching initiatives, he says while recommending it for additional lectures during normal times too. He however felt let down by the internet facility which especially affect the hills students who are out of range, and also the fact that some students don’t have smart phones or laptops. This could have been one of the reasons for the divided opinion among the students when the online classes were announced, although students do have their books and consult their teachers on other phones. For competitive examinations too Yaiphaba feels it is possible to prepare if you have a laptop, tablet or mobile phone, except for the personality development part for which the presence of the teacher is a big advantage.
According to Hidangmayum Shidarth of the Manipur University fourth semester in History Gmail and WhatsApp seems to be popular among the students of the university’s History department with Zoom being used to go online on difficult topics. Here too because of the network problem hills students have to be given personal phone numbers of the teachers for consultations. Authorities would do well to address this shortcoming if online teaching is to be regulated for the future since it entails extra costs apart from connectivity. Otherwise Shidarth says going online has been accompanied by lots of reading material on PDF, Gmail and WhatsApp audio, and along with the other apps like Zoom the classes have become interesting. He says the history department has even taken up a new paper on Historiography which is based on how to write PhD essays when the students go on for further studies, and this is all on PDF and audio with Zoom back up.
On normal days teachers get a maximum of 2-3 classes per week with the students having a maximum of four classes of one-hour each. The online classes then are not a bad alternative during these Covid-19 hit times. Apprehension over the syllabus too is over with Shidarth having to finish just one more unit and things seem normalised. While students may not have felt comfortable with the video conferencing in the beginning, many have felt easy with the other audio apps which is same like sitting together and conversing, says Shidarth adding that the dividing line could be that interested students will make the most of it by adjusting to an IT friendly age that calls for accepting changes in learning methods.