Sunday, March 22, 2020

Worried about teaching online? Here's how I did it!


With the Corona scare, a lot of teachers in schools and colleges are being asked to teach online. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for a teacher who has been in the habit of teaching in the classroom, looking at students' faces and relying on their body language to gauge their interest and then to improvise.

I have worked as an online tutor, teacher, mentor and trainer for a long time. In fact, as a small group of tutors engaged in tutoring middle school American children online, we would have been among the first ones back in 2005. The international media (Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Rediff) covered the pioneering effort quite well and the e-tutoring industry was born!

The current situation has pushed us into this territory and it is up to us to make the best use of this phenomenal education technology. The transition is challenging, more so for the teachers than the students. Our learners today are more online than offline- with their multiplayer games and social media activities. Students may have their own reasons for resisting a change to online classes but technology adoption is not one of them. A lot of teachers, on the other hand, become very nervous about the change. In my view, this resistance stems from two misconceptions:

  1. The technology is too complex for me to handle. I am a teacher, not a nerd!
  2. I can't have good interaction with my students in the online format.
Let's tackle them one by one. Firstly, the technology has evolved so much during the last 15 years that it is quite commonplace to do a video call on Skype, Whatsapp, Teams or Zoom. The internet penetration has reached far corners and you can see people using VoIP/ Video in villages as well. My 70-year old mother and a decade senior mother-in-law are also on Whatsapp and are quite comfortable in video-calling their grandchildren from their phones.

Our teachers have also evolved in their use of teaching technologies and mostly use a PowerPoint presentation in their regular classes. They are using the videos and websites relevant to their subjects to make their students understand a concept. They are just one step away from moving online in terms of technology and simply believe in their own teaching expertise and the ability to connect with their students. Technology has just become an enabler to continue doing "business as usual". In times like these, similar to wars, children are the most affected ones and lose a precious year due to the disruption.

The second point is a more concerning point. And continuing from my last statement, we need to make an effort to ensure that our students don't lose out. I will give some instances of how teaching online has been an (equally) rewarding experience for me and my colleagues:

- Sometime in 2005-06, in one of his Math tutoring sessions with a grade 6 student in the US, my fellow tutor asked how she would want to spend the One Million Dollar if she won it in a lottery. This was an effort in making small-talk in the context of dealing with large numbers. The child became emotional and said she would spend that money to search for her younger brother who had been living in an orphanage after the separation of their parents. That day my friend was moved beyond the geographical and cultural boundaries and felt connected to this student he was teaching for only an hour. He might not meet her again in a tutoring session but made notes for her next tutor about this incident. Mind you, we were only doing voice conversations in those days of limited bandwidth. Even a lack of video didn't stop us from making a "connection".

- We used to conduct a 20-Questions Exercise with our classroom students to bring home a point about paying attention to instructions and keeping one's cool in stressful situations. The students were asked to "do" 20 questions and some of them involved asking the neighbour's name, clapping, running to be blackboard etc. As you can imagine, the classroom would have been quite noisy and entertaining. Last year, I decided to do this online. Converting this to an online format meant changing a few questions to suit a student sitting alone in front of a screen as well as some students sitting in a class in front of a projector. I conducted this exercise after changing the questions and was pleasantly surprised at the cacophony of the sounds on my laptop! You can see the excitement in the session below:




- In the same session, I also shared a video about setting goals and it was immensely satisfying to hear one of the students saying out aloud "I can do this!". The energy transmission was complete!



There is virtually nothing that you can't do in an online format. Just go ahead and try it out. Do share anything that you have tried and if it worked or didn't work. We can all do this together and make the best use of this time to improvise.

Wish you all a great teaching experience and stay safe!