Updated: Nov 1, 2020
For the last post of the month in the theme of ‘Children and Youth Speak Up’, the co-editors, Bengi and Ayushi share their experiences and reflections as educators using the virtual medium of instruction during Covid-19 for two different age groups of students.
We have decided to include with our last post for the theme of the month, a painting we received as a contribution from 10 year old Rajkumari Maanika who lives in Manipur. The painting speaks about peace and harmony among different communities in Manipur. Rajkumari Maanika tries to show that the coexistence of different communities is possible if everyone joins hands.
Teaching during COVID-19 left us with various impressions on the diversity and uniqueness of each learning experience especially amid a crisis, that brings about differentiated access to digital technology that designates the limits and models of engagement and achievement.
I, Bengi, teach undergraduate at two campuses of the City University of New York, the public university system of New York that does not only provide accessible and affordable education to the diverse student population of the city (and the country) but is also known for teaching and research practice that strives to support and contribute to communities that it is composed of. The diversity of the CUNY classroom does not only mean that students come with different levels of access to resources, but that there is also not one dominant or uniform trajectory as to what college experience looks like: some students are younger people who work in multiple jobs, some students are older professionals who are using education as a transition to a new career opportunity; some students are taking a couple of courses and try to make it to the campus as little as possible, some students are full-time and mostly around in the campus. In the context of the onset of the pandemic, for example, it stood out that some students are immigrants and some students locals, which meant that the former stuck in the country without any family members and scarce socioeconomic network support, and the latter trying to provide for a large family whose most members got sick. The school closure and the following transition to online teaching in March 2020, therefore, necessitated that the wide array of issues could be addressed via innovative, flexible, personalized solutions.
In this process, like most educators, I told myself that rather than setting up requirements and outcomes that need to be met and then making students live up to those ideals that are not reflecting the reality we’re in, I have to use methods and tools that reflect an acknowledgment that the goal is not to evaluate students based on what they will not be able to do, but it is to be in ongoing and evolving conversations that ask students what they will need right now, from education, from me to accomplish their goals and in what capacity they will be able to participate in education, if at all.
These quotes from two different students who are responding to my initial series of reaching out to them at the beginning of this challenging term, reflect the diverse, contradictory and yet equally valid concerns brought about by this new mode of teaching and learning and how vital the flexibility that the educators bring into the model of the class. In my emails, I’m asking students how they’re doing and which tools and methods would make them the most comfortable during this transition. One of the students responds:
"Professor, I would like to let you know that asynchronous class is not an effective way for the students to learn. I personally find it irritating if we aren’t able to engage in a conversation with you. It causes me to lose interest in the class and I do my assignments just because I have to pass. The reason some of us take this class is to understand, learn, and apply the understanding of psychology in real life. Asynchronous class is a perfect example of assuming a child will learn everything and will be engaged in activities without scaffolding. I hope you understand my concerns."
Another student responds, a couple of weeks later:
"I am writing you to apologize for reaching out so late. I am not able to open the slides or view the recorded presentations. The transition has been rough due to the classes I am taking being difficult not being the best for this style of learning. I have also been helping my mother who has gotten sick with the virus, but from now on I will try to be on top of my work moving forward."
Similar concerns are reflected in a digital pedagogic space halfway across the world from the City University of New York, in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, where Ayushi is working remotely from home as a social science teacher.
I, Ayushi, am currently teaching 9th and 10th graders in India through an ed-tech company that provides them access to virtual learning post-school hours. The students in my classroom are from different cities across the country. The diversity in my virtual classroom ranges from the level of cities that the students belong to – from smaller towns and two-tier, three-tier cities to megacities like Mumbai. The students also come from diverse socio-cultural and religious backgrounds. My students and their needs are also intricately shaped by the fact that they are in the adolescent age group and preparing for the 10th board exams – a time considered of monumental importance in the lives of parents and children in India.
My interaction with the students every day has made me aware of the extent to which the technology and digital mediums of teaching-learning processes, are constructed around issues of access, social class, and exposure. A very limited number of students in my classes have access to a laptop with a stable Wi-Fi broadband connection. In most parts of India, having access to a 4G internet connection and technology like smartphones, laptops and tablets are tied to the economic status of the family. Every day, I encounter comments from students telling me that there is a ‘network problem’ that is making me inaudible or not visible during the lesson. This has increasingly made me, as an educator, get creative with teaching aids to facilitate classroom interactions and trying to make them more inclusive. I utilize feedback from my students to base the virtual classroom experience on.
As educators, in these times, more than ever, we need to be sharply and critically aware of students’ needs in the virtual classroom. Underpinning the necessity of this awareness is the fact that these are children whom I have never met, and might not even meet in the future. Communication between the educator and the students in this context becomes crucial. In one instance, a student during a virtual lesson told me that it was her birthday; realizing that this is a context where the social milieu of the school is absent for the children, I encouraged the students to take a few minutes at the end of the class, to wish her a happy birthday, together.
In another instance, a student told me:
"Why don’t you come and teach us in school, I don’t understand anything our history teacher teaches us in school."
In many instances, I am able to gauge the students’ anxieties in the classroom – the anxiety that is caused by an interrupted network connection and the pressure of learning incorporated by the school system. It is visible in their interaction with me during the lesson, the way they ask questions, the way they respond if I am unable to answer their questions on time. In this background, it becomes important for us as educators, to employ innovative methods at the level of pedagogy and at the level of catering to children’s emotional needs and well-being. At the level of pedagogy, this time of crisis seeks from us as teachers teaching in a virtual environment, ways to enable, encourage and enhance classroom interaction using our and the students’ digital selves and minimizing the virtual distance. At the level of catering to children’s emotional well-being, it would help to shift focus from the time-bound syllabus covering approach, to giving spaces to children within virtual classrooms to express and share their doubts, anxieties, and needs.
The diversity and the way it shapes access to digital teaching-learning processes is constructing classrooms in a way that has never happened before. Perhaps, the 'ICT in education' wave that came to India and other countries of the third world, also did not anticipate this moment in time.
Now after months in the context of the ‘new normal’, as educators, we need to be ever more open and eager to engage in a continued questioning of the pedagogical concepts we utilize to define and deliver our curricula. In this process, no progress can be made without making our students’ perspectives and theoretical and logistical concerns and questions an integral part of how we will formulate content, methods, and delivery all the while keeping the classes interactive, responsive, and yet suitable to the individual needs. An approach where we consciously make ourselves aware of how technology is shaping us as educators, would serve a mutual benefit.
Bengi Süllü is from Turkey and is currently a doctoral candidate in Environmental Psychology and teaching fellow at The Graduate Center, City University New York.
Ayushi Rawat is a PhD in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi. She is currently working with an ed-tech company.