Blending tradition and innovation

It is no secret that the covid-19 pandemic has hit the education sector worldwide quite badly. In India, the shutting of thousands of schools, colleges and universities has had huge social and economic implications. To offset the damage and loss, it became necessary to transit to online teaching and learning.

Meanwhile, the National Education Policy (2021) has emphasised the importance of a hybrid (online and physical) mode of education. On the one hand, it will be a mammoth task for educationists and administrators to blend the two systems on the ground; on the other, it is a moot point whether the country’s internet infrastructure will support the innovation. With only 24% of the country’s households having access to the internet (down to 4% in rural India), technology-driven education might well create a new class of dropouts along the lines of gender and social class.

Against this grim background, the Bharatnet project is being seen as a ray of hope; it aims to provide fibre optic broadband to 250,000 gram panchayats. Of course, the building of digital infrastructure alone is not enough; staff have to be trained accordingly, ensuring authentic and seamless delivery. Then again, one is baffled by the Union Education ministry's drastic budget reduction for digital e-learning (from Rs 604 crore in 2019-20 down to Rs 469 crore in 2020-21) at this crucial juncture.

Even while e-teaching, e-learning and e-governance are quickly becoming the new normal, it is unrealistic to expect people’s experiences to be the same across the length and breadth of the country. For instance, online teaching and learning have been smoother in urban India than in most parts of rural India. And while many universities have returned to their pre-pandemic academic schedules, ours has not yet been able to beat the delays. For our part, we made it a point to elicit students’ responses to online learning, by means of an online survey devised by the Department of English, so as to better understand the changing educational scenario in pandemic times.

To begin with, despite efforts to the contrary, only 50% per cent of the total number of registered students responded to the online survey – probably a pointer to the weariness that has set in vis-à-vis the current situation. Furthermore, students’ responses to the very first question (“At the beginning of the academic year, were you super-excited about the new, online mode of education?”) spoke volumes. There was a huge discrepancy between the opinions expressed by the First, Second, and Third Year students: in fact, their enthusiasm in descending order (53.6%, 33.9% and 12.4%, respectively) made it look like they were utterly dismissive of the déjà vu.

There is no doubt that the digital world has grown exponentially in the wake of the covid pandemic. In terms of availability of devices and resources, it has been a situation of plenty, leading the IT sector to register tremendous profits. However, our survey points to 100% student dependence (and almost exclusively so) on the smartphone for online learning; alternative device use is negligible (laptop, 4.2%, or a desktop, 0.6%. Whether or not it is a portrayal of the younger generation’s casual attitude to learning or is a plain attempt to cling to that versatile digital companion as a means to cut down costs is just anybody’s guess.

Google Meet was found to be the most popular learning platform (100%); other options included Microsoft Teams (50.3%) and Zoom (11.2%). But even when using the platform of their choice, only 12.1% found it “always easy” to understand” what was taught; 63.9% of the students found it “sometimes easy”, 18.2%, “rarely easy” and the rest, 5.8%, “never easy”. Interestingly, when it came to receiving learning material, WhatsApp won hands down (62.1%), followed by Microsoft Teams (27.9%). That is to say, even low-tech interventions (SMS text messages and phone calls) can sometimes help mitigate learning losses caused by non-availability of ideal devices.

If the test of the pudding is in the eating, it must be acknowledged that a host of problems have made the learning experience woeful: a whopping 89.4% pertain network issues. Students have also complained of feelings of social isolation and difficulty to concentrate when online. Some students were conscious of the unsuitability of their device but could do little when faced with financial crunches ˗˗ a huge eyeopener indeed.

It is to be noted, on the other hand, that the teaching community too has not been immune to network issues. It is a known fact that teachers in almost all colleges in the state have had to depend on their own mobile data to hold classes; institutional wi-fi was either non-functional or the bandwidth inadequate. No wonder, 55.8% of the students surveyed stated that their lectures and/or practicals were sometimes rescheduled, or never held at all.

But, by and large, it is a huge credit to the teachers that they were able to deliver despite all odds: 46.1% of the students stated they have always received adequate learning material from their teachers. But having said that, it is baffling how, in the event of the teacher’s explanation falling short, 60.3% approached fellow-students for clarification of doubts; only 23.9% contacted the teacher concerned, and 14.8% decided to depend on themselves. But none of it was a slur on the teachers’ popularity levels: teachers have almost always shown great understanding; only a miniscule group of students pointed to a lack of sympathy and support from the teaching faculty.

Through it all, that students’ attendance kept falling is an undeniable fact. To get to the root of the issue, is it because absenteeism is no longer punishable? Or is multi-tasking a contributing factor? Quite interestingly, 48% of the students said they systematically avoided multitasking. But from among those who did multitask, 24.4% specified that they chatted and 23.7% cooked; some others watched television or even went shopping. Those who remained glued to their devices complained of weight gain, strain on eyes, mental stress, and headaches, especially when classes are held back-to-back.

Finally, the testing methods. The system evolved quickly to suit the online mode. Maximum marks (80) were halved and the number of questions reduced to just two main ones. Needless to say, answer scripts quite often felt like photocopies. Curiously, the testing methods, coming across as somewhat easy-going, inspired even dropouts to try their luck with the system. And needless to say, online exams were not free of network problems (80.9%) and grievances regarding time constraints (11.2%).

It has come as no surprise that 49.4% of the students found their learning levels seriously compromised by the online mode of education; 13.3% felt they had learned “nothing” online; 21.2% found no difference between the two modes whereas only 16.1% proudly asserted that they had attained higher learning levels through the online mode.

All things considered, however, a humongous 63.3%, opted for the offline mode of teaching. This is not a vote against trailblazing technology but for a smart blend of good ol’ tradition and innovation.

(Editorial, Prerana, June 2021)

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Miracles of Motivation

If you have ever wondered how others work miracles while we spend time ruing the past or cursing our present, be sure there is only a thin line of separation between those achievers and us. The difference lies in that they know where they are going, while we don’t; they now how to get there, while we are lost in the maze of life. What’s more, we haven’t the fuel that drives them, the fuel that goes by the name of Motivation.

What really is motivation? It’s a whole set of motives that prompts one to act in a particular way. These motives may come naturally to some people; they may have to be induced in others. Let’s say, a young man is naturally inclined to music or sports, and only a little towards academics. He may begin to show some discipline in life if he realizes that even a career in music or sports is academically rigorous.

That is to say, having a goal in sight can motivate us. Of course, happy are those who blend their natural inclination with a profitable life occupation, for they will be self-motivated. In fact, self-motivation is the best form of motivation for a student or employee; it dispenses with coaxing. There is nothing better than finding good reason to do what we are doing; even if difficulties come our way, we will find the way out and, for the love of the final goal, be on track again.

But this is only a model situation; it exists for a fortunate few, while the bulk of people may experience negativity – worry, disappointment, frustration. Motivation itself can feel contrived if there is an element of coercion. That is when one has to either refocus – if one has any stamina or presence of mind left – or one can seek help. Nowadays, counselling is only a step away, be in educational institutions or at workplaces. With a wee bit of interest and initiative, there can easily be a turnaround, and like the proverbial sunflower, we can bask in sunny glory once again.

All things considered, there seem to be two golden rules behind feeling a motivation boost: One, to believe in oneself, and the other, to work smartly. Believing in self is nothing but being grateful to the Good Lord who has made each of us unique. He calls us to open out, unfold, and expand our potentials, for there is none other who can do what we have been destined to do.

However, there is no short cut. Our life mission will be complete only when we have put in our all into what we are doing, keeping at it, without longing for a brainwave. To quote Edison: “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” Equally true what that other genius called Pasteur has said: “Chance favours the prepared mind.”

Motivation is a powerful engine; it can move mountains. All we have to do is keep working while we wait for the miracle to happen.

(News and Views, Vol. XI, No. 1, April 2016)

Education towards Peace

If you gift a child a toy gun and see him wield it with fascination; if you let another watch a violent movie scene without regret; or, being witness to a real time incident you look the other way, it’s quite likely you are contributing to a doomed future….

But then, if peace is a value so desired and found essential, why doesn’t it come easily to us? That’s because the negative side of human nature is more dynamic than its positive side, making the not-so-good things of life eye-catching, the good things hardly noticeable. And with negativity all over the media, generations have been imbibing the wrong values by default.

Is there a decisive role here for formal educators? Some may say that moulding children’s behaviour is better left to their parents, but it is undeniable that few are equipped with skills for the task. Hence teaching institutions from kindergarten to university are looked upon as the standard bearers. Teachers have the know-how and the opportunity to perform; and, thanks to their close association with young minds, they are in a better position to influence and impart them with both hard and soft skills towards a well-rounded personality.

If all of our education were geared to no more than promoting peace the exercise would have been worth the while, for, alas, our planet is presently on a restless track. Not a day passes without news of domestic violence, fierce competition at the workplace, antagonism among neighbours, road rage, police brutality, cruelty to animals, bloodshed within communities and war readiness between countries. All good enough reasons to regard Peace as a value par excellence!

War is the opposite of peace; but peace is not merely an absence of war, or a passive condition synonymous with lassitude or complacency. Rather, it is a positive state, promoting cordiality, harmony, fulfillment, happiness. Peace thus becomes a catalyst of progress. It may well be considered the mother of values, for without it no other value can succeed; it helps in creatively solving problems, negotiating, resolving conflicts, building teams and favourably influencing others.

With peace comes a serene mind, pleasant attitudes among people, contented lifestyles and harmonious living. Peace cannot be learnt in a vacuum; it must be seen, felt, experienced in the midst of people. Peace cannot be a subject in the curriculum, to be tested at the end of a semester; it must be imbibed, picked up straight from the human environment and lived out until it becomes second nature, a state of mind!

Peace overtures are possible only when coming from within. Peace of mind – much sought after in our stressed world – happens after one has reflected on oneself and accepted one’s place in the universal scheme of things. Then one can pray with St Francis of Assisi: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’

Peace costs no money but just some effort in the form of kindness, respect, tolerance and forgiveness towards the other. Especially because this easily spreads goodwill, it is indeed ironical that ‘Atoms for Peace’ should be a favourite theme with diplomats, throwing all peace movements to the winds…. Educators would do well to desist from prescribing the same for essays in schools and colleges!

(Editorial, Pernem College News & Views, December 2012)