With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, online learning has become essential for the dissemination of lessons. But questions have been raised about the accessibility and feasibility of these classes. Students and parents alike have their reservations with the online mode of learning.
The entire education machinery has moved online, but it’s not without its own struggles.
For instance, teaching hours have not evolved to suit the distant mode of learning. Right from the pre-primary level, students have been spending long hours in front of mobile and laptop screens. Compulsory attendance and a tightly-packed schedule make no allowances for breaks. As a result, the students have been demanding a more dynamic timetable with classes staggered across the day.
Tanya, a psychology student at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, tested positive for Covid in July. While recovering at home, she still had to adhere to her rigid college schedule and spend around 10-12 hours in front of a laptop.
“My classes start at 8.45 am and go on continuously till 4.30 in the evening,” she said. “We get two short breaks in between but teachers often take up a significant portion of that time as well. So, even when it comes to eating lunch, I’ve to do it when my classes are going on.”
Her day doesn’t end with her classes, though; she still has barely any time to herself. “We’re in a flipped classroom setting. There’s an additional out-of-curriculum burden of research work, presentations and critiques that we’re expected to do and then finish reading material for our next lectures,” she said. “If you’re doing an internship, the burden is only added.”
The pressure has been furthering her anxiety.
“All of this does have an impact on my recovery too. My nerve cells have weakened so I tend to experience twitching and tingling sensations which made the initial classes really strenuous for me,” she explained. “Moreover, sitting in one position the entire day increases my heart rate which further exacerbates my anxiety. But my faculty isn’t entirely at fault as they’re restricted in their roles due to administrative pressure, and most of them have been very accommodative and understanding.”
When students of her class approached the administration regarding their problems with the online mode, they didn’t receive a response. Instead, in some cases, more classes were added to the timetable.
Aastha, a third-year student at the same college, told this correspondent that she has partial visual impairment. With her condition, she finds it extremely difficult to get through online classes. Her college follows the same online timetable as it did for offline, which translates to eight hours of online classes exclusive of research work and assignments.
“For someone like me, the screen time is more strenuous than it would be to a regular sighted individual. I face stronger strain,” she said. “So, it requires a lot of concentration for me to attend the classes properly. To constantly stare at the screen for this long is extremely stressful.”
Aastha’s condition is degenerative. Her vision might worsen with time, leading to a complete loss of vision. It can, however, be moderated by reducing screen time and resting her eyes, but her online schedule doesn’t allow for it. Apart from her classes, her course requires extensive research work and presenting reports and assignments.
“It takes me 33 percent more time than an average individual to do my research because now, it’s all happening online,” she said. “It has substantially increased my screen time and made things even more stressful.”
Many students in both private and public universities spoke up about the trials of following the same online schedule as drawn up for physical classes.
At Vellore Institute of Technology in Vellore, for example, classes start at 8 am and go on till 7 pm, after which students are expected to send in projects and assignments. Naina, a computer science engineering student at the college, said she spends most of her time in front of a screen as a result.
“We have up to 11 hours of classes a day, divided into two slots of theory and practicals. The moment we’re done with that, we have to start writing assignments,” she said. “So, we’re glued to the screen for almost 14 out of 24 hours. The classes have been going on for about a couple of months now and the best I can describe them is that they’re physically draining and mentally straining to sit through.”
She pointed out that many students like her barely have the means to support their online practical classes,which require heavy hardware and software support.
“I’m using my mother’s laptop because I left mine at the hostel. Due to this, my mother can’t really do any of her work,” she said. “My practical classes require high-configuration systems that can support our softwares. I am privileged in this regard but some of my friends do not even have a laptop and they just sit and watch. Our learning gets affected and it seems that the college doesn’t care about it much.”
This punishing schedule doesn’t leave Naina time for other pursuits. She’s a Rashtriya Balshree Samman award-winning professional dancer who now no longer has time to attend dance classes, or even practice. “I have been dancing for the past 17 years, since I was three. In normal circumstances, I had enough time to attend practices, but now that we’re spending the entire day in one spot looking at a screen, I can’t even attend my online training sessions,” she said.
Additionally, the online mode of learning is isolating. “You’re taking classes alone. Most of the time it’s only the teacher talking and you can’t sit with your family because either of you will get disturbed,” Naina said. “For the entirety of the day, the only human presence you feel is your reflection on the screen. We’re learning but at the cost of getting disconnected.”
Manoj Kumar Kataria, a mathematics tutor, said that both students and teachers are experiencing irritation and fatigue. “Our children and teachers haven’t been trained for this,” he said. “They both lack a sense of personal interest in the lessons. There’s a huge difference in the delivery of the lessons which causes a gap in the learning.”
In the meantime, students are still trying to petition for change. On September 9th, the Delhi University wing of the Students Federation of India sent a memorandum to their vice-chancellor, asking for a relaxation in class schedules and financial aids for students who need it.
Names of some students have been changed on request to protect them from backlash from their respective institutions.