The Covid-19 crisis looms over almost all nations and India is no exception. The potential harm that it can cause to a nation or civil society at large is deeply distressing. In any case, like all dark clouds, this cloud too brought with it the proverbial silver lining. Let me explain. Innumerable universities around the world have been forced to shut down their regular in-person teaching activities and in a bid to ensure that students do not get cut off from the learning process, most of these universities have been compelled to take recourse to online teaching.
This is a golden opportunity to set the ball of online and distance learning rolling. I have been advocating the value and need of online and technology-based learning for the last 15 years and more. There are many advantages to it and it is a necessity for many reasons. Yet, to my deep distress, I find this has not had the kind of acceptance it should have been accorded. Perhaps, I need to explain why this is such a necessity. My conviction on the virtues of distance education was ignited in 1992 when I took part in an illuminating experiment. For reasons that are not relevant I was drawn into it as an unwilling participant, but I became a firm convert within the first few days of the experiment.
The experiment involved offering six live lessons to the entire nation on the basics of calculus. The lessons were offered in an interactive manner in the following sense. I could not see my audience but students in a dozen select schools across India could speak to me live and ask questions as well as interrupt me for any clarifications. I enjoyed the whole experiment and at its conclusion I went away with the impression that I had acquitted myself in a respectable manner. To my utter surprise, in about a month’s time, I was recalled to the TV studio and introduced to what was termed jokingly as my ‘fan mail’. I came across sacks and sacks of letters from almost all parts of India and to my pleasant surprise they carried fulsome praise. In addition, the thing that bothered me was the continuous refrain in the letters requesting that the lectures not be discontinued. Their main reason for such a request—as the letters explained—was the inadequate quality of what was available to them at the local level. That was the first time I encountered the true power of technology-based learning. I had barely used any high-end technology. The only real technology was the use of satellite-based live TV transmission and the fact that a select number of schools had the facility of interactivity, albeit in a limited sense.
I wrote with coloured markers on chart paper with a camera hanging over my head and one placed so as to face me. The disturbing aspect of the experience was my discovery of the fact that the quality of face-to-face learning in so many of our schools across the nation was abysmally poor. Yet at the same time, the remedy to this problem was also staring me in the face. Of course, I could not pursue the matter in any sense for years but it lingered in my mind for a long time. If this episode is not enough to convince anyone of the power of tech in enabling learning, then nothing will. I have consistently heard this refrain across geographical boundaries that there are quality issues with technology-based learning. To this I have many rejoinders. To begin with, how many of us have had really rich and rewarding experiences during our days of formal learning while seated in classrooms? Yet we have persisted with it for over hundreds of years without trying to make attempts at finding alternatives until the last few decades. As technology makes rapid advances, the solution is getting easier and better. Even if a technology-based offering may not be able to match the experience of being in a classroom with a gifted teacher, it will certainly help provide succour to so many students who have to get by with poor teaching quality. I must also hasten to add that the meaning and shape of online and technology-based learning has evolved to extraordinary levels since those early days of my experience with teaching calculus. The power and variety of the technology now available is mind-boggling.
This allows a lesson to be embedded with enormous interactivity and inputs. Let me narrate a couple of experiences. A few years ago, a distinguished mathematician in the US, at my urging, decided to teach an online course—to students across India—in an advanced area of maths. He was using a technology platform that allowed audio and textual transmissions in a live mode between him and his students. In addition, every lesson was automatically recorded and put up online after editing and with embellishments if needed. This colleague was teaching the same course in person to students at his university. It turned out that the performance of the online students, when scientifically measured, was far better than those of the face-to-face learners.
Here is another experiment that I conducted a few months ago. I handed well-equipped laptops to two indifferent undergraduates of Delhi University who had never handled data or probability theory. I gave them some simple introduction to the use of Excel and introduced them to the vast bank of resources available on the internet. Each week, I would offer them problems in data analysis that increased in complexity over time, but I refused to teach them. Now, they are capable of conducting animated simulations in probability theory. They are entirely self-taught using the power of the web. And what are the teachers of Delhi University up to in these hard times of no face-to-face teaching? They are mechanically uploading straightforward notes in textual form for students to learn when, as my experiment shows, we teachers are increasingly becoming redundant—unless we change into mentors. I am hoping India shall, perforce, under the influence of the Covid-19 crisis, truly harness the power of technology for learning purposes.
Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University, and Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston Email: firstname.lastname@example.org