The new normal

Published June 10, 2020
The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.
The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.

ELEVEN-year old Ayaan sits at his desk every morning, ready to log into Google Classroom, meet his friends virtually and learn as best as he can from his teacher in this new normal. However, multiple issues pop up. There is a power-cut less than 10 minutes after his class starts; there are horns blaring outside; a fight breaks out between his younger siblings and, when the electricity comes back on, his Wi-Fi connection takes its own sweet time.

Students of all ages contend with these issues daily, as do the teachers who are struggling to become tech-savvy in a very short time. Whilst there is sufficient help on the internet through tutorials, we still have to learn to steer our own boat as we teach courses online. There is no shortcut — a crash course on how to manage these courses will not do much to prepare our students for their online world of learning.

Online learning demands tech-savvy teachers.

Just as face-to-face teaching requires some preparatory groundwork, online teaching has similar demands. Providing students with login instructions and details does not necessarily equip them to navigate technological demands. Most students require step-by-step guidance on how the course will be conducted, the dos and don’ts and a ‘what can go wrong’ component that prepares them for troubleshooting as they trudge along.

Many students would benefit from a short course on ‘netiquette’ which is the equivalent of table manners. It helps students learn to do research on their own, search through resources skilfully, watch out for their own cybersecurity and get the best out of live online forums.

They not only need to learn when to ask questions or interject an online discussion, but how to conduct themselves vis-à-vis the online ‘raise hand’ icon. Limiting the use of unnecessary private online chatter between students, using emojis wisely, cutting out ambient distractions, using portable Wi-Fi if possible, are all ways of equipping students for their new normal.

Online teaching allows for bite-sized concepts that can be customised for differentiated learning as the teacher takes students through digital worksheets. The level of difficulty of questions set can be controlled — it rises or falls based on the number of correct answers as students take short online assessments. Each student is then challenged according to individual ability and teachers get insight into their individual needs. Online reports generated automatically relieve teachers of the long and tedious task of marking answers. YouTube videos provide classroom demonstration of any topic under the sun, and these can be easily incorporated during teaching time.

The idea of ‘paying attention’ in class is almost obsolete in this new world of teaching and learning. In the bygone days, when we did not listen attentively, we missed out on valuable information. Online information, on the other hand, is mostly freely available and can be revisited by students anytime, anywhere. As students take greater control of their learning, the dependence on instructors is reduced. The teacher who was once a ‘sage on the stage’ is now needed only as a guide, a mentor or supervisor. There is no crystal ball to see how strong or independent this generation will emerge through the trials and tribulations of learning through Covid-19 times, but the transformative power of technology is clearer than ever.

Schools and universities would be better off setting up the technological infrastructure quickly. It takes much longer to get a kitchen ready, up and running than it takes to prepare food. Whilst others are experimenting with different cuisines, schools in countless parts of Pakistan are still struggling to get their technological kitchens up and running.

The good news is that massive amounts of prepared content is available at minimal or no cost, most of which is interactive. The bad news is that not all our educational institutions are equipped to utilise it quickly and efficiently.

This might be a good time for schools and universities to collaborate with established educational entities that are facilitating online learning through teacher-training programmes and free digital resources. Getting onto the technological bandwagon now might mean an easier ride forward for most students and teachers who will find themselves at a competitive advantage once they have equipped themselves with the demands of working online.

Equally important is the need to enlist parental support. Many schools are now offering ‘parent facilitation programmes’ that provide the information and training required to those who are entirely new to technology. As we stand at this unprecedented crossroads, parents might be the vital cog that can help schools carry children through this new experience. Covid-19 has also shown us that, for a country like Pakistan, adult education is just as important as schooling for children.

The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2020

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