“Effective online teaching needs longer preparation, much greater effort; why should it cost less?”

An in-depth interview on online schooling, its pros and cons and its long term potential, with Balaji Sampath, a passionate educational activist and entrepreneur.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing closure of all educational institutions, India has seen a transition to online teaching at all levels, including in primary and secondary schools. 

Predictably, it has not been a very smooth transition, however, and questions have been raised over various aspects of it: 

What challenges does it pose for a schooling system that has made rare use of technology as an enabler?

What are the ways in which classes are being conducted and how effective are they? Should private schools charge fees for lessons delivered online?

How are schools bridging the digital divide that separates the privileged classes and the poorer sections among students?

Will online schooling, or substantial elements of it, become the new normal in a post-pandemic India?

We spoke to Balaji Sampath, founder and secretary of Association for India’s Development (AID India), a non-profit working in improving educational outcomes in government schools. He is also the CEO of Ahaguru, an edtech start-up that focuses on Science and Math learning and problem-solving skills for students of middle and high schools.

Balaji has been looking at complex problems in the field of education, both public and private, over his long career spanning close to three decades. He is passionate about improving access to education among low-income and underserved communities, and we asked him about schooling as we see it around us in these times. 

Is it the new normal? Is it equitable and effective? Is it the precursor to a larger change in our traditional system of primary education?

Pic: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

Excerpts from the interview:

There is a lot of noise around online teaching. We see different methods being followed; would you say one model is better than the other?

When we discuss online classes, people tend to assume we are talking about a synchronous online mode. Always. But there are two to three different ways in which the online model can be conducted, though almost everybody has kind of ‘zoomed in on Zoom’. 

This is because that is the one model that teachers feel is closest to their classroom reality. Whatever they have done in class they want to replicate it online. So, the synchronous model gives them that facility, but there are at least two other models. 

One is of course, a pre-recorded model where you record upfront and let the students access this anytime at their convenience.  A lot of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) initially started out with that as the basic experiment. 

Another model is where it is neither recorded nor live but is more like a WhatsApp chat model, when you are not synchronous. So the teacher sends assignments on WhatsApp and the student does it. There might be a timeline for it. There is a touchpoint in between. The response can come as photographs or a recording, so there is a back and forth, but it is not all happening at the same time. This model has not been developed enough. 

So, would this solve some of the problems currently faced in synchronous live sessions? For example, that of access for poorer or more remote students?

Of the three models, “live” is probably the hardest for poor children to access from a data consumption point of view, device availability etc. The other two are actually quite effective and easy for many. Many kids have access to a device one on one during the day at different points of time. Live classes are not going to work for such students. A pre-recorded or blended model of pre-recorded plus online chats could be more viable. 

From a small survey (in Tamil Nadu) that we did, we found that 45% of people have access to a phone, not because they have one themselves, but some family member has it. But that means that they will get a phone for an hour a day at the most. Attending six hours of synchronous online classes is not an option for them, because they won’t have the device in hand throughout the day. 

The second factor is that if the data costs are too high, they will not be able to use it. So you need very small limited-duration videos and interactive content for online learning to work in such cases.

What do pre-recorded classes demand of the teachers and students?

In pre-recorded classes the whole structure has to be thought through beforehand. For an hour of a properly designed recorded programme, teachers would need 10-12 hours of preparation. On the other hand, a one-hour live session would call for a maximum of one hour of preparation. Most teachers are used to that, so live sessions are a lot easier on the teacher in terms of preparation time.

As many teachers never really had to prepare so extensively before classes in a classroom set up, it doesn’t make sense to them now to put in 10 hours of preparation for a 60-minute class. In fact, it puts off many when they hear how much time it takes for the recording to be completed. I did a recorded video yesterday. The 30-minute video took me three and a half hours of effort to make it.

Part of the reason we have all moved in a big way as a society towards live online Zoom classes, or any such equivalent, is because we don’t want to invest the time required to deliver a recorded course. 

“Whenever we discuss online classes, people tend to assume we are talking about a synchronous online mode…Almost everybody has kind of ‘zoomed in on Zoom’”

But the pre-recorded video model works better, right?

The difference between live classes and this is that this 30-minute video can be shown repeatedly to more and more students. Also, it is a really effective 30 minutes for a student who’s seen it. The teacher has to believe that there is use for these recordings beyond the classroom. 

Some of the educational content on YouTube has fantastic videos with millions of views but they have spent months making it. Online teaching needs to be somewhere in between the two. You should not shun recorded videos just because of lack of confidence or the unwillingness to put in the preparatory time required.

Then again, part of the problem right now with the online scale up across the country is that in many places, they are not even taking the kind of preparation required for live online sessions, that require more time than a classroom.

Do you see a situation where online learning may become the norm? Do you know of any schools seriously considering this?

For as long as the lockdown is in place, classes will continue the way they are. But at the very first chance to get back to normal, whatever we know as the normal, they will do so. For a permanent shift to online classes again, you need to prepare, you need to make worksheets beforehand, spend five to seven times the amount of time you actually spend in class. The school won’t give teachers that flexibility, and teachers may not be keen to put in that amount of effort either. 

For a school to move to this plan, they will have to trust teachers to develop the content for all the classes over a period of time and use it multiple times. It’ll be great to have a flipped classroom model. But I don’t see that happening.  

On the other hand, I feel that for the coaching industry this will probably herald a shift. Will people continue going for tuition classes? Even before this, we did have many taking tuition on Skype. A lot of music classes were being held on Skype. So I feel that this space might see a serious long term change.  

Given the circumstances, what is your take on forming neighbourhood groups for learning, where kids are assigned trained mentors? That could also promote peer learning that students are missing out on, online…

That would be great if it happens, right? Having a mentor at a local level who works with seven to ten children and provides them learning tools and support, in a way rethinking education. The only problem is that the current set of people in the education space, mostly schools, teachers and so on, are not going to be the people who will lead this change. 

Even online classes could have been experimented with before the pandemic but it did not happen. Now schools are holding online classes because they are forced to do so. It needed a global pandemic for some of them to start online classes. So to expect that they will make a change in the fundamental way in which they work is too high an expectation. 

Maybe if this situation persists for too long, new players may come in and start offering alternative services and that will probably bring about a new way of thinking about education.

From the point of view of schools, there are also economic considerations that drive these decisions, right?

There was a court case in Tamil Nadu that pleaded that online education should be should be cheaper.  And that schools should not compel parents to pay fees. But teachers have to be paid, right? So the government should actually say I will support schools for the next six months to one year, and I will fund all private school teachers’ salaries. If they do so, I think private schools will say they they won’t charge fees. 

But what you are saying is don’t collect a fee, and somehow operate. How will they run? Online classes need more work for making it effective. So why do you think there should be less fees? 

So, given the current realities and all this perception around online education, schools are just responding to what everybody is saying. The media is telling the schools and the government is telling the schools that since online classes are being done from home, you should be paid less! Where is the incentive for change?

I don’t think we are creating an environment right now, where schools or teachers feel encouraged to rethink education, or let us say, spend 10 hours making really good quality online content that will be used again and again. In fact, they will feel that if we create such content that can be reused, teachers’ jobs may be at risk. So there is no incentive to put in 10 hours because it might lead to them being displaced from their jobs. 

Is that the reason behind the reluctance on the part of the private sector schools to such change?

Also, I don’t think they are interested in making a change. Change has to happen in spite of them. Schools have never tried to make changes, so I don’t expect much from the school system. 

They’re also punished a lot by the government. There is no support from the government while they have to deal with a lot of other things like bribes before you get a permission or licence. So given all this, schools do not feel that they can make decisions and move forward. They are in a very highly regulated, slow-moving, slow-changing sector and therefore, behave accordingly.

Otherwise, all these technology changes should have brought about changes in schools much before COVID. Schools are resistant to that change, because they fear that any change may backfire on them.

Are there broader societal factors also at play behind the failure to bring change?

Our focus, as a country, has been on certification and marks. Therefore, how much children have learned is less important to us. As a society, we have always said go to school, go to college, get a degree, and then learn on the side somewhere. So, learning always happens on the side. If you want to become a software professional, you go to NIIT or ApTech. 

Even the approach of the governments is telling: for example, the Karnataka government said that schools should not conduct online classes. Instead, they could have said, ‘let us invest some money to get Internet connectivity into every school. We will try to connect and make sure access to some technology will be provided.’

But no, our solution is to make everything equal by going to the lowest denominator. We have generally refused to invest money in primary education, as we don’t value it at all. I don’t expect COVID to suddenly change things overnight.

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