Teams, Meets and Webex : A Zoom in on the Online Semester Part II
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
To understand the online semester better, we wanted to get a perspective that was different from what our respondents reported. For this, we spoke to a couple of professors - Prof SD Joshi, of the Electrical Engineering Department, and Prof Reetika Khera, of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department.
On being asked how they felt about classroom interactions in the online semester, both professors reported problems with engaging with students. Prof Joshi: “I like the chalkboard kind of teaching, so it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. When you don't have the students in front of you, you don't know whether they are following or not. Neither do some students ask questions. That’s why it’s not interesting for me either.”
Prof Khera: “There is something to be said for being able to see students in the class. If they’re zoning out, I might crack a joke. If they’re falling asleep, I might ask them to go wash their face. Sometimes, you can see that the student is not convinced by the logic you’re giving, so you can ask them to voice their objection. All this enhances the classroom experience, so engagement is much reduced online.”
Prof Joshi also had an interesting take on how to find this sem’s silver lining. On the topic of course emphasis, he explained, “Traditionally, more emphasis is laid on evaluation than on learning, but now it is not possible to conduct proctored examinations. So we could view this sem as an opportunity to give more emphasis to learning, maybe by giving students personalised practical-based assignments from which they could learn much more. Also, this sem introduced certain platforms to me, such as Piazza and EduPosse, and the kind of interaction they make possible is fantastic. In the case of EduPosse, it was possible for me to address the doubts of students up to the hour before the exam. So I strongly recommend that they be a part of the regular game [offline semester] too.”
Being the teacher for several economics courses which are all famously heavy on class interaction, we wanted to know how Prof Khera was handling her teaching plans and evaluation policies.
She told us, “Yes, I’ve had to use new ways of evaluation – e.g. classroom PowerPoint presentations by students have now become 1-2 minute video submissions. The dangers of cheating have also meant that evaluation methods have to be as personalized as possible. In my case, that includes more research-focused evaluations. But for me, the hardest part of teaching online is setting an exam that I feel excited about. I’d feel very bad about inflicting a boring exam for students.”
When we brought up how hectic this online semester has been for students, both profs seemed clued-in and sympathetic. Prof Khera said, “I think for students the challenges of online learning are many – on campus, there is some sort of ‘learning environment’. No one is going to walk in while class is on to ask, ‘beta, kuch chahiye?’ At home, many have to fight to create this space. If they are home, they are bound to get involved in domestic chores as well, which might eat into study time. Moreover, in some ways, the classroom is a sideshow in the learning experience. So much of the learning is peer to peer while discussing and solving problems and doing assignments. So it seems like students are missing out on campus life more than classroom life.”
Prof Joshi said, “From the faculty side, there are hardly any infrastructural issues because IIT can take care of the logistics. I can just sit in front of my camera and deliver the lecture. But not all students have the required infrastructure. For example, one of my students was giving his viva in a dark room on his mobile phone. So that brought home the fact that all students are not blessed with all opportunities. Even if it was one student, we would effectively be denying him his education, but it’s worse than that; around 10% of any class has technical issues with attending online lectures.”
We went on to ask him what he thought of online cheating, and how to curb it. His views were quite unexpected. “I believe in trusting people. I mean, you do not gain much via mistrust. Last semester, I had to conduct online exams for final year students, and it was a pleasant surprise that quite a small number of people copied. Most systems are based on mistrust, but I would go with a system based on trust. I’ve seen that in most classes, 90% of students are trustworthy, so let's focus on this 90% and not design a system that solely focuses on the remaining 10%.”
We also wanted to know what Prof Joshi thought of the new audit criteria, which allows you to audit one department core and two electives in each online semester. Did he think it was a good idea to give students a freebie course every semester that they could ignore? Again, he surprised us. He said, “Look, we need to open our minds. People who are coming here are mature enough to know what they like and what they want to do in life. Just because you have twenty courses doesn’t mean you need to be interested in all twenty! You can’t make anyone learn anything; learning only happens when the motivation comes from within. So I think I’d trust students on what they’re doing. Trust and freedom are the most important things for drawing out a student’s best.”
For our last question, we asked Prof Khera how satisfied she was with her students’ overall learning this semester. A tongue-in-cheek answer to a perhaps vague question, she remarked: “That I can’t answer before the Minors’ results come in!”
The question of mental health and counselling in IITD is clearly complex, so we asked Aakriti Ma’am, one of the SCS counsellors, to shed some light on the issue.
When asked what kind of issues her students were facing right now, she told us, “In general, students are coming to me with anxiety about the future; for older students, they’re worried about how the world economy has changed, how their job opportunities are going to be affected, and so on. Even for younger students, the unfamiliarity with the mode of instruction was difficult to handle. Also, dates for the academic calendar were very uncertain.
However, what I think was the main issue for students was to deal with already pre-existing mental health problems. A lot of my returning students who already had existing issues, like a lack of motivation, or a low mood, or not being interested in doing things, have faced a decline in their recovery because of the lockdown. Due to the current restrictions, I can no longer advise them to meet a friend, or go out for a walk, or other such things.
Other than that, I've also seen some relationship issues because many couples are now separated by a distance and it's been going on for a long time. So mainly what I've observed is that a lot of issues are seeming larger than they would have otherwise, because students are confined to their homes and unable to move about.”
We also wanted to know if she had noticed any difference pre- and post-lockdown. “We definitely saw an increase in the number of students reaching out around May, because that's when the lockdown was extending, there wasn't any data about when they'd be able to come back, and so on; all the rules were changing.”
Another interesting thing that she pointed out was that the pattern of students reaching out had changed. “When things were normal, our caseload would increase just before every exam. Before minors and majors, we would see a sharp influx of cases. Then it would usually die down right after. However, now we're seeing a steady upward trend. And I don't think this has anything to do with exams, it’s just the fact that we’ve all been stuck on pause with no end in sight. It’s creating constant stress on students.”
Finally, we asked Aakriti Ma’am if she had any advice on how to deal with the day-to-day stress of the online semester.
She told us, quite emphatically, “The biggest piece of advice I could give is to start living within time boundaries. Let me explain.
“Today, most of us have lost all sense of the passing of time. Since we’re working from home, we’re not moving from point A to B to C throughout the day, and it seems like the day just passes without us realizing.
“So I would suggest that this is the best time to try to establish a routine and a sense of boundary when you’re doing some work. Schedule your day such that your work time is separate from your leisure time. Right now, everything is getting mixed up. But you have to fix times for things and try to stick to them. Keep leisure out of work time, and when it’s time to relax then work should be out of the picture.
“Not setting time boundaries creates mayhem. Because of your poor planning, at the end of your day, you’ll feel overworked. Also, many students have ended up taking on way more work than is sustainable because it’s work-from-home – especially PG students. Setting time boundaries will prevent this from happening to a large extent. You also get an insight into what your day looks like. You don’t have to wake up every morning and ask yourself, ‘What now?’”
For the analysis of how the student body feels about the online semester, see: