Teachers Amid Changing Societal Perceptions and Why Virtual Classrooms Can’t Replace Real Ones

Online teaching is becoming the new fad but it can possibly never match up to the vibrancy and effectiveness of the real classroom.

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COVID-19 has become infamous worldwide as the ultimate threat to mankind, rendering everyone helpless. It is known by its following properties: universality, omnipresence, irresistibility and invincibility. As an enemy, it has almost conquered the whole world. This conquest has broken the order, stability, convention and normalcy of human society. Almost all domains of human activity have undergone a metamorphic shift: from activity to passivity; from normalcy to abnormality; from celerity to a standstill; from briskness to paralysis; from real to virtual; from something concrete to something abstract; from offline to online. The domain of teaching is no exception. Physical presence of students in educational campuses has become a taboo everywhere. In the absence of any other alternative, the teaching-learning activity continues to operate in a mode that is abstract, virtual and online. Laptops and mobiles have become the new tools of communication. Video call, Conference call, Whatsapp communications and online teaching have emerged as the altered techniques of pedagogy. Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Team, Skype and Google Meet have emerged the new classrooms for online teaching. 

Online Teaching: The Irresistible Questions

To put forward the obvious, the pandemic has forced teachers to resort to all possible, available and alternative forums to reach out to their students. They tend to make a different kind of paradigm shift: from real classrooms to virtual classrooms. One need not necessarily come to one’s workplace to impart instruction. One can take classes either from home or from college/ university, as the business is to be transacted through online modes. As one observes the ongoing reality, one encounters a plethora of conundrums. 

To begin with, are teachers’ online teachings not superficial in nature? Further, can online PPTs, e-lectures, e-resources/ e-materials replace the teacher in classroom? Are they indicative of the redundancy of a teacher? 

Moreover, has this made the teachers a useless category? Have Lockdowns implied vacations for them? Does the online teaching mean that the teachers are making fun and enjoying holidays in Lockdowns/ shutdowns? Does it mean that just because they are not taking classes in the physical mode, they are not working? Are they taking salary without work? Have they become ‘Kaam Chors’(people who deliberately evade work responsibilities)? Have they become a liability on the State? What makes certain educational authorities and certain people doubt teachers’ contributions at times? Why is their sincerity often seen with suspicion? Do they take (read salary) more than what they contribute?  

It needs to be stated unambiguously, everything concerning online teaching is not necessarily bad. The idea here is not to trivialize the value of online teaching. Instead, the moot intention here is to explore the extent to which teachers are constrained to pay heavy price as an unintended consequence of COVID-19. True, on the positive side, teachers have gained a lot, which they never imagined. They gained knowledge about and got accustomed to android phones; they acquired practical and applied understanding of a new technology through which they sustain their communication process with students; they got an opportunity to discover alternative classrooms: ZOOM, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams etc.

Growing Skepticism and Cynicism

On the negative side, the consequences of COVID-19 have been disastrous for teachers in the non-material sense of the term. To begin with, they have lost their dignity. COVID-19 has rendered them an object of mockery. It is often stated, teachers are making fun during the pandemic. They are enjoying vacation. It is believed, they are not working (as their online teaching from home does not become visible and as it does not take place in the public sphere). They are dubbed as Kaam Chors. One is reminded of the tendency of classical economics that tends to regard housework as no-work. In that sense, teachers are now reduced to the position of a housewife, as they are not ‘working’; their work is not taking place in public sphere. Their sincerity is seen with skepticism; their contribution is contested with cynicism and suspicion. It appears as if they are compensated more than what they actually deserve.

Let me bulldoze these stereotypes. Actually, it must be clearly understood, teachers are not working from home only. Experience of many educational institutions reveals a different story. They are working from both home and office. During the pandemic, they had neither any summer vacation nor roster. They are coming to the workplace every day except shutdowns. COVID-19 has altered people’s perception of teachers.

It must be realised that COVID-19 has put everyone in jeopardy. No one is enjoying COVID-19. One must understand, the digital mechanisms are only adhoc and temporary solutions. They can’t be the permanent panacea to the crisis. This explains the reasons as to why there is a strong controversy relating to the mode of conduct of the graduation final semester examination: Should there be exams or no exams? Should the examination be through online mode or offline mode? The issue could not be resolved by the educational administrators of the country. It finally reached the Supreme. Court verdict came. But the unanimity is yet to arise. I am reminded of Sociologist Max Weber: to put it in Weber’s language, it’s now a dispute between formal rationality and practical rationality. The courts are judging from a legal angle. Administrators are looking at the issue from an operational angle.

It must be realized that the alternative mechanisms that we are inventing or making use of to make the process of teaching more effective amid the pandemic can’t replace the physical mode or can’t replace the teacher. You may go from ZOOM to Google Meet; you may experiment with Microsoft Teams or Webex. Nothing can replace the autonomous agency of the teacher. 

Dr. Bikram Keshari Mishra teaches at the Department of Sociology, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack.

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