In the wake of the COVID pandemic, the University Grants Commission (UGC) in its concept note on 'Blended Mode of Teaching and Learning' has recommended blended learning, under which up to 40 percent of a course will be taught online and the rest 60 percent through traditional, offline methods in all higher education institutions.
It then makes several assumptions associated with online learning, about meaning of learning, teachers' role, pedagogic styles and assessment processes, which will be examined during the course of the article.
It is not that online, blended and technology-aided learning are new ideas that have emerged from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. They have been around for some time now and have even found expression in several educational programmes and official policy documents.
However, the pandemic has popularised them into household terms and promoted an ideology that not just legitimises but also celebrates the use of technology in teaching students.
In a situation where schools and colleges were shut down and physical gathering of students and teachers was prohibited, technology provided an instant and convenient solution of 'teaching' students irrespective of their physical locations. One can hardly contest the fact that technology did ensure continuity in student learning, whatever that meant.
Online learning began to be pitched against offline learning and came to be regarded as a messiah of the new age which would not only resolve all educational ills associated with the traditional mode of teaching, but also make learning exciting, enriching and prepare students for a technology-driven world.
The assumption behind this move is that online and offline modes of teaching-learning are poles apart from each other, which is not completely false as there are certain fundamental differences between them. However, the assumption that they are completely different from each other may be misplaced.
For example, it is true that the online mode has made redundant the need to physically assemble at one place; the lectures, if recorded, can be accessed anytime from anywhere; it is cost-effective and saves time and has the potential of providing access to a larger number of students, etc.
While these could possibly be regarded as some of its positives, it would be naÃ¯ve not to acknowledge the challenges associated with something as basic as accessing online education. Lack of resources to own gadgets, supply of electricity, no/unstable internet connections are some of the widely accepted irritants, but there are also several other factors that do not enjoy the kind of visibility and attention that the former do.
To mention a few, one, technology-aided platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, etc, which are used for teaching-learning also provide the option to both teachers and students of muting the audio and video that comes in handy in the event of poor bandwidth.
However, it is also used by some students to consciously disconnect themselves from a medium that they find difficult to relate to or comprehend. Teachers may also face such challenges and be coerced into muting their video, which would make the learning platform an entirely faceless and anonymous experience, unlike a traditional classroom that necessitates at least a physical presence of every participant.
Two, in a traditional classroom where the teacher can see all her students, she is in a position to identify their discomfort and hesitation, if any, can pause their lectures to clarify students' doubts and encourage them to participate. Three, the diverse and often unequal socio-economic backgrounds that the students come from, make it difficult for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and constrained homes to find dedicated physical spaces to access such teaching platforms.
This may actually cause immense psychological discomfort, hampering their participation in the class. More importantly, this mode takes away the spirit of camaraderie and peer support which is almost a natural and spontaneous by-product of a traditional classroom. It is not that this is completely absent from an online pedagogy, but in an environment where one is not necessarily seen or heard, the student in want of peer support may encounter several challenges.
This sense of alienation experienced by students applies to teachers as well, who have no way of knowing whether their students are physically and mentally engaged in their classes.
However, this does not mean that any attempt to integrate technology with learning is futile. Nor does it mean that traditional classrooms are bereft of any problems. Instances of alienation, discomfort and reproduction of inequalities even from traditional classrooms are fairly common due to varying amounts of social and cultural capital that students possess and prejudices that some teachers may harbour against students from certain communities.
It is important to recognise that both classrooms and technology are varying mediums that need to be used in a certain manner to make learning a more democratic and participatory experience. It cannot be assumed that the online mode, as the UGC guidelines suggest, will lead to "improved satisfaction and learning outcomes", shift the role of teachers "from knowledge provider to coach and mentor" and make the pedagogy "student-driven, bottom-up, and customised".
The above-listed are good ideas, but one has to work towards achieving them " a switch to online pedagogy will not automatically make them happen. On the contrary, the switch from offline to online mode essentially signifies a shift in mode, whereas the objectives of education, meaning of learning, role and agency of teachers and students may remain constant.
To begin with, a blended mode must ensure that students have the basic minimum resources to procure gadgets and related infrastructure. A mathematical combination of teaching face-to-face in classrooms and teaching through technology may possibly be futile unless it is carefully thought through in terms of what and how it is to be blended.
For example, the document talks about "AI as technology to be used for many more assessments like, attention levels, speed of learning, level of learning etc".
This kind of understanding of assessment and learning is convoluted, to say the least.
Therefore, conceptualisation and execution of any new/alternate idea such as blended learning require much more reflection and effort, knowledge of the student group being catered to, their strengths and limitations, backgrounds that they come from, competence/domain expertise of teachers and providing them with the requisite support.
The author is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.