April 12, 2020educationinformation agecovid-19debates with my daughters

The early days of online schooling

"My mic is not working” is the 21st century equivalent of “dog ate my homework”

Deccan Herald This is from my Debates with My Daughters column that appeared in the Deccan Herald in 2019-20

At one point last week, there were four simultaneous Zoom meetings going on in the Pai household. Five, if you count Victor playing Minecraft with his friends on his iPad. Fairy’s school started online classes and she’s been going’ to school regularly. Airy is doing a project and taking some classes online.

I have taught live online classes for over eight years and have tons of feedback from my working-adult graduate students, but I wanted to know what the two digital-native girls felt about the whole business.

Despite their differences in attitude, taste and temperament the girls both felt that their learning experience was actually better online. Fairy felt that there was fewer disturbances as both teacher and students could focus on the lesson. Airy agreed and said that she could give the teacher her undivided attention. I told them talking to your buddies is also a very important part of the learning experience, especially when the conversation is broadly about the topic currently being taught.

Were they not chatting with their classmates? Surprisingly, they both said no. I raised a single eyebrow, but they stuck to this story and I’m inclined to believe that they are on the verge of abandoning the time-honoured family tradition of talking-in-the-class-while-the-teacher-is-teaching. That would be ironic, because teenagers text each other most of the time they’re out of their parents’ visual range. Maybe it was the sheer pleasure of passing chits under the noses of our teachers that made my generation build ad hoc but elaborate person-to-person communications networks in our school days. Perhaps the girls are not chatting in class because it’s so easy, so undetectable and therefore no big deal.

Some of their classmates have discovered the my mic is not working” excuse of online classes. This is the 21st century equivalent the dog ate my homework. It happens in the postgraduate-level public policy classes that I teach and even adults think this excuse is believable. They don’t realise that what appears to be a clever new trick to them is not at all so for their teachers, who’ve seen it all before. Even so, I suppose the undeniable plausibility of it makes it a excuse of first resort for the underprepared student. What the girls missed though were the extra-curricular activities and social life of school. I was relieved to hear this. Braving spousal disapproval, I often tell them the real reason to go to school is to hang out with friends, although the classes are sometimes useful.

There’s a school fest to be organised, games to be played and class trips to be made. Both girls were looking forward to some of these things and are already quite disappointed with the prospect of the event calendar being cancelled or abridged this year. That hasn’t stopped Fairy and her classmates from having serious meetings on organising the planned gigs. And Airy doesn’t like the idea of the first day of high school being spent in front of a computer.

There are many more Debates with my Daughters here

Even so, there is something in the online model that the schools can continue even after the coast is clear of the coronavirus. Some classes can well be conducted remotely, reducing the number of days children have to turn up at school. There are definite gains to be had from this, from the perspective of a reduction in road traffic and carbon emissions. Not all classes and not all schools will be able to do this, but those that can should give it a shot.

I suspect kids will actually like it, especially if their mics occasionally mysteriously do not work.

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