Challenges of Virtual Classes

The government of Nepal has increased the duration of lockdown period by ten days now. Amid the uncertainty of closure, the academia displays concerns for teaching and learning in the most uncertain situation of modern times: the pandemic is committed to expose its ugly face as the number of COVID-19 infection rises in Nepal and India.  The concerned educational authorities have identified virtual classes as the silver lining around the dark clouds.

As physical distancing has become the most important safety measure, social interaction is possible only in the digital space now. The academic world is all prepared to supplant digital interaction as on-campus classes in the time of crisis. The academic leaders have begun their consultations with various experts and stake holders regarding the ways to regularly run classes even at the uneven times. Such need has arisen, as an emergency measure at the moment, for at least three reasons: firstly, nobody knows when the lockdown will end; secondly, the information technology presents us with a new possibility of ‘distanced’ closeness; and finally, the spirit of the age says time is money and nobody wants to lose time.

The uncertainty of the official lockdown complicates the operation of academic institutions at present in Nepal. As the second largest population in the world, India is undergoing a very severe spread of the virus at present.  The open border and cultural intimacy forces the government of Nepal to remain under Indian influence to decide on the duration of lockdown. The contagion in northern India further complicates the situation in that even epidemiologists are at a complete loss regarding the future course of the pandemic. Nobody can foretell, ‘How long will it last?’ That is where the horrors of the pandemic resides.

Amid the pandemic teasing human intelligence and reasoning, the only measure adopted now is ‘social distancing’. Since the medicine has invented no cure so far, keeping distance with another possible host body is the only functional solution and medical strategy at the moment. For the human society to function, we require a certain closeness among human beings. Contrary to this, the contagious virus poses a threat to our core ways of community life, heavily impacting the way humans are used to transferring knowledge in their academic world.

However, the information technology invites us to adopt its digital space: the data wire maintains the distance by keeping people connected. Despite its anomalous appearance, ‘distanced closeness’ holds the real essence of digital technology in our time in that the internet wire and data signals travel through uneven geography and political borders to bring everyone in the globe into a single platform of the electronic space.

As educators, all we need now is pedagogy for the pandemic. With the promise of digital space in the backdrop, the authorities must make some bold decisions to move beyond their traditional roles to serve the purpose of education now. Very apparently, we cannot use free web tools and resources as the foundation of our virtual class. In a world where time is itself a resource, we cannot run such on the platform made freely available by small companies that we would have never heard of, least the pandemic had not occurred in the current size and magnitude.

Interaction in the digital space also requires attention and safety measures. Recently, there was a news that more than half a million users’ data were hacked from an e-conference site. One of my academic colleagues says, “We don’t have to worry about such breach. What significant data do we produce in the cyberspace?” He may be true for his case, still, it does not serve as a rule.  Discussions produce meaningful data and the leakage must draw serious concerns. Without sifting pros and cons in details, we cannot afford to jump into the digital platform.

Our attitude exhibits urban mindset at the policy and decision making levels. One of the fundamental challenges is that our decision makers tend to assume that everybody resides within the access of internet technology. For example, Nepal Telecom 4G service does not work in Sudal of Bhaktapur. The key question is: ‘Can the telecommunication authority make the internet facility available to every student in the nation?’ In case the government answers affirmatively, a second question arises: ‘Can the students afford the tricky data plan of huge profit generating telecommunication companies?’ Alternatively, ‘Is the concerned agency going to pay the companies for the data use by students through specific web tools?’

At the time of crisis, living becomes the first priority. People cannot spend on data: they must find air, water, and food to sustain their lives. When everything comes to a halt, an ethical nation cannot ask the people to buy ‘data’ to broaden their mind. If education is the responsibility of the state, the telecommunication authority must show their courage to make bold decision to provide free internet access to educators and students in the time of pandemic.

The authorities governing education, telecommunication, and electricity must work together for the dream of virtual class to come true. The windy season causes disruption in power supply on and off. The internet wire gets broken too often even within the valley. The wireless technology is not adequately in practice. The internet service providers are almost absent in rural areas, while the major telecommunication companies like Nepal Telecom, Ncell, and others have high data charges. We must place ourselves at the whole picture before taking any decision.

Besides, some professional and ethical concerns also surface at the possibility of implementing new technology in academia. Will classes in electronic space safeguard academic freedom and integrity? How do the authorities address the threat it poses in electronic space? In such class, teachers are completely under the surveillance system owned by the authorities. How does a society going through political factions and sub-factions guarantee the safety of the teachers for the issues discussed in class? The digital space can record the class in audio-visual form, and transmit the novel perspectives and arguments within a split of second, and invite unwanted consequences from the arguments delivered in class.

The cameras are sure to gnaw up teachers’ confidence and there can be other silent groups recording the classes to use against the teachers. Teaching apolitical content can effectively take place in digital space. Nonetheless, critical commentaries, judgmental reflections, contemporary issues, and slip of tongues will bring about a lot of controversies.  Is it unfair to see memes of teachers going viral on internet in futures? Or tiktok videos? The teachers should know beforehand: ‘What does the academic leadership think of these questions? How is academic freedom safeguarded while administering virtual classes?’

Since the on-campus curricula does not appropriate itself along the ethos of classroom in electronic space, the authorities must think twice before accepting e-classes for equal substitute of real classes. Still, such interaction can complement the real classes when teachers and students are unable to meet inside their campuses.

The authorities must identify the pedagogic subtleties of a developing nation where the issues of connectivity and the flow of data are still considered luxury. Can we entirely substitute on-campus class through virtual meetings in the existing circumstances? A big ‘No’. The digital space can catch the ethos of our age, if and only if the authorities intervene into the prevalent conditions with an aim to transform them through appropriate measures that suit the purpose of the pedagogy of the pandemic. The present crisis demands relevant mode of appropriation, addressing the basic challenges of academic curricula, internet connectivity, and supply of electricity.