Encounters in E-learning: News and Views

Catching up with friends

In today’s post, we bring you some encounters in online teaching, some fun moments, as well as some serious reflections. At the end of the post, we also provide some readings that may be of interest. Ever since children have been engaged with online classrooms, we have had a flood of jokes about awkward moments and funny encounters. We have also debated about whether children are learning effectively or not, and whether the expectation to be learning online is a reasonable expectation for all children. There are, of course, many challenges in reaching individual children because they may not have exclusive access to a device, the internet connection may be inadequate, or the circumstances in which children live may not support exclusive attention to a classroom session. Schools and families have tried their best to adjust to these unusual conditions, but the solution that this village came up with was quite unique. Atul Mishra writes: “The headmaster of a school in Jharkhand’s Dumka [region] has been teaching over 200 students, who do not have smartphones or access to the internet, with the help of several loudspeakers. He has put up the loudspeakers across the Bankathi village where his school is located. “If students have…doubts…they send their queries…from anyone’s mobile…we explain it the next day,” he added.

Here are some incidents that we came across. All names have been withheld.

Situation, Student and teacher in an online classroom:
Teacher: S answer this question.
Student: Ma’am I cant hear you?
Teacher: You can hear me asking you though?
Student: Your voice is cracking, Ma’am, I can only make out my name
Teacher: [Types question in chat box]
Student: [Types back – Ma’am I can’t answer as my internet is misbehaving]
Teacher – [Typing again – I am sending you an e-mail with question]
Student– [Types – Thanks Ma’am will send answer tomorrow as my computer will be with my brother after the class today as he needs to submit his work]
Teacher – —

M in class!

Then there’s the story of M who studies in Class 6 in a relatively low fee-paying school in the NCR region of New Delhi. He has never liked either the school or his teachers, and is not very enthusiastic about his friends either. He has two older siblings at home and is quite happy spending time with them. A happy child at home, he usually clams up in class and has had to face several scoldings and even a couple of spankings in school for which complaints were registered with the Principal. In a nutshell, M and his teachers don’t seem to get on well. Outside of school he is completely transformed. The shy, quiet young kid is playful, intelligent, curious and endearing. He admires his older brother and follows him around all the time. His father works in health care as a nurse and his mother works at home to supplement their income. She hasn’t been to school because there were none in the village where she grew up. She is however, very sharp and quick-witted and has taken to picking up information along with her children. She is almost always in a defensive position when faced with school-related issues, and has strong opinions about teachers at her children’s schools but often finds herself helpless to face situations like parent teacher meetings. When her youngest (M) came home crying one day, saying he didn’t ever want to go back to school, she urged him to open up and tell her what was wrong. Having discovered that he had been spanked and his his note-book flung across the class, she had complained to the administration, but felt that little was done about it. She feels that teachers look down on children and their families and focus on a few favourites in class.
Recently, M has been commenting how wonderful the lockdown is for studies. “Teacher aaj kal intna prepare karke aati hai. Aur daant bhi nahin sakti, maarna to door ki baat hai. Lockdown to khatam hi nahin hona chahiye. Main to aise hi padoonga”. His mother adds in this conversation over the phone. “Yeh pehela PTM hai jisme teacher nain acchi tareh baat ki hai mujh se“.
Although this incident was really funny when it was being narrated, because M had a naughty glint in his eye, fact it demonstrates the sad state of affairs in many schools despite the legislation and awareness about physical punishment. Teachers are often harsh and dismissive, and little is done to make children feel comfortable and enjoy learning. Such an encounter would be unheard of in a high fee-paying school in a big city, where parents are likely to be more active and involved and where there is greater awareness about the harmful impact of punitive approaches in the classroom. Physical punishment remains a serious issue in many of our schools despite several States having taken concerted action to improve classroom experiences for children. Hopefully some shift will take place post the lockdown once children and teachers return with refreshed perspectives and renewed respect for each other. One thing is certain, M’s journey to the neighbourhood school is going to be even more reluctant than it was in the past.

The teacher who became transformed
Art online!

In contrast, high-fee paying schools usually spend a lot of effort in making children comfortable at school. But even then, children are expected to ‘fall-in-line’, that is, there is a much greater expectation for children to adjust to school with relatively little attention to how schools can become more child-friendly. S is a 6-year-old, and attends a well-known private school in Delhi. There were some teething problems when he started school, but things have evened out since then. Regarding online classes his mother writes: “He has finally admitted to me that he doesn’t like music and dance. Since he danced well in the annual day program and shows interest in songs, I was a bit surprised. I noticed that by the end of the dance class, he would be almost in tears. And in the music lesson, he would only lightly lip-sync. Each time the teachers ask “How did you like the class? Show a thumbs up if you enjoyed it”. And he has been showing a half-hearted thumbs down in these classes.” Attending very keenly to other children in the group, “…… he keeps an eye on two things in the online class – the chat box, and the space where there is an alert “so and so has left the meeting”. He focusses a lot on the “screen-within-screen” parts. That is when they play videos. He also likes doing the writing work during class. Listening to teachers does get a bit tedious for him, I have noticed.”
“Sometimes he laughs when he sees what other children are doing, like rolling on the bed during a session. One child placed a small table on his head today, he was really amused with that. Teachers do keep an eye on them and immediately tell them to stop the distractions. Each time anything like this happens, he runs to inform me. I must admit, the teachers are trying hard and teaching well. They’re interactive and engaging and the classes are effective. I believe that children are able to pick up these lessons well.”

In another encounter, A’s mother tell us that some parents are not very happy about the long hours that their children are having to spend online. Just a few months ago experts were arguing about how screen time is detrimental to learning, this surge in time on screen is something that they feel, sends the wrong message. At the other end of the income ladder, a vegetable seller in Mumbai’s Old Hiranandani market says: “Yeh to ameer logon ke bacchon ke liye hai. School to jaata thha (about her around 10 year old son), Ek chhote se phone se kya samjhega, ab to humne dukaan ke kaam pe laga diya hai, chhote se phone pe kya padhai hogi”. (This is an indulgence for wealthier families. Yes, he does attend school, but how much can one learn from a small phone screen? We have involved him in the vegetable sales work at the shop at this time).

Regarding work from home, a related phenomenon, opinions have also differed. In one comment A’s father remarks that the process is smoother if you already have an established relationship with your co-workers. Then you know what you expect But for someone who is freshly hired, the communication can become quite problematic because there is no base to fall back on.

With Pooja’s kids, things have been different between her two daughters. In conversation with the older one, she found that, given all the information about the pandemic that was reaching her through different sources, school included, she is happier staying with online classes for now. Here is the conversation:
Pooja: A, do you like this way of learning?
A: Yeah I like it. At least we are safe this way.
Pooja: Would you like to go back to school?
A: I am not sure. Do you think its going to be safe?
Pooja: May be.
A: I don’t know, I am scared. I miss my friends and teachers but I will only go back once the virus is totally gone.
Pooja to Masala Chai: “E- learning worked well with her and she manages to keep her own pace. We give her a lot of space and autonomy in her work as is expected by the school (in Dubai)”. “My younger one on the other hand has simpler concerns, she says ‘I like it. i don’t have to stick to two lunch breaks now. I can eat my snack while doing phonics also. Ms. T doesn’t mind if I eat in my live sessions too.'” “For her, at 5 and a half, it has been a challenge to follow timetable as she always found ways to get herself out of stationary tasks. She loves live and interactive lessons with teachers and waits for them quite eagerly. She does miss her friends though and keeps in touch with them over zoom”.

In another instance, Reshu’s daughter’s friend mentioned to her (Reshu) that she has always followed the advice of experts and kept her children away from screen, so now her son refuses to sit in front of the screen for an extended time. “It’s quite funny for us to see his absolutely bored face during zoom classes. I’m regretting that I kept him away from the screen. It would have helped at this time.”


These snippets from families give us some insight into how learning and online classes have been going for some children. Echoing some of the thoughts above, Gessen writes from New York City:

“What was school? How did it work? Raffi’s teacher, Ms. V, had always done her best to send photos and updates, and Raffi, for his part, was actually pretty willing to gossip about his friends: who’d had a time-out, who had not yet learned how to open a bag of potato chips, who had stepped on Raffi’s hand (deliberately, he believed) during recess. But how did school turn Raffi into a person, a member of society, someone who sat still for up to fifteen minutes at a time and didn’t seem to just randomly start throwing things at people’s heads? This part of it was a mystery to us.
On the first day of distance learning, Ms. V sent us the class’s daily schedule. From 8:20 to 8:40 a.m., the kids wrote out their names and ate some breakfast. From 8:45 to 9, they had a morning meeting to discuss their feelings, listen to the song of the week, and practice letter sounds. Then they went outside. Then they had “center time activities.” And on and on until 2:40 p.m. For the sake of continuity and the kids’ continuing enrichment, Ms. V suggested we follow some form of the schedule at home. We agreed to try. Ms. V did this with eighteen kids, every single day. How hard could it be for us to do it with one kid, our own?
It turned out to be impossible.”

The class divide has become greater than it has been, and unless there is concerted and sustained action to improve education for all children, we will always fall short of providing educational opportunities for children. The headmaster in the Jharkhand village school was in fact taking the perspective of all children when he installed loudspeakers. There was a will to reach the last child in the village. That is the sort of spirit that we need in the field of education, the drive to reach the last child who is unable to get to school for some reason. To get meals to children if they cannot come to school beacuse of the lockdown. This holds even more true for children living in difficult circumstances. We agree with Prof. Krishna Kumar that, by and large, children’s needs are very poorly understood, even though many teachers are really working very hard towards fulfilling their responsibilities. Unfortunately, online classes have created a divide between people with access to expensive devices where sound and images are clear and undisturbed. Then there are other issues that are not being understood well enough. Let’s take the issue of mid-day meals distributed in Government schools all over the country. How are these being handled during the lockdown? “If you look at the action taken, you figure out how poorly children’s needs are understood. The delayed order that has now been issued is about money and dry ration. The money will go to the bank accounts of these children or their parents, and they will be able to collect some rice from the school shortly. The money and the ration will accurately compensate by measure, though not in nutritional value, for the mid-day meal these children might have been eating if their schools had been open.” Interventions by the State have eased the problem in Kerala where a decision was taken to deliver meals directly to children to their homes. Accompanying these meals are also messages about health care practices during the pandemic. When plans are made keeping children’s best interests in mind, we are effective in reaching our goals.

With the opening up of schools, we will gradually get to know about the full impact of this period on children and their learning. As we mentioned in an earlier post, an important point that parents and teachers have to keep in mind is that access and availability to online learning cannot be assumed to be even, and that will have to be considered as children start getting back into the classroom, hopefully offline. As Vimala Ramachandran argues, children will also return with some anxiety as we hear in A’s response to her mother’s question. We need to be mindful of so many issues, some of which we cannot even anticipate. As always, we need to keep a close ear to children’s voices. They will help us find our way back into the classroom.

We welcome your thoughts on these matters, and would love to know how you and your children are holding up. Until next week, stay safe and well. Here are some noteworthy articles about school related to the issues we have discussed.
1. Krishna Kumar: Samjhen shiksha par gehera sankat. Studying childhood in India. Rice and digital learning: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted children’s lives
2. Vimala Ramachandran: “As we in India struggle to re-start our economy and dream about becoming the next industrial hub of the world, there is an urgent need to go back to the drawing board and restructure and reform school education. This has to be the starting point.” Civil Society Online
3. Girishwar Misra: “Like black money, black education thriving in India” Although written before the pandemic, this article raises several important issues we must consider while opening up schools! Why do we have so much dependence on tuitions? Perhaps its time to take steps to put children first!
4. Masala Chai: Vimala Ramachandran’s article
5. Keith Gessen: What is distance learning for?


  1. I loved reading this edition of Masala Chai, talking about both funny and serious side of online teaching and learning. In the given situation when are doing the crisis control, all the efforts put in by teachers are commendable. They are working from home, trying to maintain work life balance, preparing for their classes, managing students remotely, and all these are very challenging. But in the longer run two important things that need to be looked into are learner’s needs and student’s engagement. Online teaching is here to stay and we as teachers need to be effective.


    1. Thank you so much Mona. Your endorsement of our post means a lot to us. Yes teachers are doing a lot of hard work keeping pace with the challenges of work on the one hand, bit they are also homemakers and there are additional troubles there as well. Thank you for alerting us to that side of teachers’ lives. Keep reading Masala Chai and commenting. It gives us a great boost to carry on, even during these hard times.


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