THE pandemic has forced many teachers to learn more about online teaching, learning and pedagogy. I am one of them. And though all of us are still learning, and the field is still evolving, quite rapidly, it is opening up new ways of thinking about learning and teaching for many of us.
Online teaching has many challenges. Unequal access to devices and to the internet, summarised under the notion of the digital divide, has already been talked about a lot. I am not going to focus on that here, other than to say that if not addressed, the digital divide will increase already significant educational inequalities, and so these problems need to be tackled on an urgent basis.
Besides challenges, however, online teaching is also opening up new opportunities. In a recent course I took on online teaching, the instructors asked us, the students, to create a small lesson and deliver it to other participants. Then they asked the participants to provide feedback to the presenter. The sessions were also videotaped so that the presenters could later review the lessons themselves.
The exercise was extremely enlightening. Seeing myself in the act of teaching allowed me to learn a lot about some of the small and large mistakes that I was making. From simple things, like word repetition, to more complex ones, from patterns of thought to managing technology while trying to focus on delivering content, and so on.
But the real gains came when peers gave me feedback. Their own experiences enriched the discussion and allowed me to reflect more deeply on the more embedded structures of my thought patterns as well.
When we do research, the standard practice is to present research to peers. Peer feedback is an important way of not only improving research but of getting it accepted as well. Journals run double-blind reviews (in which the reviewer does not know the author and vice versa) to get feedback on research, and only when peers consider the research to be of good enough quality is it accepted for publication. Quality, of course, might vary, but all reputable research journals will have a solid peer review process.
Teaching did not and still does not have the same level of peer review. Most schools/universities had some level of student feedback, and student results are usually tracked to gauge teacher performance, but these are post-fact and they do not provide a peer review. The act of teaching, in a room with a faculty member and students, was more or less closed to outside scrutiny and possibilities of peer review.
Online teaching has opened tremendous opportunities here. What was once confined to a room can now, at no cost, be opened up to the world. A lecture or discussion session can have as many participants, and from anywhere, as one wants. Lectures can also be recorded at no additional cost. Live lectures as well as recordings make it possible to open up teaching, restricted to enclosed space in a classroom, to a much larger group. And the possibilities for peer feedback, again at little or no additional cost, open up significantly. So, online teaching can make teaching, an act once thought of as confined to a physical space, an open, accessible and more easily available activity too.
The possibilities that this opens up, for teaching and learning, are tremendous. Quality of instruction is considered, rightly, to be a very important aspect of education that needs attention. Curriculum, syllabus and books are important, but — and most people concede this — the role of the teacher in determining the quality of education is considered crucial. How do we ensure quality teaching when we do not have good ways of monitoring what a teacher does, and do not have effective ways of supporting them in their role? Online teaching and learning can help a lot in this area.
Imagine how our continuous professional development programmes could be redesigned and/or supplemented with new possibilities. If teachers had peers occasionally attending their lectures, feedback would be very quick. If sessions are recorded and a teaching and learning centre provides peer feedback, the teacher in question would get significant continuous support. The cost of doing this online would be much less, and the impact — given where bulk of teachers currently are and where we need them to be, in terms of what they are delivering — could be significant.
But the impact of opening up teaching to make it more public could be much larger as well. We would be able to develop a public and broader dialogue on teaching practices. This could also lead to academic work on pedagogy and practice as well. It could, potentially, assist in the development of best practices. Technology also makes it easier to make the student more of a peer and partner in the learning enterprise. The peer bit is more important at the college and university level, while the partner bit is important throughout the education system.
There has been significant pushback against online learning in Pakistan over the last six months, and this is continuing. Given the digital divide and the variation in home environments of students, this is not surprising. But the pushback should not blind us to the opportunities that online teaching and learning offer. And in many ways, we have just started to explore these possibilities. One example is mentioned above: the opening up of teaching to the public and for peer feedback. This could, potentially, have large impacts for teacher training, teacher support and continuous professional development, as well as on starting a larger, public debate on teaching quality and thus on quality of education. Given the importance of the issues involved, how can we not be open to exploring such opportunities?