The University Grants Commission–Human Resource Development Centre (UGC-HRDC) at Pondicherry University invited Dr. Beloo Mehra, Senior Associate – SAFIC, to deliver a special lecture at the UGC-HRDC: Academic Staff College. This lecture was organized on June 3, 2019 as a part of the HRDC Refresher Course on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and e-Learning Content Development, offered for the university and college faculty.
Dr. Beloo Mehra delivered a 3-hour session on the topic ‘Human Elements in Online Teaching’.
The session was primarily based on lessons learned and insights gained by Dr. Mehra during her 15+ years of experience with online teaching and learning at an American university. The first half of the session included her presentation, while the second half comprised of a Question and Answer session and discussion with the participants.
Some Key Points Made During the Presentation
- We are witnessing a slow but steady expansion of online learning opportunities in Indian higher education. One major reason for and benefit of this expansion is that it provides educational access to students who are unable, or find it extremely inconvenient to, attend a traditional institution.
- Another important reason is that as institutions begin to see more and more non-traditional, adult and professional students join their postgraduate or executive professional training programmes, the demand for alternative ways to provide learning opportunities increases.
- It is important to note, however, that most of the online learning opportunities available today in India offer a very limited, almost negligible, possibility of actual interaction – either between student and instructor or among students; this is one big reason for very low completion rates of such online courses.
- There is a need to rethink virtual or online learning experience in India. This necessitates limiting the number of enrolment in the classes, and by expanding the opportunities for virtual interaction with the instructor and among the students themselves.
- The role of human element in facilitating an effective and meaningful online learning experience in a virtual classroom can’t be overemphasised. It is important to remember that “good teaching is good teaching, and bad teaching is even worse in a technology-based environment” (Don Foshee, 1999, p. 26).
- Role of an online educator – is he or she a ‘provider of the content’ or a ‘facilitator of interaction’?
- Online learning-teaching is just as much about the process as the product. The instructor and students engage in a process of creating knowledge through their interactions with one another and with the content of the course.
- There is a great need for instructors to bring in a sense of beauty, fine taste, humour and wisdom as part of their lecture notes or learning notes – the content they share with their virtual students. This engages the students on various levels and makes learning a more satisfying experience.
- “The most important factor for successful distance learning is a caring, concerned teacher who is confident, experienced, at ease with the equipment, uses the media creatively, and maintain a high level of interactivity with the students” (Sherry, 1996, p. 5).
Connection with Indian Educational Thought
In her presentation, Dr. Mehra reiterated that her experience as an online educator has helped her see how some the best online teaching practices are actually in close harmony with the essential aspects of Indian pedagogical thought. She shared relevant examples to show how aspects such as the ones listed below were:
- Shravana → Manana → Nidhidhyasana
- Questioning and free inquiry
- Increasing emphasis on gathering experience
- True knowing is beyond the written word
- Liberation from any binding influence of a text
- Pursuit of self-knowledge and world-knowledge in freedom
- Pursuit of excellence
While some examples were in the form of stories from her teaching experience, for a few others, Dr. Mehra had some screenshots from some of the online classes she had taught in the past few years.
Dr. Mehra also pointed out that besides speaking and sharing, an important part of participating in online discussions is ‘Listening’ – ‘Learning by Listening’. Listening requires silencing oneself to really listen – ‘Listening to the Silence’. This, she again pointed out, is closely linked with the Indian educational thought of knowing in silence. She shared an example from one of the online classes she taught in the US where she was able to bring in this cross-cultural perspective for her American students, which they appreciated. She also highlighted that an important part of the role of an online teacher is also to help students see the value of ‘silence’.
Dr. Mehra concluded her presentation by highlighting that it is important to remember that teaching and learning are primarily about the experience that students and teachers create collaboratively. Only in a secondary way it is about the mode of delivery.
In the second half of the session, there was free interaction between the participants and the speaker, which made the experience more integrative. Dr. Mehra encouraged the participants to critically examine and question some of the ideas currently in practice in the field of online education.
She encouraged them to include a small online learning component in their regular classes to slowly get used to the idea of virtual discussions. Some simple virtual platforms such as closed Google groups were recommended for this purpose. Dr. Mehra pointed out that these online discussions not only help the learners and instructors work on their written expression, their ability to be more introspective and reflective, but also enable some of the introvert learners to express themselves more comfortably than they may normally feel in a face-to-face classroom.
Dr. Mehra also encouraged the participants to create small online learning communities of faculty members in different departments. These forums can become effective means for educators’ self-growth via shared learning and peer interactions. A few of the participants were very enthusiastic about this idea and said that they will take it up in their respective departments.