Behind the screen: In front of another

Faculty Perspectives of the Online Semesters

Editor: Neha Anand | Design: Niharika Choudhury

Following the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, online learning has become the new face of education. Like most other educational institutions, the students and the faculty of IIT Madras have moved onto virtual platforms to facilitate the learning process. T5E interviewed the faculty members of IIT Madras on their online journey, their challenges, and their experiences and initiatives towards digitising the learning curve.

Although teaching in an online mode has not entirely been uncharted territory for the faculty interviewed, with their offline courses carrying certain online elements, having an entire semester online brings its challenges.

The faculty has had to evolve to find the right environment to enable productive and rich learning, often experimenting to reach a delicate balance of using technology effectively- without losing their personal flavour of teaching. 

Unsurprisingly, not being able to assess the body language of the students has its drawbacks. “The biggest challenge for me as a teacher of anthropology, a social scientist, and as a practitioner would be not having face-to-face contact every day,” says Dr Mathangi Krishnamurthy as she notes that since a lot of teaching depends on gauging people’s interest and the energies they have in class, the lack of physical presence has been a challenge. Dr Nikhil Bugalia adds, “In the offline setting, you can manoeuvre and bring the students into the line of communication easily. In the online world, however, it is tougher.”

Most faculty concur that preparation for the online classes has also changed drastically, both in terms of time spent and efforts put in.

Prof. Prathap Haridoss notes that he had to revamp his teaching styles to make the students comfortable enough to interrupt him. Prof. T. Renganathan added, “Offering a course for the first time in an online mode is really difficult. There’s a big difference in the time spent on preparation. For example, a one hour lecture can take up to four hours just for preparing slides. The slides and recorded lectures can be shared and reach a wider audience, requiring us to be more careful as mistakes made cannot be undone by simply rectifying them in the next lecture.”

Click to hear from the professors individually on their outlook of the virtual year, or scroll to read them all!

Dr Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

“Professor Mathangi’s classes were always dynamic. She moves about the room and explains everything animatedly. Considering this, we were a bit sceptical about online classes being a bit different. However, she put in a lot of effort for her online classes- she still spoke animatedly, involved us all in discussions and was very considerate in setting up the classes at our preferred times. [sic]”

– Meghna M, Humanities and Social Sciences, batch of 2018

Given the formidable task of capturing the student’s focus, with how easy it is to lose track of what’s happening on the screen in the comfort of your own home (or, in some cases, beds!) Dr. Mathangi talks about how she continuously checks in to see how students are.

“I always begin my classes by asking who all have done the readings because that’s the point of entry where I can understand how engaged or disengaged they are. So, my strategy in the virtual classes has been to constantly check-in to make sure that people know that I’m alert and attentive, and should they not be able to be alert and attentive for whatever reason, I give them the space to be that.” She tries to keep her courses relatively low-tech, other than during class, considering that everyone has unequal access to technology. 

Addressing the lack of physical separation between the workspace and the space of relaxation during the quarantine and lockdown, she says, “I live on campus, so I do have a few advantages. If necessary, I can go to my office when permitted. Since this is my job, I’m a little more conversant with its demands than students are in not being able to separate their space of work and space of relaxation. The more prominent disadvantage for me is that- as a supposed adult, I need to tackle both my home responsibilities and work-life now simultaneously!”

When asked for tips for the students to get more out of online classes, she advises, “Try as much as possible to exercise. Make sure that you have non-screen time and some time to yourself. Ensure that, to the extent possible, you get some fresh air and move your bodies; and if possible, do more work offline in terms of reading and preparation so that the class time can be used in efficient ways”.

Dr Nikhil Bugalia

Department of Civil Engineering

“Prof. Bugalia has come up with many wonderful initiatives such as organising an informal virtual gathering and making a sizable donation for COVID-19 relief on behalf of the class. They cultivated a sense of belongingness and improved student engagement in the online sessions. The peer-to-peer evaluation for projects was very innovative and gave a lot of legroom for constructive feedback, which was extremely helpful in boosting the extent of our classroom interactions. [sic]”

– Chathurya Challa and Charishma Takkallapalli, Civil Engineering, batch of 2017. 

“We understand that the students are suffering through a lot of stress. In the online mode, the workload has increased. The fine balance between work-life and personal life is no longer there, which stresses students out even more,” sympathises Dr Nikhil, who has taught his first course in a full-time teaching position online. He asserts the importance of communication between students and the faculty so that any issues faced can be conveyed at once and appropriate action, to the extent possible, can be taken to overcome challenges. 

He set up peer evaluation for projects in his class, thereby aiding the interaction between the students, which he feels is vital to his management-related course. Dr Nikhil tells us about the tools available to make the online classes more interactive, such as quick mini-surveys during the class. However, he also remarks, “Of course, it’s not anywhere close to the offline setting, but this is what we have to do. The world is moving forward digitally. You have to evolve. There is no other option.”

“For students, more than the course-related anxiety, it is all about how will my future get affected? Will I get an internship? Will I get the job after this? Can I pursue higher studies? [sic]” 

He fills us in about a discussion he had with his class about different career options, “These are general questions for which, if not professors, you have your seniors to rely on in the offline setting. Faculty members completely empathise. I have been in similar shoes myself, just a couple of years ago,” he remarks, reminiscing about his days in IIT Kanpur as a student.

“I’m sure that a lot of professors have started to recognise that we cannot be punishing students unnecessarily. It’s not always that the student is disinterested or that they are not taking academics seriously. There are so many intervening factors that are out of control in the pandemic. And that’s where we are trying to actively reduce our segment of burden also a little bit [sic],” he states as concluding remarks on future takeaways for both online and offline semesters.

Prof. Prathap Haridoss

Dean Academic Courses, IIT Madras, Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering

“Prof. Haridoss is extremely friendly and a genuinely empathetic person despite his tons of other commitments! He teaches and guides in a simple and easy-to-apply manner. He is one of the best professors who adapted very well to the online semesters. He was empathetic to the difficulty of students but also never compromised on the structure and the quality of learning and evaluation. It is nearly impossible to summarise his loveliness in a few lines!”

– Sameer Soni and Anonymous, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, batch of 2018.

Fostering a sense of community with your batchmates, devoid of in-person interactions, has been a critical challenge on the radar. Concerned, Prof. Haridoss, the newly appointed Dean Academic Courses of insti, talks of an initiative he has taken in one of his courses, “The last five minutes of the classes were reserved for two students to introduce themselves. So, I would randomly pick two students and give them a few questions to answer. I ask them about their goals and career paths and a personalised, random question. It could be about current affairs, their likes, dislikes, or even their opinions and perceptions of life! The students liked it a lot. They could introduce themselves because many of them probably didn’t even know each other that well.” 

He believes that faculty should continue the practice of recording lectures even when insti reopens. The easily accessible content would empower the students to stay in sync even if they are not physically present on campus. He comments, “If students are participating in Inter IITs or if they were doing an internship, they will be able to watch the classes and not fall behind. This would make room for a lot of flexibility in the regular classes, too [sic].”

Online learning opens up the possibility of learning a wide range of things you’ve wanted to learn but never had the opportunity to; not just technical skills, maybe an art form or something new about economics- all that is possible now. A variety of topics that you were interested in but could not pursue because of slot clashes can be learnt now from faculty all over India,” he says, drawing from his personal experience of learning to touch-type online.

On being asked if he finds more students directly contacting him in online semesters, he replies with a smile, “Students would contact me the day after their marks come out. ‘I expected more’ is the standard message I get.”

Prof. Thiruvengadam Renganathan

Department of Chemical Engineering

“Prof. Renga’s enthusiasm for teaching everyone is so contagious that it motivates us to pursue the subject with great interest. Fluid mechanics is a course dreaded by many students. But dare I say that such students have not had the privilege of experiencing Renga sir’s take on the subject. People attended even his extra classes in sufficient numbers, and I feel this speaks volumes about him. The way he formulated his slides, explained each concept and derivation with its intricate details in a structured manner was unparalleled.” 

– S U Mrinalini, Abhiram S and Pranav G, Chemical Engineering, batch of 2019

“I find that the students are quite hesitant to take part in the class. I keep encouraging them to ask doubts. Later, when I started using google classroom, students started participating more due to the anonymity it provides,” says Prof Renga. 

He remarked that gauging the pace of teaching across content was one of the more significant challenges. He had to vary the pace based on the content; keeping up with derivations online, learning from pre-prepared slides, and taking notes simultaneously was a tedious task, he gathered from the periodic feedback he used to collect from his students. 

With live sessions allowing for more interaction than recorded videos, he prefered having live classes even if it meant more effort. He soon realised that his students wholly agreed with his judgement call on live interactions. On being asked about the comparative teaching difficulty in online and offline semesters, he commented, “I used to imagine myself in front of a class while teaching to get going; otherwise, I’m staring at a screen with small squares.” 

We know how easily students fall into the pitfall of routinely neglecting online classes for various reasons, be it Monday Morning Blues or simply a lack of sufficient attention span while on the internet.

Addressing this, Prof. Renga says, “The students should consider online classes as regular institute classroom sessions with the difference only in how the faculty presents. Make sure you attend the classes so that the discipline of attending classes slot-wise is maintained [sic].” 

He also adds, “All the faculty members put in a lot of effort to prepare for the classes. The students can respect the effort and the time we have put in by participating and engaging during the class. We don’t know if you are listening or not, but if you are just present, we’ll feel happy.”

Closing thoughts

The transition to virtual classes has been equally challenging both to the students and the faculty. The faculty face those challenges with determination, exploring and doing their best to provide us with a quality learning experience regardless of the platform, despite going through the daily pandemic woes very much like the students.

We’d like to leave you with Gordon Sumner aka Sting’s words, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”

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