Ever since COVID-19 has sunk its claws into our world, it has wrapped us around its little finger. Not quite unlike other catastrophic events, it has forced us to adapt our lives based on its whims and fancies. It has dug up the two-lane highway of routine lives and left commuters struggling to find a way around. Junior office employees have been temporarily asked to work from home, with pay cuts. Senior employees have been asked to permanently remain at home with termination letters and severance packages. In the field of education, schools and universities have substituted physical classes with online ones, with the teachers and students engaging via online group video-calling platforms. Every institution also has its own policy about the use of these instruments of the last-resort. Some made the use of video cameras optional for teachers. At Jindal Global Law School (JGLS), most students chose to keep their video cameras turned off, and so did most teachers. Their choice was presumably to hide their exhaustion from talking to names on a screen or to avoid their facial expressions being captured and utilised for memes by hidden attendees. Nevertheless, from a student’s perspective, this shift to the online medium has its own perks and quirks.
Blinders: The first and most obvious advantage of this mode of instruction is extremely utilitarian in nature. This is the fact that online classes get as close as anything can to physical classes. They engage and deliver information only to all the necessary senses (required to learn) and discard information useless to the learning process. No more can the collective subtle chuckle to a snarky remark made by the teacher about the current government be heard. Nor can the smell of a packet of Parle-G that your friend offers you make your mouth water. But the essential meaning of Section 10 of the Indian Contract Act reaches you as well as (or even better than) it would have in a physical classroom. The classes are almost like having a 1:1 teacher-student ratio, but with the inputs and suggestions by other students enriching the experience of every individual present.
Obiter: While classroom banter is strictly prohibited by teachers, the occasional humorous remarks in the chatbox are not only minute enough to be acceptable to teachers, but they also seem to be implicitly encouraged. The remarks tend to reassure the teacher that someone is paying attention to what is being taught, like a sign of life in an abandoned city. These messages also lighten the environment of the class without being too disruptive (unlike classroom chatter). This hidden permission can propel the jokers of every class to attend lectures to exercise the freedom they never had, and the other students to follow in their footsteps to be entertained.
Undetected: Because online classes have students keeping their cameras turned off, attending them is like browsing the internet on incognito mode. One’s lecture venues go from being absolutely rigid (classroom) to as flexible as the device being used to attend the lecture is portable. Fortunately, with the lockdown restricting social contact, lectures cannot be carried to family get-togethers or parties. But for the most part, this brings relief to anyone who may not wake up fifteen minutes before class to change into the socially acceptable dressing and to walk to campus. With classes at one’s fingertips, reeking breath and half-shut eyes are no longer the problems they used to be. Compact classes are also beneficial to students whose parents are frontline workers. They can attend lectures while preparing a meal or doing chores around the house. The above points also apply to teachers who may have had to pull an all-nighter to prepare for a lecture the next day. They have the option to dash to the kitchen to quickly fix themselves and their families breakfast during breaks.
Uncompromised: Often at JGLS, two sections would have to share the same classroom due to physical constraints. This pushed class timings into odd territories, with classes sometimes going on till 9 pm. But in the online medium, there is no such restriction. With a little correspondence (and a little disobedience) classes are made to take place at not-so ungodly hours – helping students manage their time better.
Levelled Ground: Campus is a level playing field. The variables of everyday life are brought to a minimum when the geographic location of and facilities available to each student are the same. Once every student is in their respective homes, though, the story is different. Not everyone can be expected to adhere to strict class timings due to the expansive situations they may find themselves in. From abusive households to burdensome chores, students need to balance everything with academics. This is exemplified by the fact that the number of JGLS students attending online lectures (as compared to physical classes) has dropped by more than half. Thus, after the advent of online classes, attendance policies were relaxed by the University. In addition to the relaxation, in a bid to iron out any wrinkles of inequality (such as domestic work or time difference in the case of international students), the University made it compulsory to record every official lecture, so that any absentees could familiarise themselves with the content discussed in the lecture. The recordings are immediately uploaded to a cloud, thus not straining the hardware of the teachers recording the lectures. This considerate attitude makes the online experience excellent for almost everyone. Students unable to attend the original lectures can do so later, and others can revisit lectures to look up concepts they are doubtful about.
Insatiable: Despite the dissolution of friends, colleagues, and teachers into one common digital domain, the magic of physical classes is obviously lost in the desperation of online instruction. Personally, spending time online with friends, engaged either in idiosyncratic or intellectual conversations, is somehow quite unfulfilling. Irrespective of the quantum of time spent, a lingering thirst for social interaction remains unquenched. A long enough physical class made short work of this social necessity: the cross-talk in the classroom and the engagement of all senses made campus classes a thorough social package. This was carried often to the point even of social saturation. In this light, there is no comparison between the two whatsoever.
Detached: The enantiomorph of having too much privacy (the disadvantage to being ‘undetected’) is the disconnection between one’s ongoing mental tasks and their physical environment. This makes studying, or rather doing anything, difficult if it is not in the right surroundings. Writing a research paper is quite challenging when one’s family is watching the latest instalment of Dabangg a few feet away. But writing the same paper is easier when one is in an inspirational environment such as a college campus, wherein everyone else is also engaged in similar tasks. This also depends on the will-power to ignore one’s distractions and keep working, but the task becomes more daunting when the synchronization between one’s mind and their surroundings is absent.
Lost Essence: Most of the subjects taught at law school are ones which are best imparted via the Socratic method of teaching. The Socratic method is a method of teaching which brings out ideas and points of importance via dialogue. The use of this method is especially why classes span a duration of 2.5 hours at JGLS; to give educators and students time to engage in a healthy, long discussion (and to cope with previously mentioned infrastructural constraints). Online classes may get unruly at the drop of a hat if everyone starts speaking over each other. It would also be laborious to recognize the perpetrators or keep track of them or even hold them responsible for their actions, unlike in physical classes. As a result, most teachers make a contingency to avoid troublemaking in their classes. Only one student at a time is at liberty to unmute their microphone and pose questions or type them out in the chat-box. Because of this, the unrestricted conversations physical classes would allow (where there was no hindrance on pinning responsibility), are curtailed by the online medium (where pinning responsibility is difficult). Thus, the need for the maintenance of discipline is so high in online lectures that the Socratic method is partially lost in the process.
Need to visit a chiropractor: Online classes involve a minimum of five hours of sitting in front of a screen. A study shows that adolescents looking constantly into laptops tend to develop negative postural habits. Physical classes also require one to be seated for just as long, but the constant pivoting of one’s neck to look around class is much healthier than looking down into a screen. This worsens with burdens of assignments – something law school is famous for. Additionally, a person’s work-station at home is their classroom and the place at which they do their assignments. Campus, on the other hand, pushes people to get at least a bare minimum of exercise by moving from dormitories to classes to the library. There is no such compulsion at home, where people are already confined due to the lockdown, and there is no need to move around, having everything already available in the same restricted geography.
Stone age: This point is still a significant one, even though Reliance’s JIO seems to have been tailor-made for such an anomaly. One might expect the service provider to come around cradling our crying heads with its support. Due to the increase in people staying home, internet usage skyrocketed in the lockdown, making the per capita internet speed slower. Online classes are hanging by the thin string of a good internet connection, failing which, students are left in the technological dark. The problem only worsened due to the recent cyclones in East and West India. Assignments that determine marks become impossible to complete without steady internet. Research for essays or even the submission of completed ones is disabled. On campus, if there were such a problem, assignments could be researched using a multiplicity of ancient record-keeping technologies (called books) and be easily submitted on a pen-drive or as a physical copy.
Online classes are a double-edged sword that must be very carefully wielded by universities and must be refined to bring out its best qualities. They surely are better than living on campus and being endangered, or living in boredom and oblivion without them at home. Some of the negatives can be rectified by building up one’s will power, trying to engage in class, consciously exercising and following a specific routine, and trying to contact a good internet service provider (if possible). The COVID-19 outbreak has led humans to become highly dependent on technology and computers. This fact is the amalgamation of the fascinating, intimidating, and disheartening parts about this situation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manan Parekh is a second-year B.B.A., LL.B. student at Jindal Global Law School. He can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also finds it weird to write about himself in third person.