As professors, teaching is our life. The COVID-19 pandemic turned everything awry with the news of disease and death. Our teaching lost its flamboyance. Our lively classroom discussions – with blackboards, chalks and dusters, serious calculations, inspiring remarks, deep thinking in between, students scratching their heads, interspersed with light jokes in between – gave way to a home-bound computer screen-based class where students are virtually present, sometimes with their audio and video turned off.
Many a time, while we call students during class and ask questions, we realise that they are not in front of their screens at all. Yet, this virtual mode of learning is the only way out until the pandemic dies out.
Digital learning versus hands-on learning
Apparently, online teaching has become quite the rage over the last 15 months. Laptops and mobile phones, everyday gadgets for our students, have become rather popular in facilitating online learning. Internet connectivity has also dramatically improved over the last few years. So, except for a few students hailing from some remote hamlets, most other students are not facing any issue with respect to connectivity. Video conferencing tools such as Google meet, Skype, Zoom, Webex and so on are enabling online classes like a charm.
Lecture recordings are also being uploaded to help students who may miss classes due to connectivity or other issues. Free online tools have replaced engineering labs. Many students are enjoying online classes sitting in their bedrooms, enjoying mom’s dishes, rather like a long vacation.
However, the bigger question we need to ask ourselves is – are we doing justice by imparting Engineering education in a virtual mode? Engineering education is largely hands-on and practical based. Take for example a basic electronics lab. Students would typically make their hands ‘muddy’ by building their circuits on a breadboard; scratching their heads to fix the connection faults on the pegs of the breadboard; learn to handle an oscilloscope, its various modes of operation and use the oscilloscope to measure various output signals.
There is an associated pedagogy of learning in the whole process. Can a circuit simulation lab based on online free tools ever replace such a hands-on lab or meet the objectives of learning for the course? Some of the lab experiments conducted in the institute laboratory are video recorded and uploaded in the website, which serve as reference for students, who see and learn how to do the experiment. Can the learning goals for the lab course be ever met in this way?
Coming back to the classroom
On a serious note, these online learners are the engineers of tomorrow. They will design gadgets that will invade the lives of people; they will design airplanes that will fly in the air, design buildings that will house hundreds of people, bridges that will be crossed by heavy trucks. It is like training someone who has never touched the human body to be a doctor!
The government is, of course, aggressively planning for mass vaccination to fight out the pandemic. The industries are boosting their production capacity to deal with the towering demand for vaccines. Optimistically, in a year or so, we may be able to restore normalcy. But will that compensate for the damage that occurred in academics in these years?
My strong advice to students is that once normal classes resume, they should repeat the labs which they did in the virtual mode. Remember, virtual learning can supplement, but never compensate for real hands-on learning.
Shubhajit Roy Chowdhury is Associate Professor at the School of Computing and Electrical Engineering, IIT Mandi