COVID19-1: University Life or Lack of it under lockdown in India

COVID19 cases in India were mainly in the states of Kerala and Maharashtra to begin with. Cases did not show up in our state, Gujarat, for a week or more. It seemed improbable as the NRI population from Gujarat is very high. Soon the first case was reported. Gujarat government ordered schools, colleges and universities to suspend classes. My university decided to shift to online teaching. Thought: Good, we are unlikely to close the campus! Within the first day, I began to miss the noisy children on campus and the naughty ones in my class. During the change of classes, the loud shouts and laughs of the kids echo through the closed central courtyard of our building which my office faces. The noisy kids line up outside my next door neighbour’s office to discuss assignments. I step out and scold them, part of my entertainment programme. The empty courtyard and lonely corridors stare at you. Oh, how I miss those noisy kids!

The Prime Minister announced a one day JANATA (SELF) CURFEW, lockdown, on Sunday March 22, 2020. On Monday, the faculty and staff of the University are asked to work from home.  This looks like the beginning of something! Sure enough the next day the lockdown was extend to a 4 day lockdown in the entire country. Hmmmm! OK!

Classes are to continue online, so no change in that situation. But now I worry about my little potted plants in the balcony/verandah of my office. The Blue vase in which flowers bloom once in a while, I had carried home on the previous Friday, but the rest of them? Oh Oh! OK. I resign myself to the fact that those poor things are gone. I cheer myself up with the thought that I can get new plants for my pots, when the University lets us in again!

Online Teaching

At the end of the 4 day lockdown, a 21 day country-wide lockdown is announced! Oh my God! What is this? We stay home for 21 days? Imagine, online teaching for 21 days? I had written a not so appreciative blog on online teaching methods, mainly MOOC courses.

I had ended by musing ‘Flipped classes in the true sense are a good idea, provided students would take them seriously, are disciplined and come with some basic skills. Flipped classrooms with a teacher on hand are very different though from MOOC or MITx courses where an entire programme of five courses is delivered online, with evaluation components online as well. On the lighter side our classes are truly flipped, with half the students engaged in their own conversations in the classroom, another one third staring at smartphones or laptops, some staring vacantly and a small fraction listening to the teacher. Or perhaps the teacher has flipped!!’

Now we are stuck with it, online teaching. We started early as my teaching assistants were active learners. Zoom, a Web conferencing site, is the flavor of the day! It went well and students seemed to be actively listening. Soon we begin to get an avalanche of emails instructions and ‘attached’ documents from the university on how to conduct classes remotely! Zoom is in great demand and recommended by the university. Backend was connected to the LMS that we have at the university. The whole world is switching to online resources and I understand the share prices of Zoom zoomed! In Economics we call this ‘externalities’ in the time of COVID19.

Studio Session on Zoom

A colleague introduced me to Google classrooms and holding classes on Google Meet. I found it relatively easier to set up my classroom, assignments for groups of students in the class, and invite the batch to the class. But when the time came to conduct the class that I had set up, I was unable to do so. I kept going up and down in the Google classroom site not able to find where I was to hold the class!! Finally I called my colleague who directed me to the video facility on Google meet. But where do I find the students? Obviously I am not so tech savvy! ‘Students will come as you had sent an invite, just wait’ says my colleague. OK, so I wait. Still no students are visible. I ask my teaching assistant to resend the invite to the students of the class. And lo and behold they begin to appear!

I now hold the distinction of being one of the first to start online teaching. Well, first in something at least, though no one acknowledges it! A debate soon rages in the university on whether Zoom or Google are better for online teaching. Zoom apparently has the advantage of use of a whiteboard. My colleagues who teach math and related courses need to write and show equations on the board. This is another challenge.  Zoom apparently scores higher on this one!

Next we receive instructions that our sessions have to be recorded. Instructions arrive on how to do this on Zoom.  Can we record on Google class? This hurdle is also crossed as I manage to record most of the session on Google. The advantage of Google is that it automatically creates a folder and saves the recording on your Google drive! And so the debate rages.

If you were missing the pranks of the students, don’t worry. They are up to tricks here too! They register themselves with weird names, like that of the PM or a famous film star! They appear and disappear as they wish and show up in the end to record attendance. I heard that on Zoom whiteboard, students are able to colour and draw as the teacher painstakingly writes the equations! Ha Ha! Wait, I’m sure that we have not heard the last of their pranks! But still it is relatively quiet in the online classroom compared to seeing their expressions and pranks face to face!

Work from home (WfH)

There is a burgeoning literature on the impact to COVID19 on life, work and all things small and beautiful. Here is a report in an online paper about working from home.

‘People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system.’

And some writers have started to talk about the gender burden of WfH. We already had the term ‘double burden of work’, with respect to women’s work. Now perhaps we can now term if the ‘triple burden of work’? Salute the home-based workers and platform workers who have always worked from home!

Some instructions we received on how to manage work from home were:

  1. To remain productive follow the same routine that we have been following up until now.
  2. Prepare for arrival as you have been doing until now, get dressed as one would, going to work.
  3. Create a To Do List for the day, set up your computer and follow a schedule of work created by you.
  4. Sit at a desk and do not lounge around on a sofa or lie down.

I had an interesting conversation with one of my female colleagues on WfH. She said she dressed up and set up her office at the desk. But, her husband also wanted to sit at the desk. She told him that she was following instructions from the university. So he may please go and sit in one of the four bedrooms in the house!!

Another faculty colleague was in trouble when she and her husband, also a teacher, had classes scheduled at the same time! What to do with their young daughter? Fortunately her parents were available and helped out, as it often happens in India. As she lived on the ground floor she did not need to use the lift to go to her parent’s house in another block. I wondered why that was important. The logic was that she and her daughter would not be in a public space!

And so we live on while COVID19 prowls outside! Stay home and stay safe dear friends! And await COVID19-2 on this space soon!


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