Class of 2020

By Indira Laisram
Dolly Kikon

Teachers and students are both finding an unfamiliar intimacy with online classes during COVID-19. In conversation with Dolly Kikon, Senior Lecturer, Anthropology and Development Studies, School of Social and Political Science, University of Melbourne, on the new narrative of learning.

Before coming to the University of Melbourne, Dolly led an interdisciplinary research project at the Department of Anthropology, Stockholm University. Prior to obtaining her doctoral degree in Anthropology from Stanford University, she worked as a human rights lawyer and a community organiser in India and her legal advocacy works extensively dealt with constitutional provisions with regard to land and resource ownership, as well as autonomy arrangements for securing ethnic rights and guarantees.

■ It is said that COVID-19 has changed education forever. What are your thoughts?

Well, I do feel that the pandemic has changed education. But if the term “forever” can be contextualised, it is true because every crisis of this magnitude—a global scale—has transformed human societies. This is true of the COVID-19 situation we are experiencing at the moment. As a teacher, I can surely say that the way I perceive pedagogy and education has undergone a transformation. As a University of Melbourne staff, I along with my colleagues had to transform our teaching methods and make sure that students were supported. At the centre of our concerns were the students’ needs. So yes, all of us, either as parents or teachers or as guardians have been reflecting on education during this period.

■ Teachers who are intimidated by technology now have to take the bull by its horns. Did you feel the same with online teaching? Can it ever replace the classroom environment?

I think we have been using technology before the crisis started—the phone, computer, and many other gadgets to connect with people around us or to communicate our ideas and thoughts to them. What is different about technology and online teaching, I mean in terms of the challenges, have been the overnight switch for educators. Don’t get me wrong here because there is an entire world of online learning and teaching system that had been put in place much before the pandemic period. For those who were already doing online teaching they were not panicking like us, and by this I mean the staff focused on physical classroom teaching pedagogy. Teaching via zoom, at least in my case, has been recognising how to retrain my teaching and delivery model. Do I feel the classroom environment can be replaced? That depends on the kind of education degree we are offering students. We have to examine what is the classroom—is it just a room inside a university campus or can this kind of education and knowledge be disseminated in different ways? We cannot overlook the fact that universities have a big responsibility to think about the future of education and, perhaps, redefine the classroom. The reality is that as long as there is a threat to one’s health and safety during the pandemic, the online teaching model will stay on.

“My first advice to students is to take care of themselves, their well-being, mental health, and to connect with their teachers. If you are suffering in terms of grasping the subject/lectures, reach out to your teachers”

■ How are students responding to online teaching?

We have to recognize that many students were pushed into this model after the semester had started. It was not out of choice but a health and safety crisis. Some of them have struggled and some of them have been anxious about the learning methods, but I should say they have been extremely brave to adapt to the model. At least my students were extremely generous and contributed to discussions and reflections. At the University of Melbourne, we used Zoom to connect with students and also put up lecture content online on Echo360 Lecture Capture. But I should reiterate that as a teacher I recognise the challenges students encountered. I am hopeful that the second semester will be better.

■ How do you ensure quality and continual improvement with online learning?

Ensuring the quality of lectures and conversations inside the classroom (whether online or in a classroom setting) is any teacher’s top priority. During the transition to online teaching around March and the following months after that, I have noticed how many teachers have maintained their quality of lectures and the online/virtual class discussions. To be honest, I can say that as teachers we tried our best to support and be there for students. As for ensuring the quality and improvement of online learning, we have to work closely with universities and think about the future of education. There are shortcomings with every model, but it is important to include parents and students in this conversation as well. And then there is the issue of full fee-paying students who had paid for a face-to-face classroom program but now forced to take online classes. How do we justify these issues? We need to be thinking about these matters.

■ What is your advice to students?

My first advice to students is to take care of themselves, their well-being, mental health, and to connect with their teachers. If you are suffering in terms of grasping the subject/lectures, reach out to your teachers. They can direct you towards resources that can help and assist with assignment outlines and tutorials too. They can also reach out via zoom meetings to have a session about concepts/themes they did not get during the online class. As I noted, this is a very challenging time, and I empathise with them. Especially for international students, don’t sit quietly. Let your program director/the dean/the head of school/the university executives know that you require help and support during such times. Many international students are full tuition-paying students and they should not feel left out. The university is obligated to help them and assist them during such times.

— Indira Laisram
Connect with Indira on Twitter @indira_laisram

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