In order to ensure the continuity of learning during the lockdown, and also to avoid a syllabus backlog and prevent losses to academia, many schools, colleges and universities have embraced virtual teaching as a stopgap arrangement. In this way the culture of ‘work from home’ has hit the teaching profession as well. The university where I teach instructed me to switch over to the virtual mode ever since the central government imposed a nationwide lockdown.

An orientation class was organised in this regard. I was briefed about the following software programs: Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom, Facebook Live, Microsoft Teams and a few others which let you broadcast live lectures online.

I opted to use Zoom. Every day for a couple of hours in my living room, I started streaming lectures in history and sociology which are foundational subjects for the law undergraduates I teach. Although switching over to virtual teaching was a little challenging at first, I started to learn the nuances of online teaching as the classes moved forward.

Unlike classroom teaching, here I could use creative pedagogy to explain concepts better by using the many open-access resources available online. Lecturing on Ashoka’s empire, I could use freely available videos, photos, maps, artworks and presentation slides alongside. I could even organise virtual museum tours as part of the lecture. This let me reinvent and redefine my teaching.

Students meanwhile could access my lectures from the comfort of their living room or study. Those who missed my lectures could watch the recorded video. While revising the topic, they could clarify their doubts by rewinding the video as often as they wanted.

Students participated in the class discussion through video chats or conferencing, clarifying their doubts in a chat room. I would post notices, assignments, tutorial topics and study materials for the topics covered on Google Classroom, which students could access as per their convenience; they submitted their assignments here as well.

Of course, the use of this technology was exciting and felt empowering. But any technology has pros and cons: I faced time constraints due to a fixed time limit given for each lecture. Some lectures were intruded upon by miscreants who were not part of the original classroom. Students were able to share invitation links outside the class room. (Online school classes in Singapore and elsewhere have also been hacked into by miscreants.)

Further, I couldn’t trace it when errant students blocked their faces or turned off their laptops. In the classroom situation, you can counsel such students who are having diversions.

With a few classes gone by, despite the advantages of not having to commute for an hour back and forth every day, taking classes from my living room, a feeling of boredom, emptiness and hollowness engulfed me.

Something was amiss with virtual teaching. The class vibrancy was missing; my lectures occurred in ‘space’ not ‘place’. I missed my students’ physical presence, our face to face interactions, their warm greetings and mischievous smiles, friendly gestures, laughter, fisticuffs, their curious faces with unbridled youthful energy – I missed redressing their petty grievances, of course, and their yells and screams and shouts.

I missed the interactions with my colleagues, staff meetings, and the lush green environment of my campus too.

Classroom teaching has its own magic spell because you engage with students directly. A teacher using body language will establish eye contact or face to face communication and eventual physical intimacy.

In the classroom setting, a good teacher not only disseminates knowledge and wisdom, but also radiates love, compassion, empathy and positive energy, none of which digital technology can transmit.

Moreover, the classroom is a place where sustained interaction takes place between students and their teacher. It evolves into a tangible relationship later. And video chats are no substitute for in-person interactions.

Classroom teaching also aids student socialisation and makes them fit members of society. It helps develop their ‘personality’ or ‘self’. Teachers are not only facilitators but also mentors in traditional classroom teaching.

With virtual teaching, however, there was no physical intimacy or human connect. Virtual intimacy appears emotionless, mechanical and artificial. Although there are many software programs that simulate the classroom experience, it lacked the energy of a classroom.

Given the huge prevailing digital divide, virtual teaching can cater only to certain classes of society with the limitation of human dimensions. Virtual teaching favours rich or middle class students who can afford it and use it to forestall any academic loss during the lockdown.

In the case of the ‘have-nots’, they are deprived of it and are in limbo now.

One could say that virtual teaching enforces a kind of patron-client relationship rather than building a human relationship. It may hone students’ professional skills, without building social skills. The culture of the class room is a unique experience that fosters the social values like integration, cooperation, competitive spirit, and a sense of ‘we’ feeling among students. Nothing virtual can replace this. Such technology may aid or enrich it, but cannot replace it.

To sum up, during this period of experiment, I was not at all inspired or impressed by ‘virtual magic’ because of the lifeless process involved in it. I cherish ‘class room magic’ and look forward to it. Virtual teaching is not a substitute for the class room teaching. It may be an alternate method to be adopted by some in times of crisis. But a balanced approach is the need of the hour.

M. Mahalingam is associate professor in the Faculty of Law at SGT University, Gurugram, Haryana