Pandemic Reconfigurations: Recreating University Classrooms Online in Indian Households

Devanuj K Balkrishan, Pranjal Jain, Deepak Ranjan Padhi, Shanu Shukla, and Pawan Singh

Under the exceptional regime of governmental steps taken towards the management of COVID-19, much of the social and economic life has gone online in India, as elsewhere in the world. Digital interfaces have supplanted real-life interactions and enabled a sense of continuity of experience albeit constrained by the screen. Digital platforms as both enabling and constraining technologies rings true in the Indian education experience under the lockdown when teaching and learning went online. The framing of this migration from an evacuated institutional space of the school or college to a digital platform, or online education, overlooks the social situatedness of digital technologies.

In this brief rumination, we present an Indian perspective on teaching and learning online during the pandemic lockdown when the digital became the near-exclusive medium of social interaction. Our ongoing qualitative study aims to examine how the pandemic reconfigured the experience of teaching and learning through video conferencing digital platforms on mobile devices and laptops. Based on preliminary observations, we demonstrate how the transition of higher education from an institutional space to online learning entails the reconfiguration of a familiar space to which everyone retreated to, during the pandemic – the home. The Indian middle-class home has historically been a shared space structured by power relations affording little privacy to its residents. Ethnographic and historical sketches of the Indian middle-class have addressed the transition from a pre-liberalization to life under economic liberalization – especially the IT boom –  that shaped a consumerist ethos with a desire for greater privacy from parental involvement. In the 21st century, the mobile phone penetration and cheap Internet data access have brought about a digital revolution producing newer media and cultural practices that are entangled with information technology infrastructures such as cellphone towers.

The affordances of the digital revolution have transformed social and economic life in India. Within the broader discourse on informational or data privacy, however, these affordances have been subject to a blurring of boundaries between the public and the private. A critical consideration of privacy in a globalized postcolonial India must heed its conceptual intersectionality. For instance, teaching online during the pandemic has been fraught with digital platform specific privacy and security concerns such as in the case of Zoom, a video conferencing app. The concerns in India pertained to data theft, hacking of laptops and other security lapses. The privacy concerns do not just end at security, hacking and data breaches. In the Indian households with a joint family structure, professors who participated in our study had to deal with people walking in and out of the workspace, cooking noises from the kitchen and activities of domestic help who typically clean homes late morning. These distractions illuminate the home as a contested space splitting between leisure and livelihood, professional work and domestic labour and attention and affect. Privacy in this contested space is afforded intermittently and needs to be implicitly prioritized. Should the teacher worry about data security and breach issues that digital platforms pose? Or should they secure a sense of spatial privacy primarily to ensure a semblance of seamlessness in imparting education via the screen? The negotiation of these considerations in the contested space of the Indian household suggests how privacy is never absolute and often remains a function of attempts to ensure it spatially and temporally. An important question for potential research may concern how privacy may be prioritized in the digital mediation of a social space in the Indian context where traditional cultures of social involvement in others’ lives meets prolific practices of everyday online data consumption in spaces of leisure.

Privacy, or the affordance of being left alone in its most fundamental sense, is only part of the lived experience of online teaching at home. Between attention to the screen and distraction from the surrounding space, professors’ initial response was one of stress. In time, as they became used to the online mode, other issues came up. New video conferencing technologies, familiar to some, frustrated others as they struggled with the interface with various options to mute, turn camera on or look at the chat sidebar. Most felt that online teaching was no match for the physical, institutional space where face-to-face interactions made it easier to connect with students and follow visual cues for a more grounded learning experience. Eye-contact with students enriches teaching in a physical space. Without such visual communication, the texture of lecture delivery is bereft of its impact, engagement and humour. The desire for visual exchange in physical space for a reassurance of lesson understanding also functions as the need for disciplinary surveillance where a quick glance across the room may restore order. The mobile or laptop screen as the interface between the enthusiastic teacher and errant student constricts a proper view of the other side. This facilitation emerges to be less a staging of knowledge exchange and more an unpredictable encounter with chance affordances. To switch on the camera for the professor is to expose oneself, a self-conscious feeling induced by the awareness that students are watching their teacher in her private space. An access to this view can create a sense of vulnerability for the teacher upon whom the student gaze rests. To be viewed on camera, and viewed as a professional, the teacher must be presentable, dress up and look nice. But she is unable to look back at her students unless they turn their camera on, as a rule. But rules in online teaching are tempting to break and they are perhaps broken without much accountability. Logics of presence and absence so conspicuous in the physical classroom become tropes of a hide-and-seek online; a turned off camera guarantees presence not. The professor’s voice travels through the digital medium to the other side where students may or may not listen. Speech in the digital medium is not always comforted by attention.

When considered in the context of the attention economy in which social media strategies seek “eyeballs” to maximize economic value in a media-saturated, information rich world, attention on both sides – teaching and learning – demands an affective bodily labour. Contrast here the teacher’s body in the physical classroom orientated towards the students, able to move, inhabiting a familiar space as Sara Ahmed would put it, with the teacher’s body in her familiar space of the home facing a laptop screen yet feeling disorientated. In a physical classroom, she enjoys a certain mobility, the ability to turn to the board, walk around and inhabit corners to make a point. Teaching online from home raises the question of digital phenomenology, or how online modes of attention-intensive activity such as teaching at home orientate the teacher’s body in her familiar space that suddenly feels disorienting. On the contrary, students in a physical classroom usually orientated towards the teacher and the blackboard are liberated from the imperative of constant presence online as long as they are logged in and not visible on camera.

Finally, the technological infrastructure including laptops, mobile phones and network connectivity determines the overall experience of online education for both the teacher and student. India is often understood to be leading the statistics for the number of people getting online and mobile phone service penetration, however, a more pertinent question is that of privileged haves and underprivileged haves whose experience of the Internet is shaped by their geographical location, a broad marker of socioeconomic status.

As India gradually resumes social, economic and public activity despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the future of education in a post-COVID context ought to be addressed as we prepare to return to a new reality of social distancing and masked witnessing. Online teaching is likely to remain a viable option in the post-pandemic university from an institutional perspective. Professors participants addressed this question in practical terms, some feeling that they need to be prepared while others maintaining that online teaching could not be sustained in the long run, even if it saved them time taken up by a long commute, the fatigue of traffic on Indian roads and regular exposure to sound and air pollution.

Yet, a desire for return to the physical, institutional space of teaching, learning, socializing and mentoring, however ideal, would remain captive to a cruel optimism as Lauren Berlant observes – a desire for something that may be a hindrance to one’s flourishing, at least in the short run.

Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

Pawan Singh holds a doctorate in media studies from the University of California San Diego. His work addresses the discourse on privacy and identity within a transnational context with a primary focus on postcolonial cultures. From 2016-2019, he was a New Generation Network Scholar at Deakin University and the Australia India Institute in Melbourne, Australia. 

Shanu Shukla is currently an Academic Associate in the Indian Institute of Management Indore, India. She did her PhD in Psychology from the Indian Institute of Technology Indore, India. She was also a Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.

Deepak Padhi is an Interaction Designer and researcher with a specialization in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) from IDC School of Design, IIT Bombay. His special interests are in user research, design for inclusive societies, design for education, multi-modal interface design and heuristic evaluation.

Devanuj Balakrishan is a Design practitioner, educator & researcher from India. He holds a PhD in Interaction Design. His research interests are primarily oriented towards Emergent Users (Next Billion Users). Using Design Research, he advises start-ups. He is active in the HCI community & has also worked in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Pranjal Jain is a Co-founder and Operations Lead at theUXWhale, New Delhi, India, a design collective which comprises multi-domain experts who aim to provide primacy to the lived human experience in the design practice. His interests lie in designing for ethical data practices, online privacy through speculative and critical design. He has his Master’s in human-Centered Design from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. He has worked with Future of Finance Initiative – Dvara Research, Digital Identity Research Initiative – Indian School of Business and Idea Cellular Ltd. He is also the founding chair and the exchairperson at the Srishti SIGCHI Chapter and IEEE NPSS VIT. He has been an Associate Chair for Late Breaking Work in CHI 2019, Co-Organizer of BestofCHI2019 and a Paper Reviewer for IndiaHCI2019.

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