Professor Nigam Nuggehalli, Dean of School of Law, BML Munjal University, routinely writes a series called ‘Letter to Law Students’, where he shares pearls of wisdom to help budding legal eagles make sense of what is happening around them. His latest letter (reproduced below) discusses if classrooms have become obsolete now.
Letter to law students #22 (is 2020 the year when classrooms became obsolete?)
My dear law students, this is my last letter of 2020, and I will begin by asking a question: is the physical classroom space an outdated concept? In 2020, the COVID crisis forced us to abandon physical spaces in which to teach students. While there were no major technological breakthroughs in 2020, the year gone past has heralded an unprecedented cultural acceptance of technology. Before 2020, we had the technology to teach online but not many willing to teach online on a massive scale. Now online teaching is so pervasive that no one is batting an eyelid when complex theories and concepts are being taught over the internet.
On the last day of 2020, I will join hands with other crystal ball gazers and make two predictions for 2021 and beyond. First, physical classroom teaching might dwindle in number but will not go away. The collective aspect of teaching, the inspirational, boisterous, interactional, interesting physical classroom sessions will continue to be in demand. It is impossible to replicate the same experience online. Teaching that contains humour, pathos, rousing emotions and bluster-all the ingredients for a fun collective experience, is very difficult to conduct over the net. I have tried to crack a few jokes in my online classes. Faced with a stoic silence from my class, I have had to jettison my usual methods of teaching. I dare say my students are glad they are not subject to my humour anymore.
My second prediction is concerned with the screen fatigue factor that is associated with online teaching. Law teaching is peculiarly suited to online teaching, as it does not require laboratories to aid the teaching. Yet, prolonged exposure to video has led to many students being turned off course work and some developing psychological problems. I know this is a major issue for many of you. I have tried to reduce actual screen time and increase regulated self study time but overexposure to the screen is inevitable given that all of us increasingly depend on the screen for our entertainment as well. Netflix and Prime are our stress busters today but it means our eyes do not have a respite from the screen.
Online teaching is heavily dependent on video but I believe it is audio that will be the game changer. It’s really in my generation that the use of phones became widespread. My parent’s generation wondered how we would spend hours talking on the phone in the evening with our friends in addition to meetIng the same people during the day. They were also sceptical about phone conversations replicating the warmth and closeness of personal conversations. Yet, our generation thought nothing of continuing our conversations over the phone as an extension of our every day conversations. In your generation, the use of mobile phones became ubiquitous but you use mobile phones mainly for photos, videos and texting. However, in the COVID era, we have all discovered eye fatigue.
Eye fatigue does not even begin to describe the issues with extended screen time. Science is yet to catch up convincingly with the discomfort that we are feeling with prolonged exposure to screen time. In the meantime, the world will look for some other solution to remote teaching. I think it will be audio. Already podcasts have become a popular mode of discourse. I listen to music on Spotify but just the other day I also listened to a podcast on recent issues in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. But podcasts have a few limitations. The interaction is limited mainly to the speaker and his or her interlocutor. As a result, the audience participation is passive rather than active.
This brings me to the point that the future will probably have a retro flavour. We will be back to long audio calls between the teacher and the student. Prolonged one on one audio sessions are not very different in format from the previous generation’s long phone calls, except that it’s scholarship not friendship that will provide the content. The move to audio will need a re-imagination of educational pedagogy-how to imagine complex text, graphs, figures, tables, calculations, power point presentations in terms of audio inputs and outputs. But if we are able to do it, the lowly audio might well overtake the glamorous video.
Finally, if the physical classroom is going to be a minor player, what happens to great teachers? Is the next teaching revolution actually about eliminating teachers and moving towards easy to understand online materials? I don’t think so. What makes for a a great teacher-someone who expands not just your knowledge but transforms your entire way of thinking-will continue to be at the heart of education. Education will have to transform itself to accommodate great teachers, not the other way round.
School of Law
BML Munjal University
In this pandemic, most law schools have also moved online. Tell us in the comments section how your experience has been? Do you think this can continue even after the pandemic?