08 Jul 2020 20:04 IST

Difficult to replicate classroom experience online: SPJIMR’s Ranjan Banerjee

But, he says, online helps good teachers reach a larger population, and encourages students to speak up

It is difficult to replicate peer learning and face-to-face faculty interactions beyond the classroom, says Bhavan’s SPJIMR Dean Ranjan Banerjee. “The quality of energy and feedback in a physical classroom is difficult to achieve in a virtual one,” he says, but is quick to add that the online teaching-learning experience is only four months old against decades of classroom teaching. Experience may narrow the gap, he says in this interaction with BL on Campus.

What would you say are the pros and cons of online classes for B-schoolers?

Pros: It is easier to record classes and have material available before/after the class. Both asynchronous and synchronous modes are available. With more new tools, a lot of classroom interactivity can be replicated in creative ways. It takes courage to speak up in a classroom. Chat is relatively less threatening, and you may find new people participating. You can (for day scholars) take classes without travel. In monsoon, this can be a useful option. At a larger, societal level, we have a limited number of good teachers. Online has the potential to make strong teachers available to a much larger population.

Cons: It is difficult to replicate peer learning and face-to-face faculty interactions beyond the classroom. B-school is a social experience, and that gets diluted. The quality of energy and feedback in a physical classroom is difficult to achieve in virtual mode. Some elements of spontaneity and intensity are reduced. Connectivity is not uniform. This implies unfairness. Many have bandwidth issues. The pace of coverage slows down. The teacher cannot cover as much ground as before, and sometimes has to repeat content, either because people get disconnected, or simply because there is less non-verbal feedback, so you have to summarise more often.

Also, with online classes + the phone + news+ Netflix, people spend too much time on screens in a day. It’s difficult to concentrate with eyes on a small screen for long. Students can only handle fewer classes in a day than they would have physically.

On the whole, we have had four months of learning to teach and learn online. We have learned how to teach and learn in physical classrooms for 20 years. As our experience grows, the gaps will reduce. In that sense, much current comparison is premature.

Of course, now there is no alternative, because of Covid, but post-Covid will B-schools look to carry on a bit of teaching online as well?

Definitely. Two levels: More discussion-oriented subjects in the classroom, with background conveyed earlier through asynchronous video. There will be more online tools, such as polls and online boards in the physical classroom. And it can help in the rainy season when going to class is difficult.

You will see hybrid models being used much more. Also, online as a tool for alumni lifelong learning, as well as for the larger democratisation of education, has a lot of potential.

What would you say classroom teaching has going for it, what are the dynamics of the learning interface... if you can list out the pros.. I guess there are no cons to this, or are there?

The biggest pro is the direct feedback, energy, scope for faculty to move physically. In-class activity like role play and physical simulations are possible. The other is that we often teach more than the subject, and this happens in conversations with faculty and small groups outside the classroom. This is spontaneous and difficult to replicate online.

But large class sizes make it difficult to track the individual student. It may be easier to do this online, in some cases. In a large class, introverts will find it a big risk to speak up. This is less scary online because it is easier to post a chat message or reach out to the faculty privately.

Again, the larger issue is that we have 20 years of practice perfecting our craft for the classroom. So, comparison may be premature.

How many students has SPJIMR on boarded for the academic year with online classes?

For batches which were mid-session, we have been online for some time now. Currently, 400-plus students are learning online.

Did you have to provide an orientation to your professors as well, on how to handle online classes? And have students adapted to it?

Yes, we had basic and follow-up orientation sessions. Faculty have also shared each others’ session recordings, and there is a lot of peer learning and mentoring that has ensured high quality of our online classes. We have come together as a community to make this work.

What about your executive MBA? Are those students happier with the online learning than the fresh MBA aspirants, given that they are an experienced lot and also pressured for time?

Across groups, students and faculty have adapted well. We have fewer classes online per day than we would have in the physical world. Often, adaptation has a lot to do with technology readiness and in this sense, younger students and faculty are at a bit of an advantage. The other factor is that older students have more of other demands on their time — they are supporting elders, going out for groceries and medicines, doing household work, and having job demands (for executive MBA).

While our students miss the campus, and all that comes with it, it is about making the best of the given situation, and across the board, students have adapted well.