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Omnipotent Virtual Classrooms: Is Academia Being Led To Theseus Paradox?

Traditional classrooms are synonymous with the decaying old planks of the ship of Theseus in the current times of contagion.

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Nick Chopper was an unassuming woodsman in the forest of Oz. But as destiny would have it, the evil witch cursed his axe; it turned back on him and chopped his limbs off, one by one. Nick thus transformed into the fabled Tin-Man, the caring companion of the magnificent Wizard of Oz. But can Tin-Man claim to be Nick Chopper anymore?  

This perhaps is a juvenile analogy of formal education in the post-COVID-19 era. Instead of the ill-fated Nicks, there used to be galaxies of classrooms, attended by learners and driven by instructors. Not as gradually as the Tin-Man's limbs, but to the contrary quite drastically, the experience of a classroom in its entirety is robbed off by social distancing norms. The efficacy of virtual classrooms as a wholesome replacement will be evidence of Theseus paradox. If and when social distancing will be needed no more, what will be the reality of education? Will it be an Ivy League certification received by being an invisible spec of the attendee on a Hughes network global lecture? Or will it be a degree awarded by a local institute, by physically attending a traditional lecture session wherein backbenchers can nap to glory? 

Traditional classrooms are synonymous with the decaying old planks of the ship of Theseus in the current times of contagion, but they still stand as the strongest contender to the reality of education. Consider Bloom's taxonomy, the source of most widely used lexicon for setting up of objectives for curricula globally. While imbibing it, cognitive-domain remains the basis for progression towards emotion and action-based achievable of a course. Herein, flipped as well as inverted classrooms originally introduced and developed a subject through online textual or audio-visual content, building a knowledge base. But they are essential to be substantiated with classroom Q&A and peer-group discussion. This is to enable the learner to graduate from passive levels of attention to active participation to finally attaching value to her learnings to be able to apply them. In between the mute-unmute cycle, network glitches and bunk-by-video-turn-off, it is quite a feat to attach value to the learnings of a virtual classroom.  

Furthermore, education's realms succumbing to Theseus paradox has deeper insights. Scholarly discourse and research for incremental and new knowledge creation has always been held with the highest regard amongst academia. Enormously too, this emerges as on the outcome of vociferous arguments among faculty colleagues. The intellectual environment that a dynamic institution provides, is what leads to enriched learning. This could be much beyond the scope of online panel discussions and webinars. Inter-disciplinary research and collaborations beyond academic gains not just lead to institution building; it harbours a feeling of model conduct among the student community, which they strive for in their professional lives.  

Graduating from college has been synonymous with rigorous and polarizing debates in classrooms, free-flowing ideating sessions at the cafeteria and persevering through the long solitary hours at the library amongst several other things. However, a lot of it could easily get lost in translation on the online platforms. The question is not about the omnipotence of virtual classrooms diluting this experience; but will academia be able to equate its sufficiency with traditional classrooms at the end of COVID19 era? Imagine a cloud-university with online lectures, plagiarism-checked assignments, real-time examinations and perhaps a rare opportunity to reach out to a cute classmate next to your screen on the webinar. Will it qualify as an institute of higher education? Will its value-creation be equitable to the conventional brick-and-mortar university which carries a distinct identity and a culture nurtured over decades of its existence?  

Higher education is seldom about exams or grades. Rather, it is about the cumulative experience that prepares students to become functioning members of the workforce, with requisite knowledge and skills. Thus, the academic institution must fulfil one of its key purposes of providing employable resources to the industry, which shall ever remain a key stakeholder to its enterprise. As hiring practices evolve, emotional quotient (EQ) has become equally relevant as intelligence quotient (IQ), if not more so, and how would virtual classroom support the EQ development remains to be seen. Clearly, some specific job sets, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) segments will eventually evolve to suit the proliferation of virtual modes of education, but the larger premise of building up a cohesive personality adept at people management skills may remain challenged for long. 

From another perspective, management development programs (MDPs) which form a key interface between the academia and industry may also lose their lustre as classrooms go virtual. While online course certifications may still come through and fill up the quorum, the charm of exclusive networking sessions, the camaraderie built while taking random walks down the hallowed corridors of a coveted institution, grabbing a copy of the group photograph as a token of remembrance could be lost forever.  

To answer education's Theseus paradox, we resort to our protagonist the Tin-Man of Oz. Though his decaying body was replaced limb by limb, yet his heart remained untouched. He thus sought to meet the love of his life, only to realize that she had married a man-made from the flesh and bone of his amputated body. So, is the resurrected man the real Nick Chopper? Or is Tin-Man the reality? The resurrected man indeed has Nick Chopper's untouched heart!  

Like all pandemics or such other global adversities, the COVID-19 outbreak shall pass too. And, if and when the 'new' normal becomes passé, the conventions of formal education, most importantly the concept of the classroom, will be paradoxical. A collaborative thought on mechanisms to equate academic delivery through virtual classrooms with that of traditional modes of classroom teaching will lead a long way towards sustainability of post-COVID-19 educational initiatives.  

Perhaps, this is where we can take refuge in constructivist pedagogy. Based on the fundamentals of social constructivism and constructivist learning theory, constructivist pedagogy adopts a more student-centred approach. It requires the delivery to be customized based on the students’ background and their existing belief of the domain in question. There should be opportunities for the students to explore and implement their own understanding while achieving the learning outcomes of the course and finally, develop a metawareness of their own understanding of the subject and its learning process. Optimization hence emerges as the key feature in the success of online classrooms. This can be envisioned through the provision of flexible study timings and resources, complemented with facilitation of virtual group dialogues; some important pieces missing from the puzzle. Informal online student interactions beyond mandated hours of credit courses, much like the recess periods, are essential to create shared understanding on topics and challenge the conventional beliefs of a domain. While the efficacy of virtual classrooms is a subject of extensive research, the academia needs to explicate its various emerging constructs. Much like replacing the Tin-Man’s limbs, the replacement of traditional mode of classroom delivery has to be fitting in every dimension possible.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Omnipotent virtual classrooms academia Theseus Paradox

Daitri Tiwary

The author is Doctoral Researcher, Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH)

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Anil Verma

The author is MSME Banker and FinTech Enthusiast

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