Due to the coronavirus pandemic, students and pupils moved from regular classrooms and school benches to virtual classrooms. Although it used to be difficult to imagine, classes are now taking place remotely. What are the challenges of this type of teaching? How do professors see this way of teaching and how do students and pupils see it? We talked to them, opinions and impressions were divided.
At most faculties of the University of Pristina, certain online systems had functioned even before – mostly when it comes to exam registration, bulletin boards… However, a state of emergency has been declared and interpersonal contacts have been brought to a minimum to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the urgency, online classes started without much preparation. They are now taking place for most faculties.
The difficulty of starting this type of teaching was borne by the educators themselves, as well as the faculty service centers.
“We had a very short time to find the best way to transfer the teaching materials, to measure the scope and difficulty of tasks, taking into account the fact that students would receive assignments from all teachers, we had to prepare the materials and find contact details of all students. However, as time went on, the difficulties and dilemmas disappeared. We quickly adapted to this situation,” explains Emilija Redžić, Assistant Professor of Morphology of the Serbian Language at the Department of Serbian Language and Literature at the Faculty of Philology in Kosovska Mitrovica.
Jelena Mihajlović, Professor of the Orthography of the Serbian Language and an Introduction to the Methods of Teaching the Serbian Language and Literature at the Faculty of Philology in Kosovska Mitrovica, and her colleague Nikola Dančetović, a philologist from the Department of English Language and Literature, agree that there are no particular problems in conducting online classes.
Students generally contact professors for additional explanations and instructions regarding the teaching materials.
“And that is resolved very quickly by exchanging emails,” Mihajlović added.
“Since I am in constant contact with many colleagues, I can say with certainty that other teachers are also fully available to students,” Redžić added.
Students and professors now exchange information through emails and various media for communication via the Internet. There are no conversations, lectures, face-to-face discussions, so the question is whether they manage to learn the necessary in that way.
“Yes, they can, but a disadvantage is that sometimes it (communication) is taking slow,” says Dančetović.
“Students receive assignments and parts of teaching materials from me, which I would otherwise use to teach in that class and I ask them to send me the work that they have done. I review every paper I receive in detail and, based on that, I make an exercise answer key with explanations of all the mistakes I noticed, which I then return to them,” Redžić explained her way of work.
Besides, she holds online classes, which, she adds, has proven to be effective.
“This way, since all students are involved in the conversation, is the best way for students to spot parts that they have not understood well and explain orally what is needed,” says Redžić.
Students are provided with materials depending on the subject. For some subjects, only lecture hours are provided. Therefore, students receive presentations in which the most important facts about a certain teaching topic are systematically presented. Earlier, they had been referred to appropriate literature – Mihajlović explains. And whether students will learn the necessary through online teaching, depends on the nature of the subject, she adds, citing the course Orthography of the Serbian Language as an example:
“The situation here is somewhat more unfavorable. As the realization of the curriculum of this course implies more hours of practice and fewer hours of lectures, in my work I combine sending certain tests (with an answer key), where students are obliged to self-evaluate, together with presentations. This course certainly requires classes in which more students could participate in group work.”
What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of this type of teaching?
Redžić admits that the teaching process works much better than she originally expected it would. But, at the same time, she points out that the only thing that can be mentioned as an advantage refers to students who are, for various reasons, prevented or made difficult to travel and stay outside their home or their place of residence.
“Data and materials, which would be difficult to get if they did not attend classes held in classrooms, are now fully available to them. However, this situation probably made it difficult for full-time students to master the learning materials and prepare for exams, although I do not think that they are far behind, due to all the efforts that teachers are making,” she explains.
When it comes to the shortcomings of this type of teaching, Redžić adds that those are – the incompetence of a large number of students to deal with modern technologies, as well as the fact that not all students are able to submit electronic versions of assignments:
“Well, they send us pictures of their paperwork, which makes it difficult for them and us. Also, not all teachers have the opportunity to hold online classes, and paper cannot replace a living word. It is also worth mentioning the impossibility of holding midterms, as well as the difficulties in procuring literature that we do not have in electronic forms.”
Jelena Mihajlović sees the main advantage in the fact that students are not obliged to strictly adhere to pre-set schedules.
“They can dedicate to mastering new learning materials in the moments when they are most rested, best motivated to work and in the best concentration. This, of course, is not possible in regular classes. The disadvantages are the impossibility of face-to-face conversations and the impossibility of a dynamic communication that is developed when group work is applied,” she adds.
Flexibility in scheduling classes is an advantage for Dančetović, too, and he also sees an advantage in working from home, where no special preparation of students is needed.
“Students are more relaxed, especially those who are more introverted in class,” Dančetović explains.
“Occasional disconnections or connection interruptions and teachers possibly lacking adequate tools, or having poor knowledge about online applications and online work in general,” says Dančetović when asked about the shortcomings of this way of teaching.
Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages of this type of education, we are on the threshold of the June exam period. Exams should have been actively prepared for. According to the first announcements, online lectures could last until the end of May. It is still unclear how the exams will take place, but given the proximity of exam deadlines, a question arises – will and how will the online mode affect grading and passing exams?
“If students are provided with the necessary (appropriate literature, work materials regularly sent), there is no reason for the current way of working to affect grading and passing the exams. Nothing will change, neither in the way the exams are organized, nor in the evaluation criteria,” says Mihajlović.
Redžić expects that exams will be held traditionally and that is why she does not think that the online type of teaching should greatly influence the grading, considering that classes were not interrupted, but took place in a different form.
“I have already pointed out that teachers are making a great effort to help students and facilitate the process of mastering the learning materials. Also, students can dedicate a lot of time to learning, since we are all in our own homes,” she says.
She understands the students’ fear, as well as the difficult circumstances for work, but says that “significant lowering of the criteria during grading is not a good solution to this situation” because “the purpose of schooling is to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, not just to take exams.”
“So, my goal is that the learning materials are mastered!” – adds Redžić.
What do students say?
We spoke with nine students from different faculties. Comments are divided, but the prevailing opinion is that this type of teaching has both advantages and disadvantages.
A student of the Faculty of Medicine, Marta Jevtić, says that she is satisfied with online teaching: “Professors are trying hard to provide us with all the necessary information as soon as possible, so that we can adequately respond to the assigned obligations. In general, from the beginning of this situation, everyone from the faculty tries to make it as easy as possible for us.”
“The biggest drawback, considering that I study medicine, is the lack of practical classes, definitely, and maybe some personal experience of a professor who would tell us that classes are taking place regularly. Everything else can be compensated. An advantage is, maybe, that the time we used to spend in lectures we now use to prepare for the exams and, yet, we are not deprived of those same lectures” – she adds.
“I think that nothing worse could have happened in the education of young people than online teaching, because they just overwhelm us with presentations, without any explanation” – is the opinion of a student of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Nikola Đukić.
He also sees a disadvantage in the fact that students are not able to see what they read about at presentations, while that would be possible for them at the faculty.
“Also, one of the shortcomings is that some professors only send us what we are supposed to prepare for the exam or to write a paper, without asking if we have literature. An advantage is that we do not have a pre-set schedule for lectures, but the professors send presentations according to their plan. But again, there is a disadvantage here and that is, I believe, that most students do not open that presentation”- explains Đukić.
An average grade for online teaching – eight, adds another student of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Marija Popović, and explains:
“An advantage is that it doesn’t take up my time for doing other things, in addition to studying, I can even work because attending an online class is not mandatory. I can visit a Google classroom when it suits me. And there are flaws, too, because my motivation to learn has disappeared, I keep thinking that I still have time. Also, during normal classes, we could learn and remember a lot in class.”
“Students carry a teaching unit in their pocket”
On the other hand, there are those who are just preparing for higher education – high school students. Educational contents are broadcast on TV channels of the public broadcaster of Serbia. The RTS My School application is also available, schedules are being published online. Teachers prepare special learning materials for students who need a structured individualized approach to work, that is, adjustment within an individual educational plan. Platforms such as Viber, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, My School are also used.
“Today we live in the age of digitalization, every teacher and student has an Android phone on which they can follow classes without being in school,” says Marko Radojević, a Biology Professor at the “Grigorije Božović” High School in Zubin Potok.
He believes that online teaching has advantages if it is used correctly by both teachers and students.
“An advantage of online teaching is that a student can review or listen to the unit several times, carry it in his or her pocket and study at any time. Unlike school classes, where in 45 minutes one has to listen carefully and write, if they miss something, they can’t rewind or look again. The only thing they can do is ask the professor again in the next class to clarify some ambiguities,” he adds.
He sees the lack of commitment as a downside of online teaching: “When we look at a teaching unit on the phone, we are often distracted by some information from social networks, advertisements or messages from acquaintances.”
Regular classes are classes held in close contact between teachers and students. Online teaching is a virtual contact.
“Which is, in fact, the biggest flaw of all this” – adds a Serbian Language Teacher and Radojević’s colleague from school, Olivera Manojlović.
She sees it as an advantage that it is easier for some students to master the material because they are used to the use of electronic devices and she notes that this type of teaching is even more interesting to the students.
Both Manojlović and Radojević agree that students are even more active during online classes.
“Through online teaching, every student has equal time to show their activity, but also to prepare for it. In school, a teacher cannot give every student a chance to speak in every class, because those students who are present are selected, while in online classes, it is possible to establish exactly how active a student is,” says Radojević.
Student Luka Gočanin also sees an advantage in focusing on each student. “Professors have time to address everyone individually, which had not been possible before, in a large class.” He believes that, for that reason, online teaching encourages learning.
Isidora Dubravac says that it depends on what kind of material and task it is: “We are used to working on some of them in a group, it is not pleasant to adapt so quickly.”
Students’ opinions are divided when it comes to following online classes. For some, it is easier online, for others, the traditional way is an easier one. They also believe that one of the shortcomings of this way of teaching is the scope of work, adding that it happens that they get assignments on weekends more than on weekdays and, at the same time, more homework and learning materials.
Here, however, virtual contact and virtual knowledge testing are all that is left for teachers to assess their students’ knowledge.
“Students who used to be active in regular school are still active, they give answers, they ask, so their grade is confirmed and we can be sure that the grade is realistic,” says Manojlović.
And her colleague believes that online grading can be credible.
“A condition for that is the complexity of the tests and time as a limiting factor. The answer can also be in a ‘live’ form where a teacher examines a student via a video application such as Viber, Skype and the like,” he says, recalling that this type of examination is used for, for example, taking foreign language tests.
There is no precise information on how long the online classes will last. In the world, this type of teaching is almost a common way of education, which increases the availability of education for those who are not physically able to visit an educational institution or spend time in a classroom. The coronavirus pandemic warns us that online teaching could become a practice for an extendedn period.
“Given that we live in the age of digitalization, it would probably be appropriate for children if this would become an everyday type of teaching, but I am afraid that we will lose the sense of real communication and socialization which is necessary for life in general, as well as the ability to speak” – says Olivera Manojlović.
“If teachers and students really dedicated themselves and approached this kind of work without any fraud, this type of teaching could become everyday. Although, reality will not be like that. Schools exist to teach children new knowledge, but also to make them have an obligation, to be disciplined, to respect the rules and that is why they will continue to exist,” explains Radojević.
Humans are social beings. Interpersonal contact is what makes their lives richer. It is the students, teenagers, who are now losing the most due to the lack of physical contact with their peers. The time spent on school benches made their everyday life. The situation is identical with students. It is not surprising that, after all the conversations, one gets the impression that everyone is still eagerly waiting to meet their peers and colleagues again.
The news story has been prepared by the interns of the Ponder programme in cooperation with the Crno-beli svet platform. The Ponder programme is implemented by the Domovik organization and supported by UNICEF and the Peace Building Fund (PBF).