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Connecting Beyond the Screen: The Relevance of Traditional Classrooms in the Online Era

A classroom is where lives are moulded, changed, and transformed. When a toddler takes their first steps into school, they lay the foundation for a lifelong learning journey that leads to the future. Far more than just a physical space, the classroom is an explorative centre and a bustling hive of activity and creativity. It is a place of wonders, filled with endless possibilities, where students discover the rich histories of poets and storytellers, scientists and engineers, artists and architects, actors and actresses, and other legends from all walks of life. Most importantly, it is here that future generations of change-makers and role models are shaped.

Traditional versus digital education

Traditional educational systems have existed since before Vedic times and have followed a specific trajectory in their evolution, growth, and practice. The Gurukul system, for instance,  focused on the guru or teacher as the final authority. The guru was completely in charge of the student, who grew up within the confines of the guru's home, oblivious to external developments but living close to nature and performing household chores that later became valuable skills in adulthood. Subjects taught included Science, Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology, Grammar, Ethics, and Law—fields that remain significant today, albeit with numerous combinations and permutations.

With the advent of globalization and rapid urbanization, changes in learning systems are increasingly tailored to a student’s interests and capabilities, offering more options after Middle School. Perceptions have also shifted with the changes in demands of local and international economies, in terms of job creation and requirements.

Online education is a recent innovation that caters to the larger interests of communities. It is a medium that reaches a wider audience and serves as the interface for all collaboration, communication, discussion, and work submission. But, while it bridges the distance between the learner and the facilitator, it cannot fully replicate the impact of in-person learning.

Impact on human interaction and well-being

One of the most significant drawbacks of online education is the lack of human touch and in-person interactions. In classrooms, students learn to socialize with classmates and teachers from various strata of society. They learn concepts of sharing, empathy, and social bonding. The absence of these physical spaces prevents children from building real connections and bonds, which may have a long-term impact on their mental well-being as it hinders their social skills. Additionally, the replacement of physical classrooms with online classes can negatively affect one's body. Long hours of screen time can lead to more frequent visits to the ophthalmologist due to vision impairments.

In traditional education, social bonding and interaction among students occur in many settings outside the classroom as well. The school bus, for instance, is a perfect meeting ground for starting the day’s journey to school and returning home. As the bus winds through busy roads or quiet bylanes, students talk about their day and discuss academic challenges. These conversations with peers can help them overcome issues as they realize they are not alone. This setting also allows teachers to interact with students, making them feel comfortable in our competitive world. Kind words from a teacher can significantly impact a student's mind, filled with anxiety and the pressures of academic life. The direct interaction and connection established in traditional education foster true camaraderie and bonding, which is missing in online education.

Although online systems have streamlined business transactions and payments, this efficiency cannot be directly applied to classroom learning as there are aspects of the physical classroom that the online mode of education can never compensate for.

Experiencing the online era

During the COVID-19 pandemic, online interactive platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams were invaluable. They enabled teachers worldwide to connect with students who were miles away, allowing lessons to continue regularly. This virtual attendance helped students keep pace with their academic workload despite being away from physical classrooms. However, grading online assignments and conducting assessments proved challenging.

Additionally, student submissions often had clear copyright violations, leading to high levels of plagiarism and a lack of academic honesty. Despite the technical expertise and innovations in place, these systems could not fully prevent manipulation and dishonesty, even among young students.

While online education transcends geographical barriers and unites learning communities digitally and electronically, it fails to unite them socially or emotionally. If online systems were incorporated on a massive scale to deliver school curricula worldwide, elements of social cohesiveness, social mobility, and personal interactions would be lost. This could lead to increased isolation and selfishness, creating a permanent hindrance in the development of a community-oriented mindset in the next generation.

The irreplaceable classroom

Traditional classrooms and systems provide a structured curriculum and schedule along with a space for collaboration, which are more convenient for those who prefer physical submissions and interactions. As a History teacher, I value helping students converse, collaborate, and critically analyze interpretations, perspectives, and events objectively. In-person debates allow different perceptions and thought processes to emerge, facilitating direct transfer of learning. Such interactions are less effective in an online setting. Exhibitions, quizzes, gallery walks, music performances, art shows, and sporting activities are more productive and engaging in a traditional format. In an online mode, participants are not present where the action happens but merely observe it on a screen.

If schools were to disappear, the cheers, interactions, songs, and activities would only be treasured digitally, not experienced directly. Kindness can be captured on screen but not felt realistically in online learning, and the same is true for naughtiness. It's always better to be where the action is! This is the essence of traditional education, whether under a tree or in a classroom with or without walls. A classroom is a living organism that creates, innovates, impacts and leads change within societies and communities.

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