Teaching During COVID Times: Lessons From Software

Learning is focused on measuring inputs like the number of courses, questions, hours of teaching etc.

One of my favourite teachers called me last week, asking for help with adapting to new ways to help her students learn effectively despite all the COVID restrictions. Given my background in Cloud collaboration software, I eagerly jumped in and started describing how the magic wand of telecom technology now gives teachers godlike boons to be present “Anywhere and Anytime” for their students.   

Teacher: How do I teach my students remotely, with connectivity problems and power failures?  

Me: Most remote teaching currently focuses on live video calls, but you can pre-record content, and use material created by other teachers, and sources like Khan Academy, EdX etc. Many textbooks from NCERT and MIT OpenCourseWare are free to use online, which can be easily used over slow connections.  

T: Students like to study at odd hours, do I have to be up all night responding to them? 

Me: Have an “always available” messaging channel like Hangout Chat, Teams, Slack, Whatsapp that let students interact over text chat at odd hours. You can respond at times convenient for you, or the students can help each other immediately, reinforcing “peer learning”.  

T: Students lose focus and stop paying attention, and they have other distractions too! 

Me: You can run polls and interactive quizzes as a surprise element to keep students from napping.  

T: But they can ask their friends to help them to respond correctly, even if they are not paying attention? 

Me: You can even ask different questions to a student or group of students, to prevent a “Whatsapp a friend” situation in getting to the answer. 

T: Whatever we do needs to be standardized, scalable and repeatable.  

Me: Ah, that is the plus point of Software! 

She gently gave me a profound insight, I was describing tools, what she needed was the improved learning.  

And then she dropped the bombshell. “Many of these problems have existed since the time of the gurukul, we need a better method, not just some fancy gadgets!” 

This set me thinking. Having spent a long time in the software industry, and having helped thousands of students create better futures for themselves, I realised that these Classroom Challenges can be mapped to generic Principles with known Solutions in the Software Industry. These principles can be applied in transforming the learning and teaching process to be more scalable, repeatable and effective. These methods can be used effectively not just in online classrooms, but also in offline and hybrid classrooms, to improve learning outcomes. We can use the opportunity presented by the COVID crisis, to radically improve the way we teach and learn. 

Principle 1: Focus on outcomes 

Classroom Challenge: Learning is focused on measuring inputs like the number of courses, questions, hours of teaching, or simple outputs like marks, but not on the outcome, which is the real-world impact of applying that learning. 

Software Solution: Project > Product 

Software used to be built as custom projects, with the key metric being the input efforts measured in billable hours and output based on meeting the defined scope. Software products now provide standard functionality, with the key metric being the business outcome delivered by using the product. Microsoft is valued at over 10 times the largest Project companies. 

Transforming Teaching: We need to enable students to apply classroom learning in solving real problems. For example, a student learning about probability should apply it to evaluate the chances of her getting exposed to Coronavirus, being infected, being seriously ill. The progressive reduction in the probability will reassure the student, and reinforce the learning in a very tangible way. 

Principle 2: Usable output driven by iterative building 

Classroom Challenge: Most Courses do not have methods to incorporate feedback and adapt to changing needs, rendering them ineffective. 

Software Solution: Waterfall > Agile 

Software used to be written out in detailed requirement specifications, then built, and finally tested in linear steps, and by the time it was ready, the world had moved on, making the output useless. Moving to Agile, allowed software development to become adaptive and iterative, reducing the gap between the desired outcome, and the delivered product. 

Transforming Teaching: Can we make courses more iterative and flexible? For example, a course on economics can progressively increase the complexity for the students with feedback, instead of linearly going through the topic, chapter by chapter. Starting with the basic demand-supply impacts of COVID lockdowns by interviewing a shopkeeper, going on to second-order effects in the supply chain by speaking to a logistics manager, and then understanding complex concepts like the need for monetary easing, money velocity etc by speaking to a central banker. 

Principle 3: Anytime, Anywhere access  

Classroom Challenge: Teaching centres around a physical place and fixed hours of learning, which puts major space and time constraints on the process. 

Software Solution: On-Premise > Cloud 

Software used to be deployed at customers' premises on their IT infrastructure and had to be managed there, requiring a lot of effort to fix bugs or change anything quickly. Moving to the cloud meant much faster delivery and updates, with lower costs due to standard and high scale infrastructure. 

Transforming Teaching: We can use Pre-Recorded Videos, Online Content from Khan Academy, Open textbook initiatives like NCERT that allow the student to learn from anywhere, and at any time. Using chat messaging and shared documents allows the teacher, or even fellow students to respond to doubts or queries during non-class hours.  

Principle 4: Smaller, independent chunks 

Classroom Challenge: Classes and courses are typically organized linearly and a student missing an earlier part may not be able to understand the rest of the session. 

Software Solution: Monolithic > Microservices Architecture 

Software used to be built as fully integrated big blocks, which would work in total, or fail completely. Even a non-critical part of the software could bring the whole system down, causing a total loss of operation. Microservices enable the software to be built and run as small independent blocks, so the failure of some blocks does not impact others. 

Transforming Teaching: Splitting up a One-hour class into 4 Micro classes of 15 minutes each, so any student who could not attend one part does not miss out on the complete learning. Each section can have a different format and medium, like a video, quiz, peer discussion or teacher explaining a difficult concept. This lack of monotony reduces boredom and disinterest in students, and, the variety in approach helps catch the attention of students for most of the time. 

Principle 5: Two heads are better than one 

Classroom Challenge: Teaching is still a “single person magician act” in most cases. Teachers do not collaborate on coursework, delivery or filling gaps that an individual teacher may have.  

Software Solution: Individual > Pair Programming 

Software used to be built by individuals, working in an artisanal fashion. With the advent of peer reviews and pair programming, software developers were able to develop better quality code, faster. Having someone look over your shoulder, or complement your skills makes it a more robust process. The old adage “Two heads are better than one” applies to many knowledge activities. 

Transforming Teaching: Shared/Paired teaching of courses can enable a richer learning experience for students while reducing the workload for individual teachers. Even if not paired for the entire course, a ‘Guest Teacher’ like an industry expert can make a ‘Virtual’ appearance to make it more interesting for students. 

Principle 6: Small and autonomous teams 

Classroom Challenge: Classes tend to be organized as large homogenous blocks of students, led by the teacher. In the teacher’s absence, nothing happens. 

Software Solution: Hierarchical > Scrums 

Software teams used to be organised in large teams with complex hierarchies, leading to slow and inefficient software development. Moving to smaller, self-managed scrum teams have enabled a smooth development process, while giving a greater sense of ownership and autonomy to individual developers. 

Transforming Teaching: We can organise students into “smaller teams” that can work on different topics at the team level and then teach the rest of the class. This enables “peer learning”, making it more interesting for the students, and reducing the workload of the teacher, who can shift to “coach” mode at that time.  

Principle 7: Cross-disciplinary teams  

Classroom Challenge: Educational programs tend to be structured at independent subject/department levels, but real problems never come neatly packaged in the same silos. 


Software Solution: Silos > Devops 

Software teams used to be clustered into vertical groups like Development, Testing, IT Operations causing slower build, deploy cycles, and also lower customer satisfaction. Moving to a devops model meant the team that built the software also ran it, leading to lower bugs and outages 

Transforming Teaching: Cross department/multidisciplinary programs enable the student to structure a problem and address it using the tools of each vertical more effectively. For example, teaching quadratic equations from mathematics and dynamics from physics as a combined topic to understand how parabolic motion works, even though exams may be held separately. 

While some of these software megatrends look quite amenable to applying to education, there are several challenges as well. Part 2 of the series explores the practical aspect and possibilities in applying them effectively.  

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

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