Who was to blame? The teachers? The administrators? Perhaps the educational institutions at large? These questions led us to conduct a case study on the role of intentionality in the development of online learning spaces. What did it mean for learning spaces to be designed, developed, and implemented solely online? What if they never transitioned to the digital world, but were born within it? Instead of being pushed online, what if students were pulled online? To answer these questions, we conducted a month-long study of the South Asian Winter Camp (SAWC). SAWC is a virtual free-of-cost educational program designed by and for students across South Asia. This program was borne of the pandemic, for the pandemic, and thereby existed online only. SAWC was not affiliated with a physical location and was designed intentionally for the online sphere and regional classroom, allowing students to join classes from across South Asian borders.
The research methodology adopted in this study were surveys, classroom observations, and interviews. Students and teachers were administered pre- and post-surveys, and interviews and classroom observations were conducted daily throughout the program. The purpose of this investigation was to identify the impact of intentionally designed spaces on the learning outcomes, classroom engagement, community development, and overall educational experience for students. These questions lay within the broader goal of understanding how the online sphere can achieve educational outcomes and equity for students across the South Asian region during a time of global disruption.
SAWC attracted students from across diverse backgrounds. Many of these students belonged to underserved backgrounds. Had SAWC been conducted in-person, they expressed that they would have not had the chance to participate in it due to limited financial means, geographic immobility (lack of visa, no permission to travel), and as children, especially women, would not have gotten permission to participate in an in-person camp. In its existence in the online sphere, SAWC opened up learning opportunities to students who would not have otherwise experienced such educational programs. Online learning can thereby provide opportunities to students who have limited access to in-person learning.
83% of the 300 students surveyed expressed that they were more satisfied with SAWC classes as compared to the classes they took online for school.
SAWC’s learning outcomes indicated that the classes were successful in their ability to pull students into the topic area and encourage further exploration. Table 1 shows the percentage increase between the pre- and post-survey in the number of students who felt they understood the subject matter well.
This is further indicated by the number of students who are considering the pursuit of the subject they studied during SAWC in university, and perhaps even pursuing it as a career in years to come.
Table 2 shows the percentage increase in students who wish to pursue the topic taught to them at SAWC before and after attending the course.
Within the traditional online classroom, the idea of keeping cameras on to show engagement and attentiveness is often touted as the gold standard. However, this requirement can often put an undue burden on students, especially from low-income backgrounds. Students were not mandated to keep their cameras on during SAWC in recognition of the issues they may face with a video-on requirement, such as low connectivity, not having a private space to conduct class, or simply not being comfortable with being spotlighted during their contributions.
We found, however, that even with a majority of cameras off, students actively used new features, like the chat box, reactions, and breakout rooms, to engage in the classroom and showed their continued interest in learning. Students readily used the reactions on the online platform in lieu of non-verbal participation. While we noticed continuous verbal response from students was more difficult to obtain in the larger group, breakout rooms functioned as a new frontier for engagement. Students were engaged in discussion and were very responsive in breakout rooms, in fact, the energy garnered in breakout rooms caused students to feel more excited and comfortable with sharing in the larger room when they returned.
In interviews, students shared how they felt more comfortable engaging in conversation and debates during SAWC as compared to their online schools because there was no pressure to speak up or turn their video on. They were respected in their wishes to engage as per their comfort levels, and found themselves being pulled into the conversation, as opposed to being pushed out through forcible engagement.
This phenomenon of ‘pulling students in’ is further exemplified by the sustainable friendships that students of SAWC created transnationally. The camp aimed to bring together students across South Asia to learn together in a way that they could never have done otherwise. Being online allowed students to easily communicate with peers across borders and collectively learn about shared histories, cultures, and experiences through each other’s perspectives. Students felt that they could make friends at SAWC, even though they struggled at their own schools. They expressed: “I felt like it was a really great experience getting to know so many people from so many countries, how different places are dealing with the pandemic, different situations, I don’t even have friends from another school, let alone another country.” Another student shared:
“When you think about it, its so diverse, I made a lot of friend not from country only, but also outside. People are different from each other and I really love that.”
SAWC dedicated online rooms for students to access and develop friendships across borders. Students stayed in these rooms for hours, discussing everything from politics to poetry. When asked what their favorite part of SAWC was, students responded that the friendships they made during the program would last a lifetime. The existence of dedicated spaces for conversation were essential in providing a platform for connection. From WhatsApp groups to Discord groups, the students have found ways to stay connected with one another after the end of the camp. The students in camp, over and over again, pointed to the experience of hearing new narratives, learning from each other’s experiences, and connecting with new people as one of the most valuable aspects of SAWC.
Online learning is not inherently counteractive to learning, engagement, or connection. Pulling students online means inviting them into a space that has been designed to utilise the benefits of the online sphere, and to address the weaknesses. This is different from being pushed online, where there is an effort to recreate the experience of in-person teaching, thereby losing out on the potential of online learning and suffering from its drawbacks. As the world moves through this pandemic and begins to move out of the transitory period of virtual existence, we need to remember that the online platform is one that possesses boundless potential, and if harnessed properly, the learning, engagement, and connection on it can be truly extraordinary. For the online sphere to be used to its full potential, as we have seen with SAWC, one must not simply push students into virtual classrooms by only adapting traditional classrooms to be run online, rather we must pull students towards virtual classrooms, by intentionally designing classrooms to be formulated online.
You can access the full SAWC research report here.
Harleen Kaur (she/her) is an undergraduate student of sociocultural anthropology at Stanford University. She is interested in the intersections of histories of violence, intergenerational trauma, and diasporic community formation, especially within South Asian youth. Harleen’s recent research interests have explored substance abuse and the governmental response to recovery and prevention in Panjab, circuits of care and healing in diasporic Panjabi communities, and intimate partner violence in immigrant communities. In her free time, she can be found rehearsing and learning bhangra, trying new tea recipes, and spending quality time with people in her life.
Minha Khan is a Sociologist of Education. Her areas of interest surround educational inequities- both inside and outside the classroom. Minha’s publications have explored the differences in educational access and opportunity across multiple variables, including language, gender, and socio-economic background. In her free time, she can be found drinking tea, trying to figure out how the world works or, most importantly, having conversations.
Suggested Citation: Harleen Kaur and Minha Khan. 2021. ‘Pulled Online: A Case Study on the Impact of Intentionally Designed Online Learning for Underserved Communities Across South Asia’, Think Pieces Series No. 20. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).