Classes in the cloud

Overworked and overwhelmed by the digital classroom, educators find themselves grappling with the cosmetic delivery of knowledge
Classes in the cloud

CHENNAI: Change in the Indian school education system has been glacial. It took us decades to bring computers to every school; we just about introduced additional learning through QR codes and online materials and we’re still far from facilitating a viable Internet service for every child. But, as they say, a pandemic waits for no one. With the COVID crisis making schools major areas of risk, the education system has quickly had to move to the online arena — whether anyone was prepared for it or not. A month into the new way of lessons, teachers find themselves face to face with the pillars and pitfalls of virtual schooling. And there’s many a lesson to be learnt, it seems.

In his 26 years of experience with the State Board curriculum, not once did G Karthikeyan anticipate that the teaching fraternity would be forced to make a shift to online teaching within a short span of time. The Physics teacher, who handles classes 11 and 12, has been taking online sessions from the first week of May. His daily schedule has two 45-minute sessions, an hour of preparation for each.

Two-way learning

“Our school uses Zoom and Google Classroom. The platforms are used for sharing content and PowerPoint presentations, giving out assignments, and conducting tests. I’m familiar with the technology so the whole process has been easy. Otherwise, it’s a two-way learning process. Our tech-savvy students help us out. The kids are self-learning and do their share of research instead of waiting to be spoon-fed. I’m also happy with the new three-way connection between teachers, students, and parents. The only way to ensure if the students are genuinely attending the classes is with the help of parents monitoring their activities closely, but only to an extent that it does not disturb our privacy,” suggests Karthikeyan.

As much as he’s in for the online teaching platforms, few problems have been inevitable. “For years, we’ve been accustomed to the gurukul system that stresses discipline and honesty, and that’s achievable only in classrooms. It’s hard to discern the body language of students when your screen limits the number of faces you see. There’s only so much of portions that can be covered within the given time. The government has given some reassurance saying a few television channels will telecast free tutorials to reach a larger number of students who may not be able to afford online education otherwise,” he explains.

Behind the screen

While teachers are left to their devices for the day’s lessons, they manage to touch base with colleagues every day. Department meetings and general meetings with the principal are held weekly to stay abreast of the latest developments introduced to the education system by the government. In Annie D’Silva’s* school, after a month of classes in mid-April, online classes started again in June. For the Biology teacher for classes 11 and 12 students (State Board), it’s the lead-up to the sessions that have become laborious. “Right now, I handle only class 12. Although one session is 40 minutes, we’re able to use only 20-30 minutes of the session to effectively explain the subject. The preparation process is time-consuming. I have to source interesting videos, visuals, and prepare presentations. I’m lucky to have an understanding husband and a daughter who helps me with getting used to these new applications. It’s difficult for teachers like me in their 50s to suddenly adapt to newer methods,” shares Annie.

After a series of sessions from 9 am to 1 pm, Annie breaks for lunch before sitting down to evaluate the tests conducted through Google forms. She schedules the next day’s homework at 4 pm, and begins preparing for the next day’s sessions at 6 pm. “The first few days were tiring but I got used to the system eventually. Although the new way of working invades your space at home, it is manageable if you plan efficiently,” she suggests. While online classes may work as a temporary solution, she wouldn’t want this for the students in the long-run, she remarks.

Innovate to interact

Although sudden and unwelcome, the online experience has been a challenging yet enjoyable process for a few teachers like A Mumtaz and Urmila Sengupta* who’ve taken this as an opportunity to get familiar with the technology. The former, a teacher with a CBSE school, handles Accountancy for classes 11 and 12. “Ours was one of the first few schools to implement online classes from the beginning of April. Every day is a learning process and my digital knowledge has increased drastically since day one. We’ve been trained to use innovative apps such as Kahoot for creating quizzes, Canva to come up with catchy posters and logos, Jamboard, a digital board, to offer collaborative experience, and Mentimeter for interactive presentations. If not now, when will we get to experiment with all this,” says Mumtaz.

She conducts four classes every day. One class a week is held for students who need special attention. Although the teachers are approachable and always available on calls to clear doubts, not all students make use of it consistently. “Sometimes I ring up parents to check why the kids are not constantly giving me an update. It’s okay to check before things get beyond your control. I ask questions during the last 10 minutes and students respond through a chat option. These are simple ways to see if they are sleeping or listening. Accountancy is a subject that’s hard to comprehend even when taught in-person. I need to put in extra effort, so I prepare questionnaires to train students to think from the perspective of an accountant. About 30 per cent of difficult concepts from various chapters have been cut down but there’s still a lot that’s left to be covered. I’m satisfied with what I’ve been able to produce during this time,” she recounts.Urmila Sengupta, an Economics and Business Management teacher for classes 11 and 12 at an IB continuum school, shares Mumtaz’s feelings for online classes. While working with online applications may not be something new for her, interacting with students virtually is. “Our school was prepared for the change in March. We use applications regularly but facing students on the screen has been a new experience. The school also purchased Google Suite so that we could use several features it offers for our benefit. Our school follows an international syllabus. There are only about 10 students in a class so it’s easier to manage, compared to other teachers who handle more than 40 students in a class. I take about four sessions a day. We ensure that the students are not packed with back-to-back classes, just to give them some time off the screen. Extracurriculars such as music and yoga classes are also part of the timetable, allowing them to relax,” she details.

Symbiotic relationship

Urmila feels that with more parents working from home, their presence in their children’s learning space has become more active. This can tend to be an inconvenience when they deiced to pass comments on the teaching methods even as the class is in progress, she points out. “As teachers, we’re up and about in classrooms. This medium is new for us and we are taking the time to learn and help out the students. Nobody is perfect. We need to stop criticising teachers and be supportive to grow mutually,” she explains.

Urmila’s school has two ways of approaching online classes. The synchronous way where the teacher is present during the lecture and the asynchronous one where a worksheet or recorded video is made available for children to access as per convenience. “A few of us may be privileged to work in different rooms using different gadgets. Not everybody can afford that. We are available to clarify doubts during or after sessions, especially for those with learning difficulties,” she says.

Testing times

Even as some teachers have had success with the digital shift, no one approach fits all and not everyone has it easy, it seems. Primary school teachers are having a tough time keeping the younger kids engaged. Ancy* handles Maths and Science for classes 5-8. She has been uploading video tutorials on WhatsApp as part of their online classes. “Our school has more students from the middle and lower strata of society. There will be only one member in a family with a smartphone so it would be unfair to expect them to be available all the time. All the teachers have only been shooting videos and sending it on WhatsApp. I take classes for two hours a day. The preparation process takes another few hours. We need to be extra cautious as parents are monitoring our classes along with children,” says Ancy.

The time duration for each class ranges from 20-30 minutes to cater to the shorter attention span of kids. Colourful images and animations are used to keep them engaged. However, following up with the students has been a major challenge for these teachers.

“I have to randomly call parents every evening to ensure that they have at least received the video. Sometimes the messages are not even seen. Although I’m satisfied with my teaching, whether or not it reaches the child is a big question,” shares Ancy.

Sharanya’s* experience with students of classes 3 to 5 has been the same. She records 10-15 minute videos of lessons and sends them on WhatsApp. “There’s no fixed time with online classes. You’re having to work more despite staying home. We exert ourselves yet are forced to take a pay cut. Our health is not affected and we can save on travel expenses; otherwise, there’s nothing great about teaching online when you can’t even see the child’s face,” she remarks.

Long road ahead

While teachers who handle different grades and curriculum weigh the pros and cons, teachers in government schools have a different set of problems. The most basic has been reaching out to students who do not have prerequisites such as smartphones or any gadget to study from home. Online classes for students in government schools commenced yesterday. S Jitesh*, headmaster and Physics teacher in a government school, lists the plans in place.

“Class 12 students have been provided with laptops. We will download content from the TN government’s e-learning portal and transfer it to their laptops so they can learn from home without having to worry about the Internet. This will include video tutorials for all chapters in all subjects. Books will be distributed to kids of other grades. But, parents need to sit with their children and assist them with learning. I’m not sure how far that’s possible with these kids whose parents may not be educated enough. Teachers are available to clear their doubts. This is not a feasible method for students who live in areas with poor network or those from weaker sections of the society. I don’t suspect the intentions of government with online classes, but we need to think of better ways to reach a larger crowd,” he says.

With no word yet on when schools can reopen, teachers are trying their best to tide through the tough times by making the most of their last resort — online classes. Only time will tell if they, and their students alike, clear the test.

*Names changed.

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