Karthika, mother of 6-year R.K. Archana is a relieved parent these days. “Thanks to the virtual classroom initiative by the school (Swami Dayananda Matric Higher Secondary School, Manjakkudi, Tamil Nadu), my daughter has stopped playing games online and wasting her time. Instead, she is now focussing on her studies from the same device. She is enjoying her classes, and finishes her homework quickly,” says the mother.
If Karthika is happy that her daughter is more productively engaged these days, Vasanathapriya, mother of P. Atshath, a Class 4 student from the same institution is glad that her son has learnt additional technical skills. “Atshath now knows how to download, install apps and chat. These classes are useful and it’s a great effort by the school management,” she says.
Nestled in the midst of lush paddy fields in the Kaveri delta, the Swami Dayananda Matric Higher Secondary School, Manjakkudi, Tamil Nadu, has embraced virtual classrooms at the end of academic year 2019-2020 in a big way.
From the academic standpoint, the national lockdown occurred end of term when students were preparing for their annual examinations. Undaunted, the management, principal and teaching staff of the school located in a tiny hamlet in Tiruvarur district decided to go in for the virtual classroom model from grades 1 to 12 soon after the lockdown was announced on 24 March.
The students are sons and daughters of farmers who come to the educational institution from 300 neighbouring villages daily. What’s inspiring is that the lockdown coupled with lack of access to devices such as smart phones, laptops or desktops has not deterred the students’ spirit of knowledge gaining. Close to 56% of the school students have now migrated to the online learning model and this number continues to rise every day. In case of matriculation and higher secondary classes, this figure is higher at 80%. (see box below).
While numbers give one side of the story, students, the biggest beneficiaries have also adapted to this medium with full sincerity. Jayasurya, a Class 12 sums it up aptly, “We are not attending these classes for mere formality (marking of attendance). We are attending and taking part in all lessons with interest and sincerity.”
This alternative learning model has also proved to be a boon for the teachers. “This method of teaching will reduce the academic burden once the the school reopens,” says R. Kirubakaran, a chemistry teacher.
The promising statistics with respect to the virtual classroom enrolment and encouraging feedback from all the concerned stakeholders (students, parents and teachers) notwithstanding, there are challenges in any new method of learning and delivery.
The first and foremost is access to devices like tablets and laptops for students so that they can connect to the learning sessions. This may or may not be a solution in its entirety for a student community that mostly comes from a low income and economic background. Connectivity issues, internet outages or slow speed impacting uploading and downloading of content can also disrupt an otherwise lively online classroom session. A community television beaming lessons at regular intervals can be a more cost-effective proposal in the current scenario.
On the software side, the need of the hour is to develop more creative tools that will aid and perhaps even mimic the offline model in some respects. “Presentations work well for adults. But for young learning and eager minds, sometimes, their creativity can end up being confined to a box. Also, few concepts across subjects like maps and geometry get tough to annotate and teach via digital media,” says Mrs Padma Raghunathan, principal, Swami Dayananda Matric Higher Secondary School, Manjakkudi, Tamil Nadu.
If virtual classes become the new norm on account of disruptions whether natural or otherwise, it becomes imperative to have a permanent and compatible learning management system platform for the school to facilitate online teaching. “We also need to empower and train teachers and make them more tech savvy. In this context, frequent workshops would have to organised to keep them abreast of the latest in the field of education and technology,” says Mrs Padma Raghunathan.
Difficulties notwithstanding, the Covid-19 episode has also underscored the importance of continuity in access to education across the globe and the educational institution in Manjakkudi run by the Swami Dayananda Educational Trust is no different in this respect. The school authorities are now looking at a sustainable, seamless and hybrid educational delivery model. “Today, it is Covid-19, tomorrow, it may be a cyclone. This episode has shown us that we have to be prepared for all eventualities and learning should remain uninterrupted,” concludes Ms. Padma Raghunathan.
- Total school strength (Classes 1 to 12): 659
- Virtual classroom strength: 369
- Percentage of virtual classroom strength: 56%
Higher Secondary and Matriculation Classes (9 to 12)
- Total number of Students: 122
- Virtual classroom strength: 97
- Percentage of virtual classroom strength: 80%
Middle School (Classes 5 to 8)
- Total number of students: 238
- Virtual classroom strength: 123
- Percentage of virtual classroom strength: 52%
Primary School (Classes 1 to 4)
- Total number of students: 299
- Virtual classroom strength: 149
- Percentage of virtual classroom strength: 49%