In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen school gates close for students during an active academic year for an unprecedented length of time, one might have expected learning to have come to a standstill. But that’s far from what’s happening at ground zero level esp. in the millennium city of Gurugram (Gurgaon).
Ed-tech to the rescue
Dawn of the new academic session amidst the lockdown, has seen school children in Gurgaon responding to roll calls from their teachers 'online' in a new kind of school – virtual schools! Thanks to the advancement of EdTech (read as ‘technology for education’) in recent years, many schools including leading ones such as Heritage Xperiential Learning School, The Shri Ram School and Suncity School have been fast to respond.
The world turns virtual, so does school education
Forced to adapt quickly, schools are advocating the use of online classes as it comes with its set of benefits. “Virtual classrooms are a definitive add-on if you wish to continue children’s education in any real sense during a time of social distancing” says Rupa Chakravarty, Director of Suncity School Gurgaon.
Many parents seem to agree. They are embracing the idea of online learning, appreciating the relatively easier ‘school day mornings’ and enjoying the comfort of their children attending school while at home in their PJs. Surajit Chaudhuri, parent of a ninth grader at The Shri Ram School (Aravali) echoed “It’s going pretty good actually. The school has designed classes to resemble normal in-class activities, durations and breaks. This entire situation (including online classes) is certainly teaching my child invaluable lessons in flexibility and adaptability along with exposure to a host of new technology, tools, techniques and assessments. I am confident my child will come out more resilient on the other side”.
While some schools such as Shikshantar may have taken a slightly different course especially at the primary level. “The school is not conducting online classes for my child's grade, at least not yet. Though, we are routinely getting material from the (school) teachers that has kept my child constructively engaged” said a parent of a fourth grader at the school.
Schools indeed are striving to strike a balance. “Based on teacher, student and parent feedback early on – we have managed to evolve our model to combine synchronous (read as real-time) and asynchronous (read as offline) learning methods. Though, the exact balance between these varies for different grades, a combination of whole-class, small groups and personalised one to one sessions is being used to make the (online) learning as effective” says Neena Kaul, Principal at Heritage Xperiential Learning School (HXLS).
Although, virtual learning may indeed be showing bright spots, it has its share of pitfalls, many of which schools, parents and teachers are also versed with by now.
Technology Goes Trick or Treating
Availability of a consistently good internet connection at both ends i.e. teachers and all students, and comfort with technology in general appeared to plague many online classes.
“I am a fairly tech-savvy mom, and my second grader is an above average student. I still go crazy on many school days assisting my child log into a wide range of platforms – video conferencing, school learning management system, school emails, assignment sheets, online book reading apps.” said Neha Mehrotra, resident at a posh condominium on Golf Course Road and parent of a Gurgaon school.
“Grappling with technology is natural for students and teachers at least initially, however with the plethora of aids the online world opens up – from graphics to documentaries to puzzles to virtual walkthroughs and experiments, it actually makes learning more interactive and engaging for each student” acknowledged Rupa Chakravarty of Suncity School.
“Growing our teachers’ capacity to be at home on virtual learning platforms and develop their own digital pedagogy seemed, two months ago, to be a massive challenge especially since they barely had any time to transition. But the zeal with which they took on the challenge of becoming virtual teachers through continuous training, observing each other and sharing best practice has resulted in exciting collaborative learning.” concurred Spokey Wheeler, Director of Heritage International Xperiential School (HIXS).
Socially Connected at a time of Social Distancing?
Advit Agarwal like many school children, misses his friends and his school – the real kind, not the kind where he is talking into a computer for a good part of every school day. While many parents question the emotional impact of such (physically distant) virtual learning methods, Dr. Munia Bhattacharya who is the head of department of clinical physiology at W Pratiksha Hospital Gurugram opines “We should not hold back our children from pursing online classes as most kids will be all right”, but also instantly cautions “Parents will need to steer their children in the positive direction through this period of being excessively online and schools should provide rich opportunities to students online to interrelate with the course material, with teachers and with one another”.
Dr. Bhattacharya’s view accords well with that of some schools. “Guided by our principle of building relationships with students for effective learning to take place, we have adopted ways to bridge the gap ‘virtually’ during this time through – regular circle time with students, one on one sessions with parents and students and small group sessions amongst students. While the objective is learning of course, our construct remains social and emotional well-being of the student” elaborated Vishnu Karthik, Director - The Heritage Schools.
Mommy my eye/head hurts
Deepti Jain whose eight year old child attends grade three at a leading school in Gurgaon says “Ever since the online classes began, my child has been complaining of burning sensation in the eyes and headaches almost every day. We have to invariably ask her to either drop out of the online session or skip the online classes for the day all together”.
Similar concerns are being voiced by other parents and Rupa Chakravarty of Suncity School seemed to agree. “Increased screen time may indeed pose possible health repercussions for students. We stand united with parents to do the best we can to tackle the physical well-being of students. A healthy mind resides in a healthy body” she affirmed. Spokey Wheeler of HIXS also acknowledges the issue. “Our initial response to managing screen time for teachers as well as for children has been to make more of the learning asynchronous (read as offline) and to flex the learning day with more planned breaks” she remarked.
Dr. Carren Pakrasi who is the Director of Ophthalmology at Medanta – The Medicity observes “I expect impact on the eyes, posture related ailments and circulatory issues to be the most common side effects of virtual classes”. So what’s the solution, we ask? She obliges with five easy remedies. “First, correct back posture using a chair that’s right for the child and a table so that the computer is just slightly below eye level. Second, give eyes a break by getting the child to follow the 20-20-20 rule i.e. every 20 minutes look away from the screen at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Third, get the circulation going by letting the child get up and walk to the kitchen to fetch herself a glass of water every hour. Forth, get the child to make a conscious effort to blink often. Fifth, get an eye check done to rule out refractive error if the discomfort persists.”
On similar lines as suggested by Dr. Pakrasi, schools such as Suncity School seem to have incorporated talks by doctors and school phycologists as part of their virtual learning plan. We also accessed health advisories issued by a few other schools including HXLS for students attending virtual classes.
Will following these remedies and advisories safe guard the children completely from the possible health hazards of online classes, we persist Dr. Pakrasi. “Unlikely, but many children probably had as much screen time for recreation – Instagram, FaceTime, video games and more, it’s just that now they will need to channel it for education. This adaptation (of virtual classes) seems unavoidable at least for the time being. So the idea should be to minimise the impact as much as possible” she responds.
There’s too much on my plate
Every case is different and this reflected in our conversations with parents, teachers and school managements.
Sumit Goel who is the vice president at a media company in the Cyber City area of Gurugram and a parent to two sons attending primary and middle school in Gurgaon adds, “Both me and my wife are supposed to be working from home during this time but we can’t even begin our workday till afternoon because both our laptops are being used for online classes till then. We are compelled to choose between our children’s education and our work that will pay for that education every single day.”
Gunjan Sharma, parent of a daughter in first grade shares another perspective. “My daughter is already disinterested in online classes, as there is very limited participation and engagement. Most attempts of engagement by the teacher leads to utter chaos in the session. I am not blaming the school or the teacher, but it’s a big drawback of using a live class medium with over thirty first graders all together. I am trying to coach her privately, but she is not getting from me what she needs from a trained school teacher” she says.
Most schools we interacted with acknowledged the practical struggles of parents and asserted that they are trying to find solutions on a constant basis – be it blending asynchronous tasks to reduce the screen stress, simplifying their technology mix for easier access, educating parents on their technology stack for better coordination or smaller group and one to one sessions with students and parents to combat the virtual engagement gap.
Light at the end of the tunnel
With the possibility of schools not physically re-opening anytime soon (at least for the younger children) or other concerns of rolling closures if the coronavirus pandemic spirals out of control still lurking, is there a perfect solution?
While the jury is still out on the total effectiveness of virtual classes in Gurgaon schools, we see an honest attempt being made by different stakeholders – parents, schools and of course teachers, to reduce the pain points of students during this time of online classes. With many schools experimenting, seeking feedback and continuously evolving their online learning practices for better effectiveness, there seems hope that all will finally be well when it comes to our children’s education.
Disclaimer: Tips and suggestions mentioned in the article are for general information purpose only and should not be construed as professional advice.
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