Online education no cakewalk for private schools either

Even in high-end private schools, online education has led to learning gaps in students. But they have the wherewithal to transition and improve.

In Part 1 of this series, we found that online education in government schools is largely limited to WhatsApp messages, and that many children are unable even to access them. At the other end of the spectrum are well-established and high-end private schools that are also conducting online classes since the pandemic began. In Part 2, we find out whether they have made online learning effective.

Aparna Hariharan conducts tuition classes in maths and science for Grade 5-10 students who study in private schools. She says her workload has multiplied since COVID. Her students say the syllabus was covered in school, but she finds that they have not understood it. So, she has to work a lot more than usual to make them understand the concepts. The cumulative learning gap may be worsening, she says, with an example: “In the 8th standard, students have to apply the concepts learnt in 7th standard, but they have forgotten what they learnt in 7th.”

Meetu Sehgal, who conducts Hindi tutions, says that parents of her students are not satisfied with the online classes at school. Her students are from established private schools and international schools in Bengaluru.

These tution teachers seem to understand where online classes are falling short.

In online classes, Aparna points out, children only keep listening to the teacher in a laid-back manner. Unlike earlier, children are not taking down notes, something that would lead to better understanding. In fact, they hardy write during online classes, she says.

Also, although teachers do give assignments, the number of assignments has fewer, she notes. “If children were doing 25 sums earlier, now they do only 10-15. Since the number of school hours are lesser compared to earlier, they finish portions very quickly too.”

What’s more, with multiple choice questions in exams — as opposed to descriptive questions — students are not having to think through concepts while answering them, Aparna points out.

Read more: Opinion: What teacher training in a post-COVID world must include

Educators also point out that, in an online class, the teacher would find it difficult to observe children and figure out how well they have grasped concepts, unlike in a physical class. Children are also unable to discuss and learn from peers.

Understanding these shortcomings, Meetu — who has transitioned comfortably to online tuition classes — is adopting a few rules. She holds classes in small batches so that each child gets attention. In her classes, students always have to be on camera and unmuted. They also have to write notes and send it to Meetu through the length of the class. For homework, they have to write descriptive answers.

children hardly take notes in online classes
With online classes, many students hardly write in their notebooks, says Aparna Hariharan. Representational image: Canva

Tougher on younger children

A Grade 1 teacher in a well-established private school who handles core subjects, says things are better this year. Last year, the school mostly sent recorded videos to students. This year, they have fully transitioned online. Apparently, only 20-30% children now rely on smartphones; the rest have laptops or iPads.

Major learning gaps, however, exist, she says. And, teachers are working a lot harder to fix them. “Last year, in higher KG, they should have learned reading, framing basic sentences, basic concepts in maths such as addition/subtraction. But they haven’t.” So, she holds individual and group activity sessions — that are fun oriented — every afternoon, to help them catch up with that. The regular syllabus is taught in the morning sessions.

This year, the class is split into two batches of 18 children each, so students get better attention. Each batch has a two-hour class in the morning. Before that, children get half an hour to chat/socialise with other children. The afternoon sessions are arranged such that each child gets at least one individual session or a group session every week.

She has had to modify her teaching method as well: “In physical classes, I usually give PowerPoint presentations or make demonstrations using objects. But this doesn’t work online because young children get distracted very quickly. So every evening, I have to plan a game or activity for the next day’s class.”

Despite all the extra effort, online classes are no substitute for physical classes, says the teacher. Children are missing out on peer learning, emotional development and life skills. When school reopens — it is not expected to reopen this year — she expects a lag in learning levels and life skills. “So, there will be more work to do,” she says.

Read more: The reality of online learning in Bengaluru’s govt schools

Private schools too appear not to have cracked the question of online education. But in this case, parents, schools and private tutors have the resources and flexibility to bridge the gaps in teaching and learning; quite unlike the situation in government schools and low-budget private schools.

Special children, specific challenges

For children with learning or developmental disabilities, online classes pose specific challenges. Special educator Elora Ghosh has been continuing tuition classes, now in online mode, for children with disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. They are from high-income families, but have not been admitted in private schools due to their special needs. They take tuition classes so as to be able to enter mainstream schooling gradually.

Elora conducts one-to-one classes for her students, which means she can tell if the student is paying attention to her or not. “But they already have attention-related problems, so it becomes more difficult to sustain their attention online. During physical classes I don’t just speak, I draw charts, demonstrate concepts using objects, etc. But this is not possible online, and my students grasp very little of what I speak,” she admits.

Elora’s students already have learning gaps from not being able to learn the basics in smaller classes. It is more difficult to bridge those gap in the online format. Another issue is that her students need more emotional support, which is difficult to provide in the absence of direct interaction.

Smoother transition for some

Rashmi Mishra, a mentor in science for upper primary and higher grades at GEAR Innovative International School, says the transition to online classes has been relatively smooth as the school was already using technology: “Our school already had smart (interactive) boards and internet use; we used to show students videos or simulations on the smart boards.”

However, developing a new teaching methodology took a lot of effort last year, especially since the school emphasises activity-based learning. But in the new format, there was no lab, no resources, and the environment was entirely different.

“Then I started thinking of resources readily available in everyone’s house. For example, when I start talking about pitch loudness and intensity, they start fetching the musical instruments in their home. We are beginning to enjoy it,” Rashmi says. This — children themselves are bringing in resources from their environment, and sharing their ideas and thoughts — could be is an advantage of online learning, she adds.

Representational image of a child in an online class
A few schools have made a smoother transition to online education. Representational image: F Muhammad/Pixabay

Yet, there are issues. Preparation time for mentors is still quite high since lessons have to be adapted to the online system. They found children submitting similar answers for assignments, which meant they could be copying answers from the internet. “So we replaced direct questions with ‘thinking questions’,” says Rashmi. “Also, sometimes older children don’t turn on cameras saying there are technical issues. If we consistently get this response, we contact the parent to find out if the issue is genuine.”

Sarvesh Srinivasan, Director at GEAR Foundation, says their assessment shows no drastic drop in learning levels among their students, especially those in higher grades. It is the younger children who need attention. “We plan to wait till they come back, and see how things are. We need to see what focus areas they have lost out on and where we need to spend more time. Then we have to chart out a plan for the next two years for them to catch up. Each child will need a specific kind of support,” says Sarvesh.

How much longer schooling will remain online, is yet unclear. But till such time that it does, in the absence of an online education policy, improvisation and initiative on the part of schools seems to hold the key to children’s learning.

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