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Are schools becoming cool?

It’s 9.45 am on a wet weekday morning. Tucked away in a little corner of the verdant Dadar Parsi Colony, the Dadar Parsi Youth Assembly (better known as the DPYA School), is abuzz with scampering feet making the most of their 10-minute snack break. With a naughty glint in his eye, one boy takes off his tie and uses it to mock-whip his oblivious friend who is chomping on a vada pav. Some are playing games, and the cacophony continues till a bell rings, and the children run back into their classrooms. We trudge to the fourth floor with a kind of a nostalgia and expectation of seeing a teacher seated at her table with a textbook in hand, occasionally reproaching the backbenchers.


Students at DPYA School watch with rapt attention as their teacher conducts a class using the Educomp Smartclass. Pic/ Atul Kamble

Instead, we stumble upon a class in which the conventional blackboard has been segregated to make space for a whiteboard. A projector is displaying a video on the whiteboard half. It merges 2D animation with graphics, photographs and videos. A clear male voice emanating from the speakers is talking to the Std X-B students about the central nervous system. The teacher lets ‘him’ talk for a minute, after which she pauses the system and asks a couple of questions to test the attention span of her class. They answer in unison. She is satisfied, and the male voiceover continues to talk about the divisions in the brain. Even the backbenchers are paying attention.

Since February this year, the DPYA School has introduced a digital module known as Educomp Smartclass — that has been developed by education company Educomp Solutions — in each of its classrooms to supplement the chalk-and-talk teaching methods with technology. This Maharashtra State Board (SSC-medium) school is not alone. Hundreds of schools across the country have imbibed multimedia teaching tools that make use of curriculum-based digital content in a bid to make drab lessons more fun. “It would be so cool to learn like this,” says Diya Rangwani, an eighth-grader who goes to a school in Andheri. “Our school still does not have this. If I could see pictures of Australia while studying about it, even I would like studying and score above 80 per cent.”

Split wide open
“At one time, the dilemma was about which board you wanted your child’s school to have — SSC, ICSE, CBSE or IB. Today, it seems like the question everyone is asking is whether the school is open to adapting to technology or not,” says marketing professional Richa Sheth, mother of one year-old Viha. “We are already worried about the kind of school we want Viha to go to. We would like it if the school introduces Viha to technology from a young age, because my husband and I are both heavily into gadgets. That is the future, after all.”


Alison Pinto artist who ensures that she spends time with her daughter Lisa doing real-world learning activities like cooking. 
Pic/ Rane Ashish 

Competing for a slice of share in the market are companies such as Haryana-based Educomp Solutions, Pune-based EduSmart, New Delhi-based Classteacher Learning Systems as well as Tata Interactive Systems and Navneet’s sister concern eSense, among others. “When we prepare a chapter, there is a team of five expert teachers behind it,” says Seema Ranade, educational consultant and vice-president of marketing and administration, EduSmart Software Solutions. “Overall, 200 people, including animators and teachers work on this module.” EduSmart’s smart learning software, Chanakya, has been installed in 3,425 schools nationwide.

While most softwares in the market are meant for school use, companies like Classteacher have also introduced at-home solutions for students. It comes in the form of a sleek seven or eight-inch tablet, going by the moniker of Classpad, loaded with e-books and apps, and on which you can watch movies, play games, watch YouTube videos or chat using Google Talk. Teachers can transfer class work to the students’ tablets, and conduct tests on it too.


Students using Classpad at Father Agnel School, Gautam Nagar, New Delhi. Pic Courtesy/ Father Agnel School

“We have come out with many products ahead of the times because of our fascination with interactive technology,” says Rohit Pande, CEO, Classteacher Learning Systems. “The introduction of whiteboards represented a milestone in the field of education five years back. Today, it’s these devices. We are putting technology out there for use by the right generation.”  

While we would prefer seeing third-graders play a game of Hide-and-Seek over a game on their personal Android-based tablet, tech-oriented parents might find it heartening to know that they  have company in over 15,000 parents who have already bought a Classpad for their kid. “The arguments of Internet security and non-emphasis on handwriting will always come up, but the reality of the market is that the parents today are hyper-competitive,” says Pande.

This competitiveness, though, comes at a price. The Classpad is priced between Rs 9,999 and Rs 13,999. Schools like DPYA went through a long mulling process, as the price tag came with a pinch. The cost for the installation of EduSmart’s software in a school, for example, would work up to approximately Rs 70,000 per annum. Some schools pay for this by upping their school fees, while some have their trustees shell out money. Even Tata Sky’s Actve Educational Services, which make kids learn rhymes, take quizzes and listen to stories, comes with the price you have to shell out to buy the set top box.

Drawing boundaries
Little cousins, nephews, nieces, kids and grandkids in almost all houses are playing with mobile phones and laptops today. But it seems that not all parents are too happy with the invasion of technology in every sphere of our lives. Self-taught artist Alison Pinto would rather have her third-grader daughter Lisa-Ann paint on a piece of paper, than on the computer, and read physical books over e-books. “I am not quite aware of these new-age educational modules but I’d rather not expose Lisa to them all at once,” she tells us. “I have noticed that most kids who grow up with a computer or some form of technology, develop tunnel vision and lose out on the personal talents they are gifted with. These devices are so addictive that you find it hard to focus on other things, and only want them with the exclusion of everything else. Because children’s minds are so open to stimulation, they find it unable to control their levels of exposure.”


Children at a DPYA classroom. Pic/Atul Kamble

So while Lisa is allowed to play cooking and dress-up games on the family computer, she is also encouraged to play with Lego blocks, paint with her parents, help her mom with the cooking, and go for skating and dancing lessons. “It is unavoidable to keep a kid away from technology. We do not want to do that, and Lisa is given every opportunity to learn from different mediums, but it is all strictly regulated.” Pinto’s words are echoed by a Bandra-based parent whose 10 year-old child attends a Santacruz-based international school but would rather remain anonymous. “This school is one of the most reputed in the city, and the principal is a media favourite,” the dad tells us. “But it’s ridiculous that they asked parents to buy an iPad for their kid. The expense is totally unnecessary, and more importantly, all kids ask for it even though you have a choice to not buy it, just because their friends have
it.” Complaints among some parents we spoke to at schools that have some form of interactive learning include their child developing headaches and watery eyes. “My daughter is tall, and hence she is amongst the backbenchers. She ends up squinting during some fine print in the audio-visual. What to do?”

What next?
While technology-driven educational modules and devices still seem supplementary today, Pande believes that it is only a matter of time before they become part of the learning process. “Soon, we will have textbooks with both, interactive and traditional formats. This can happen in three years.”
As the principal of DPYA School, Diana Pereira points out, “Teachers today have become facilitators of knowledge.” But will the role of teachers soon diminish, as the pre-recorded voice-overs take on our life? With handheld devices providing options of instantaneous results to class tests, and with self-learning being promoted through various apps and games, where does that ubiquitous teacher stand, five years from now? Says Pande, “For the large part, man-to-man interaction will still be the driving force in a country like India.” We definitely hope so. We would rather fondly remember the pretty Ms Wykes who taught us English in the seventh grade, than that anonymous, cool and casual digital voiceover.

3 questions for Nipa Mehta Clinical psychologist
How do you feel about schools opting using technology?
Complementing conventional techniques with audio-visual ones is a great step forward. However, I am apprehensive about schools introducing iPads and encouraging parents to buy them. This increases the financial burden on parents and exposes children to things they can avoid at an early age. That said, going beyond the conventional method is great for those with learning disabilities, as engaging the sensory system means that they can pick up things faster.

So, does the onus ultimately lie on parents?
If the school is providing the technology on campus, parents can’t do much. But at home, the association with technology should be monitored. Tech-savvy kids will definitely be more informed, but there is also a risk of it affecting their social skills. It hampers their interaction with family members because they are glued to technology. Schools should opt for devices that have customised applications that serve an educational purpose, and not unrestricted Internet access.

Does the thought of educational devices saturating the market in the near future worry you?
You can’t fight technology. You can only improvise it to suit your needs, and then monitor it well. There are three types of learners — visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Even if a child has been exposed to just the auditory style (when teachers read out from a book or talk in class to teach), they usually grasp things fast if introduced to modern methods. By introducing them to visual (learning style associated with images) and kinaesthetic (in which learning takes place by the student carrying out a physical activity) techniques, understanding becomes easier. So move with the times, but be vigilant. And don’t forbid interaction with technology altogether — forbidden fruit means that they will want it even more.  

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