Hang out and learn

Thirty nine year-old Mamoon Akhtar, founder of Samaritan Help Mission (SHM), an NGO that focuses on education and empowerment of slum children of Tikiapara in Howrah, West Bengal, and PD Deshpande from Helpers of the Handicapped (HH), a social body that offers training for physically challenged boys and girls in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, are forging the path to a brand new style of education. Their weapons of choice — a high speed Internet connection, a PC, a webcam, a microphone and IT Goliath Google’s social media platform, Google Plus.

“I was introduced to the idea of Google Plus by US Consul General, Beth Payne, when she had come to inaugurate one of our projects. I was fascinated by its ability to allow multiple people to do a webcam chat at the same time.”

Students at Helpers of Handicapped in Kolhapur take a class via Google+ Hangout

The feature Akhtar is referring to is Google+ Hangout, a video chat service which allows up to nine people to meet up online. The foundation conducted its pilot run of a class via Google Plus on December 20, 2011. In June, 2012, an English language class was conducted with a batch of 40 boys and 40 girls, the first in an ongoing weekly series. Their teacher was Kritika Dusad, a student of aeronautical engineering, who took the class from Glasgow, USA.

One of the active supporters of Anamool was Srikant Belwadi, a member of Caring Friends, an organisation that facilitates mobilisation of NGOs through funding and networking. Belwadi is also a product manager at Google India. During a family expedition to Kolhapur, he met Deshpande and was smitten by the work he was doing for children with disabilities.

Through Helpers of the Handicapped and Samartha Vidya Mandir. “Srikant introduced us to the concept of Google Hangout. He also donated a webcam, a television set and a computer. Over the past few months we trained teachers to conduct classes via Google+ and after a pilot session, in mid-June, we conducted our first class using Google+ Hangout.” The excitement of the students is also palpable. “It almost feels as if the teacher is with us in the room,” said Haripriya Gupta, a student at SHM, when asked to share her online learning experience. “I wish I could shake his hand.”

The teachers are quite excited about the prospects of remote education as well. Mugdha Gore, an English teacher who works with HH, says, “The online teaching experience was exciting and enriching. Thanks to Google+, I could easily share photos, diagrams and presentations with the remote class.”

But there are still concerns — such as the issue of bandwidth in a country with large chunks of the population still coming to terms with the Internet. Google itself purports that for optimum utilisation of Hangout, “a minimum of 1 mbps speed is required.”

Akhtar says, “In the future we wish to involve the big management gurus, people who have truly made it to counsel our students,” Deshpande’s ambitions are far more organic. He says, “I hope that we can expand such classroom sessions to other schools which require assistance from our faculty, while they can help us out as well — a healthy quid pro quo of sorts.”  

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