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The connected classroom

2 February 2015 No Comment

Divya Choudary

I was in high school when IM-ing and Yahoo chat became the rage. I remember my friends and I using the Yahoo search to look up options for further studies. How times have changed! Now, if you take a look at the curriculum for K-12 school students, you will find that they are introduced to the Internet as early as the 4th standard. This is true for schools affiliated to various boards like the CBSE and ICSE and for state schools using NCERT textbooks. In fact, the CBSE in its “work education – computer application” curriculum states that “It has become of utmost importance to learn this fast growing technology [information technology] in order to keep pace with the community.” How then do schools actually bring the Internet into the classroom?

silver-oak-students-1 To begin with, I went online to look at the websites of various schools in India. As with any company, for interested parents a website, is considered the first level of interaction with a school. The “About” page lists the history of the school and has information about the founder and his/her thought-process that led to its establishment. Then you have information about the school staff and facilities, the syllabus and activities, and the admission and contact details. On the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Hyderabad website for instance, photos, projects, and students’ achievements are regularly shared. Examination schedules and notices can also be found on school websites.

Some schools (and I might add here that this is true mainly for the international schools) have videos that take you on a virtual tour of the school. Some have even adopted information architecture that can support interactivity and give parents, students, and alumni the option of logging in. “Parents can login to get extensive information about their children’s work, examination schedule, holiday homework etc.,” says Seeta Murthy, Director of Silver Oaks. Students of Woodstock Villa, Mussoorie, have login ids to access their grades and school work and send emails. Principal Jyotsna of CGR International school says, “Our website is mainly to provide prospective parents with information about the school. We are in the process of enabling a login option for parents and would then like to extend that to include the students as well.” Most schools with websites allow parents to apply for their child’s admission online.

While the websites seem to cater mostly to parents, what do schools do with the Internet when it comes to their staff and students? In Silver Oaks, teachers collaborate with each other and post resources on Wikispaces. Grades are recorded online and parents are updated on their children’s progress through email. Recently, students have begun using their personal gmail accounts to access Google drive for submitting assignments, creating questionnaires, and sharing powerpoint presentations. Communication amongst classmates is on Google groups. “Our teachers are being trained in using Schoology – a free online portal that allows them to develop courses and share content. In the future, we hope to introduce ipads for every student and replace textbooks. Online messages and resources would also help in conserving paper,” says Seeta Murthy.

In their paper on web-based education in schools, Shinde and Deshmukh suggest computer based testing where when assignments are done online, teachers can be provided with instant feedback on students’ comprehension and can share their comments with students electronically.

When asked how schools can make better use of the Internet, Rekha Lalla, a teacher from Salwan Public School in New Delhi, replies, “The Internet gives our students the opportunity to connect with students from across the world. With online projects and platforms like youthinkgreen.org and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation our students get to communicate with students from Germany, Indonesia, and other countries. They not only exchange emails but video-conference with others to learn about their culture and discuss issues like climate change and geo-politics.”

The Internet is considered a boon in residential institutions like The Velammal International school, where classrooms are equipped with video conferencing facilities for students to interact with educators and attend seminars without leaving the campus.

Teachers can use the Internet to access e-journals, e-books and source unlimited resources and teaching and learning materials. Principal Rama Devi, from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Hyderabad, encourages her teachers to watch TED and INK talks and browse websites like Prekinders.com and Pinterest to stay motivated and get ideas on how to develop their creative teaching methodologies.“With the CBSE circulars being sent by email, teachers have developed the habit of checking their email often. So when I come across a resource worth sharing, I post the link on the teachers’ online group and they can’t miss it!” she says, smiling. Students use the computers in the lab to gather material for their projects. They also go online to register for programs like Wipro’s Earthian and the British Council’s International School Awards. At times, students are asked to attend interactive online classes set up in the computer lab.

Special schools like Devnar in Hyderabad and other inclusive schools have found the Internet to be a source for audio books and magazines that serve as resources for dyslexic students and those with visual impairments. For such students, screen reading software like JAWS and NV Access that can be found online have also been downloaded and installed in computers to enable them to navigate the net and listen to texts online.

A number of schools in the country have signed up with online education portals like Digital Campus and now have their administration, management, and admission processes simplified. Schools also use the Internet to communicate with parents regarding their children’s attendance, grades, important notifications, and upcoming events. The website of the Abhyasa International Residential school describes their use of smart cards and internet-based GPRS system to keep track of students within the campus.

silver-oak-students-2 Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Salwan Public school cater to the large number of students and their needs with regard to the curriculum by having separate computer labs for the primary and secondary school students. By having children use the Internet in the lab it allows teachers to supervise their work. In schools like CGR International teachers are given plug-in devices to access the Internet for their own research and to share resources in the classrooms.

While the computer facilities in schools differ, when it comes to school’s Internet policies most schools err on the side of caution and have restricted access to sites like YouTube and Facebook.

“The Internet has its benefits but it has its perils too!” states Seeta Murthy. “We have training sessions every few months to remind the teachers and the students of these.”

On the school’s policy with regard to Internet use, Jyotsna says, “We do not have a strict policy. Because of the plug-in devices, students gather information for their projects under a teacher’s supervision. As we only have students up to class seven, we do not have an issue with students bringing in and being distracted by cell phones. We tend to take a conservative and cautious approach with measures like equipping our buses with GPS, and ensuring female teachers are present so parents don’t feel the need to have their young children carry cell phones and access the Internet during school hours.” However, she does point out that the way students use the Internet or social networking sites like Facebook, at home, is up to their parents.

In residential schools, students are often given slots to use the Internet after their classes. At The Velammal International school and at Abhyasa International residential school, students can browse the net and send email in the evenings using the computers in the labs. Social networking sites cannot be accessed on campus.

Having created and shared videos on YouTube, Rekha hopes to encourage teachers from other schools to do the same. In her school however, given that websites like Facebook and YouTube are banned, teachers download the videos for viewing in the classroom. Students in her school, like many others affiliated with the CBSE, are introduced to computers in the first standard and learn how to use applications like Microsoft Paint. “It is in the third standard, when the students are introduced to the Internet, that we teachers talk to them about the ‘Dos and Don’ts’ online,” adds Rekha.

Rama Devi shares Rekha’s views with regard to YouTube and social networking websites. “Our students are encouraged to stay away from social media. As children, the students are yet to develop the maturity and ability to discern what is good and bad on the Internet,” she explains.

Studies have shown that it is largely teenagers who frequently surf the net and without awareness on the right conduct in cyber space, they are constantly exposed to the increasing dangers in it. Emphasizing the need for cyber safety education, Saluja, Bansal and Saluja, in their paper on the topic, propose that schools cover aspects like Cyber Threats, Protecting Ourselves, Cyber Ethics, and Cyber Laws. They also present data to support this demand where “15% of online surfers reported online harassment, 33% reported interaction with unknown people and 18% reported cyber bullying but none of these children knew where to go or what to do.”

Rama Devi shares the measures put in place in the school, “Recently, we had a few students and teachers visit a software company to learn about cyber safety. The students have formed a ‘Cyber Safety Club’ and have created presentations to share the information with students from all classes. We also have parents from software companies coming in to talk to the students about proper use of the Internet.” These students, now better aware of cyber safety, help keep an eye on others’ online interactions and if help is needed, involve their computer teacher.

At Silver Oaks, however, while firewalls are in place especially with regard to YouTube, Seeta points out how social networking sites like Facebook and Google Hangouts can be used constructively. Facebook is used by the teachers and the students to help strengthen relationships between them. Being a part of the students’ online group enables teachers to understand the class equations better and support their students if needed. Senior classes at Silver Oaks have formed Facebook groups to encourage charity work and bring about awareness on different social issues.

Speaking of the problems with web-based education in India, Shinde and Deshmukh emphasize the need of strong support from the parents, school administration, and government. They state factors like administrations not realizing the value of the Internet; insufficient funds being allocated towards equipping schools with adequate number of computers and high speed internet; and teachers not being sufficiently trained to use technology in the classroom as some of the reasons for the Internet not being given an important role in the educational process.

silver-oak-students-3 Interactions with some principals from schools in rural areas have shown that the lack of basic amenities like a continuous supply of electricity and inadequate funds to obtain computers limit the benefits that students and teachers can draw from the Internet. Some teachers end up sticking with textbooks because the sheer amount of information available online proves overwhelming. For some of the schools that do have the Internet, the connectivity speed is too slow for them to perform functions like streaming videos, downloading e-books, etc. With websites like Teachers of India providing resources that can be easily downloaded and viewed on mobile phones, teachers in smaller schools with no internet access can bring in resources on their mobile phones to share with the classroom.

Since the Internet – its usage and ethical and security-related aspects – is a part of the curriculum, many parents expect the schools to inform and teach their children about the Internet and its safe practices. For many students, the school might provide the only access they have to the Internet. Given these, it is important for teachers and schools to consider the responsibility of making students aware of not only the concept and skill of using the Internet productively but also the implications and social aspects that come with its use. This would include suggestions on how to use social media appropriately, the basics on digital footprints, and advice on how to deal with cyber-bullying.

While the intention of filters is to shield the students from explicit content and the dangers of the unknown, we have to acknowledge that as digital natives most students are quite capable of finding proxy servers and other means to access sites if they choose to. As mobile devices enter the classrooms, students are exposed to the full range of what is available on the Internet. Studies have shown that students between the ages of 13 and 14 years often spend as much as 8 hours online daily. This would make continuous supervision tough for parents and the teachers. As one teacher put it, “You can’t limit the Internet. You can only guide your students with using it!”

In recent years, with Massive Open Online Courses and digital classrooms on the rise the role of the Internet in education is increasing. For students and teachers within regular schools, who spend a large period of their day in school, it seems worthwhile to ensure that the time is taken to use, safely and efficiently, the free resources and opportunities that the Internet can provide. “We know that the Internet can accelerate learning. We have to see how far we can take it,” says Seeta Murthy.

While we, as a society, need to be better informed of the concerns Internet usage brings with it, it might be time to embrace the reality that the Internet is an indivisible part of our lives. As a community, rather than seeing the Internet as a mere distraction, we need to realize its educational potential and reflect on how we can engage our students with it.

Introducing your students to the Internet – A few guidelines

In this day and age, it’s quite likely that your students already know how to use computers and the Internet. But when using the Internet in the classroom, there are a few guidelines that teachers can keep in mind. Here is a list put together from suggestions that various teachers have shared:

  1. Become comfortable with using the Internet yourself – browsing, downloading, and uploading various forms of media. The students appreciate your being aware of their interests. Get familiar with the sites that most children use. Here are a few to begin with – YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, WordPress, etc.
  2. Think about the intended outcome of the Internet experience you are planning for the students. It could be exposure, deeper understanding of specific topics, improved communication, etc.
  3. Select in advance appropriate websites and videos to share with the students – this saves on classroom time and prevents inappropriate content from popping up on searches. Be sure to bookmark these!
  4. Make sure to point out the sources for each web page and why you feel that the information on them is credible or not. Students should be encouraged to cross-reference their search results when they can’t verify that the content was created by a credible source. This will help the students not only when they have to source material for their projects but also when they’re browsing the net for any news and information.
  5. Think about how you plan to introduce the content to the students. Would it be more effective as a presentation to the whole class, or if the students, either individually or in smaller groups, visited the selected websites themselves?
  6. Give your students time to reflect on what they have read/watched/heard and learned. If they’ve created content to post or upload ensure they get in to the habit of reviewing it before sharing it online.
  7. Activities for the students:
    • While the days of pen-pals are gone, students could be asked to email one another. We had a wonderful experience when our French teacher had asked us to register with yahoo.fr. Checking your inbox in French? A fun way to learn email etiquette and the language! N’est-ce pas?
    • Starting a class blog is another way to encourage students to communicate responsibly. They will be motivated to share their work and in the process will encourage others to do the same. The blog could include photographs, experiences, and class projects.
    • Depending on the subject you teach, ask your students to work in groups and gather data for use in a class project. You might want to set specific guidelines for them – browsing time, use of hyperlinks, citing sources and avoiding plagiarism, multimedia forms, etc.

Resources

  1. Web–Based Education in Schools: A Paradigm shift in India (S. P. Shinde and V. P. Deshmukh). http://interscience.in/IJCSI_Vol2Iss1/IJCSI_Paper_16.pdf
  2. Student Social Media Guidelines (NYC Department of Education). http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/9765B2DF-9BD5-42AA-8D85-005D0FC8AA23/0/Student_Social_Media_Guidelines_final_20131223.pdf
  3. Implementations in Private Schools – India (MHRD – Government of India). http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/Annexure%20V.pdf
  4. Cyber Safety Education in High Schools (SamridhSaluja, Dr. D. Bansal and Shaurya Saluja). http://www.ipcsit.com/vol47/021-ICCTS2012-T109.pdf

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