How can schools keep students engaged and happy during lockdown

In an email interaction with Hindustan Times online, Radhika Sinha, Principal, Aditya Birla World Academy talks about the challenges faced by students and schools with teaching going completely online and how to deal with them.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift in the way teaching is taking place in educational institutions these days.(HT file)
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift in the way teaching is taking place in educational institutions these days.(HT file)
Published on Dec 10, 2020 09:34 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByNilesh Mathur

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift in the way teaching is taking place in educational institutions these days. This has not been easy for anyone and, nothing can ever replace the human touch, the physical presence of a teacher in a class full of students, buzzing with vibrant activity. However, given the scenario, educators and students have not been left with any choice but to shift to the virtual learning platforms. This has, however, led to anxiety and stress among many students as their physical activity has gone down drastically. It thus becomes important for educational institutions to consider this and create a healthy environment for students who are taking online education.

In an email interaction with Hindustan Times online, Radhika Sinha, Principal, Aditya Birla World Academy talks about the challenges faced by students and schools with teaching going completely online and how to deal with them:

Question: What are the challenges faced by students and schools with teaching going completely online?

Response: All along we used to believe that someday, virtual learning would take a strong hold over our classrooms though many of us argued that nothing can ever replace the human touch, the physical presence of a teacher in a class full of students, buzzing with vibrant activity. But here we are! There was simply no choice but to shift towards a win-win situation and ensure that the virtual learning platform comes as close as it can to the real thing! Our overarching goal has always been Student Engagement. When we first started teaching learning on the virtual platform, one of the foremost questions we asked ourselves was how to engage students and keep the learning experience as effective. To engage students meaningfully, we needed to equip our teachers with tech tools to help them innovate and create an interactive and conducive learning environment.

Winston Churchill has very aptly put it: “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”

Let me tell you that an online class doesn’t just “happen”! It is not as easy as one would think. It’s crucial to design a lesson that is functional and one that students can relate to. It requires careful planning and implementation, every activity thoughtfully planned out so as to keep the learner actively involved, sometimes, even the parents!

An online class cannot be content heavy; our teachers consciously try to balance out the content with effective delivery. The learning experience must appeal to reason as well as spark imagination in the learner. How easy do you think that would be?

For sure, an ongoing concern is screen time; while there may not be a perfect answer to what the ideal screen time is, we are cognizant of the fact that online classes, one after the other like a regular school day, could pose the problem of excessive screen time.

We worked around a schedule by shortening the 80-minute block periods to 1-hour blocks with 15 minute breaks in between.

For our Junior Section, learning at ABWA is fun, albeit virtual; besides active teaching, children are kept engaged through interactive games, songs, individual research projects, activities around art, PE, music, yoga, dance and drama as well. We have had family classes too with parents, siblings joining in the song and dance!!

Question: What are the important things which schools must ensure to improve the learning outcome of students in this situation?

Response: The teaching learning process must necessarily be a two way one. We always encourage our children to be independent learners, to take onus for their learning. We continue to urge all our students to acknowledge and pledge their side of the commitment in the course of their learning. The teachers are doing their best; so must they fulfil their part. Self-directed learning is an important part of the process. Our teachers make every effort to bring about thematic integration from local, national and global perspectives so as to give our learners the opportunity to explore a diverse range of topics and connect them more meaningfully.

Homework, research assignments and analysis, DIY project work are a few of the ways children can reinforce their learning offline.

Question: Which are some of the applications used to aid online learning to make it more interactive and engaging?

Response: A plethora of tech tools are available for the teacher to pick from. All teachers have been trained to use these as appropriate. Nearpod, Edmodo, Trello, Padlet, Blendspace, Duolingo, PearDeck, Socrative, Flipgrid, EdPuzzle, Jamboard, Kahoot, Voice Thread, Quizlet, Digital Storytelling with Audio Narration, Parlay are some of the tools that are being extensively used to make the teaching learning interactive and active!

Teachers craft lessons so as to keep the classroom abuzz with all its chatter, mischief, drama, arguments, questions, laughter, discussions and the stories. These discussions are the perfect platform to encourage the exchange of ideas and provide a safe haven for children to express themselves and learn from others’ views. They inculcate the quality of acceptance and respect for others. At times, discussions could be lively, heated, friendly, dull, animated, challenging and humorous - different aspects of life itself. The environment is non-threatening and conducive to open sharing, thereby learning. All this and more has been replicated in the virtual space as best as possible.

Over time, few field trips have been replaced by virtual reality tours; Science practical and Lab work by simulations and augmented reality.

Question: How do we ensure online learning is safe?

Response: Guidelines on the safety protocols, whatever be the virtual platform, have been shared with students and parents and are reinforced from time to time. Teachers have been given directions on how to be more vigilant of mischief makers. The consequence of any sort of misuse is reiterated; preventive rather than punitive action is explained to the students.

Question: What should be done to ensure that the socio emotional development of children has been taken care of as well? What has the pandemic taught our students?

Response: The crux of the matter lies in keeping the emotional well-being of all stakeholders, children, teachers and parents, strong and solid. That is the only thing that can keep us all grounded and positive, ready to take on whatever comes our way.

Besides the informational aspect of learning, there is the transformational aspect too! Feeling the pulse and the need of the hour to uphold emotional and mental health and wellness, our Mpower team, spearheaded by our Chairperson, Ms Neerja Birla has put together Minds Matter - a progressive and comprehensive mental health literacy curriculum. Through this, our Counsellors create a virtual safe space where they actively engage with the children to bring about a better understanding of mental wellness. There are discussions on a variety of topics including personal anecdotes of how they are coping, their fears and apprehensions. Conversations around opportunities, challenges and resilience help children to be mindful of the world around them. There is solid scientific evidence that suggests that practising mindfulness in its true sense improves attention, self-control, emotional resilience and memory, thereby strengthening our “mental muscle” for bringing focus back where we want it, when we want it. This learning amounts to far more than what we can ever teach them.

It is so heartening to know that our children are spending a lot more time amidst family, contributing in their own way to help at home; there is a new respect for household matters which otherwise, children tend to take for granted; this global crisis has taught us all self-management and life skills.

Question: What is the role of the parents in ensuring a conducive learning environment is provided to students?

Response: Learning is an ongoing process and since the learner is unable to come to the learning platform at school, it is imperative that we take the learning platform to the learner at home. Now, just because the learning is happening at home does not make it casual or any less formal. It’s not like the teacher has put together a lesson for student and family entertainment where they make themselves comfortable on the couch with the popcorn and are ready to watch, applaud or critique!

Parents are urged to encourage and oversee that children set a schedule for the day/week and organize themselves around that; plan segments of time for study, family, friends, exercise, recreation, creative activities and leisure and perhaps exclusive time for their phone as well!

Question: How can we ensure the well-being of teachers?

Response: The teachers have been supported all the way through. The amount of time, effort, energy and training to equip them for the virtual world has been tremendous.

What started with initial hesitation, resistance and inhibition, was soon replaced with confidence and the teachers were soon on sound ground taking on the challenge head on! And today, we are far more tech savvy than we ever imagined we would be in so short a time!

There has been concern, care and camaraderie among staff; the bonds of empathy have only grown stronger in these tough times. Apart from the regular academic discussions, there have been fun times for staff too! Coffee mornings, cookery shows, antakshari, tambola, art therapy, yoga and mindfulness, dance, music evenings, mad tea parties and festive celebrations that have kept up the cheer, laughter and the positive vibes.

Figuratively and literally, it is all in the mind .. if one sets one’s heart to do something, it can be done!

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