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Every Monday to Friday, Aaryav Shukla, a four-year-old nursery student, logs in to a digital classroom sharp at noon.

The classes are 60 minutes long and divided into two sessions with a 15-minute break in between. Around two teachers and six students appear in different grids of the laptop screen with parents making guest appearances and running in and out of the screen, often to catch hold and bring back one or more of their kids who decide to wander off.

Aaryav’s mother, Sonu Singh, sits by his side throughout the class, coaxing the four-year-old to focus on the lessons and activities. “He often refuses to sit patiently and is constantly moving around in the house during the class. Half my time goes in ensuring that he sits and focuses on the class. It’s bedlam with teachers calling out the names of students and parents shouting ‘come back, sit here’ all at the same time. It’s the parents who are actually sitting and attending the classes,” said Singh.

Aaryav is one of the scores of children who are adjusting to the new trend of online classes that have become a panacea of sorts in recent times. With the raging Covid-19 pandemic throwing up unprecedented challenges and leading to the physical closure of schools, online classes for children — starting from pre-school to senior school — have become the new vehicles for imparting lessons. As uncertainty prevails over the resumption of physical classes, these classes have invited both revulsion and reverence, with parents remaining a divided lot.

Online live classes, for children in younger grades especially, have become a bone of contention throughout the country. So far two states—Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh— have banned live classes for students up till class 5. Maharashtra has discontinued online classes for children up till class 2. In other states,such as Telangana, parents and rights groups have also sought a ban on classes for younger children. Educationists say that online classes for toddlers were akin to children interacting with strangers, since most children were not familiar with teachers and peers. In such a scenario, pushing children into online classes could be an uneasy experience for them, say experts. While parents said that it was not easy sitting around with younger children for these classes and there was very little value addition, they agreed still that online classes brought some semblance of routine for the child.

“I feel it is a bit too much for his age, but at the same time, he stays engaged at least for some part of the day. Learning takes place, albeit slowly,” said Singh. With wavering attention spans, ensuring that children were looped in during the class was a key challenge, added other parents.

Umang Singla, a parent of a nursery student who started school this year, said that while online classes were not a 100% substitute for the routine ones, learning had to continue in some way during the current circumstances. “Children who started school this year have never met their teachers or classmates in a physical classroom space. Their first meeting took place online. The experience has been challenging, but everyone is trying to adapt to the situation gradually,” said Singla.

He said that one of the key challenges during these classes were for parents, who are required to be around children all throughout. “The sessions initially took place for a shorter duration between one to two hours and have gradually increased to two hours or more. For working parents, juggling classes can be difficult,” added Singla.

Ashu Panwar, another parent, whose four-year-old daughter Zara is in kindergarten, agreed that getting children to sit for online classes was a task in itself. For parents, the maximum effort went into ensuring that the child was focusing on the classes. “My daughter’s attention span is very low. After every ten minutes, she wants to stand up and tries to run away. I keep changing her place to ensure that she doesn’t doze off and stays alert. Even the extent to which children grasp what’s being taught has reduced since their attention span is wavering,” said Panwar, who is often compelled to use hacks to ensure that her daughter pays attention to the class. “Sometimes, I have to bribe Zara to sit through the class. I tell her that I’ll do something for her in return if she sits quietly,” she added.

A digital marketing professional, Panwar has been working from home along with her husband. Managing professional work, household chores along with online classes was not easy, said Panwar. Classes take place from 9am to 11am and sometimes, for longer. During these hours, Panwar is unable to take any calls or focus on any other work. “Virtual classes don’t feel like classes but as they say, something is better than nothing. The pandemic is not going away soon and some semblance of learning has to take place since parents are not always equipped to teach,” she said.

Most parents with younger kids said that online classes required a lot of effort and seemed to be directed more at parents than students. For most of them, the routine offered by these classes was more of a motivation than the nature of learning that took place during the classes.

School administrators, however, said that online classes have ensured real-time interactivity for a student, which was crucial in the current circumstances. “It is important for students to be engaged in a constructive manner especially at a time when we are all being encouraged to not have any contact with the outside world. It helps their mental growth and happiness,” said Kunal Bhadoo, director of Kunskapsskolan Schools.

Bhadoo said that the school had not received any complaints from parents pertaining to online classes, so far. He added that learning during online classes was parent-led, which was a crucial intervention, especially for younger children. “Parents are doing the hand-holding during online classes. Learning flows from the teacher to the parent and the parent to the child. It is needed since children need support at home,” said Bhadoo.

Educationist Gowri Ishwaran said that schools could administer activity-based assignments and worksheets for children in nursery and younger classes over online classes. She said that most children starting school this year were unfamiliar with teachers and peers due to which cementing a relationship solely through online interaction will be difficult.

“Children who started schooling this year and are attending online nursery classes are essentially interacting with strangers. They didn’t get the chance to know their teachers in person due to the unprecedented circumstances created by this Covid-19 pandemic. Relating to a complete stranger online doesn’t come naturally for a 3 or 4-year-old. I don’t think incoming nursery students this year need regular digital exposure,” said Ishwaran.

She suggested that schools could share resources with parents for keeping children engaged, “Children know their parents and can learn comfortably from them. Parents don’t need to be paranoid about the content of classes or the syllabus in such times.”

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