An Apple a Day Keeps the Teacher Away

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Be it playing a piano or a 360° tour of the Colosseum, smart classrooms are stretching the limits of learning

FIVE YEARS AGO when Anubhav Sharma, 21, was studying at Kendriya Vidyalaya in Janakpuri, Delhi, the most exciting thing he remembers learning about was the lifecycle of a mosquito. But things are rather different for his younger brother, Ashish, 14, who recently began attending the same school. While Anubhav read highlighted notes about the Roman Civilisation from a textbook, Ashish embarks on a 360 degree tour of the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel. He then meets gladiators who proceed to show him the cultural and political history of the city. Anubhav had nothing to do but sleep during free periods but Ashish gets the chance to learn how to play a glissando on a grand piano and draw caricatures of prehistoric animals. There was never an opportunity for Anubhav to get his doubts cleared after a lecture was over. To Ashish, teachers, previous lectures and mock test answers are all available 24/7. Interestingly, there have been no changes in the infrastructure, syllabus or administration of this 53-year-old school. The only difference is the addition of Google Chromebooks.

Launched in 2011, Chromebooks, super fast and compact computers, have steadily gained popularity among Indian schools, especially with the entry of newer and cheaper variants last year. KV Janakpuri ran a pilot project in 2014 and research showed a 55 per cent increase in ease of explaining complex data and a 23 per cent rise in overall student engagement. Similar results were observed at RN Podar School in Mumbai that first adopted Chromebooks in 2011. The school now has around 6,000 Google Apps for Education accounts, one for every teacher, staff member and student. “Students took to the device like fish to water. The reason is very straightforward. For example, labelling the parts of a flower on a split screen which also shows a video of the flower’s natural habitat is bound to capture a student’s attention. Digital learning is effective because it offers students something new and interactive,” says Principal Avnita Bir of RN Podar School.

Kunal Bhadoo, CEO of Kunskapsskolan Eduventures (which runs two schools in Gurgaon), adds that the success of smart classrooms also depends on how effectively they are able to connect theory to real-life application. “Passive learning is a thing of the past. It’s been proven time and again that students retain less when teaching is a one-way route,” he says. Kunskapsskolan has its own learning portal where students can access course resources, mock tests and learning games. From Grade 3 onwards, each student is also given their own tablet for learning. “It is a worthwhile investment for schools because it is so easy to update course resources. Textbooks on the other hand cannot be reprinted at a moment’s notice. This helps us keep students updated with the latest research in each subject,” adds Bhadoo.

Google isn’t the only tech giant to target the education sector in India. Apple and Mozilla Foundation are two other key players looking to set up experiential learning models. Mozilla Foundation, set up to promote digital literacy, has its own version of a smart classroom in India—the Hive network in Bengaluru. The community gives learners free access to three learning softwares—X-Ray Goggles (that shows users the code behind existing webpages), Thimble (a webpage building tool) and Popcorn Maker (a movie editing tool). “Traditional schooling isn’t the only way to pick up new skills. Learning also happens through experimentation, creation and construction,” explains Mark Surman, executive director, Mozilla Foundation. At a meet held by Hive (MakerParty 2013) in Bengaluru, participants discussed Walt Disney’s techniques, critiqued contemporary journalism, played music using their own bodies and learnt how to recode Google’s doodle. One of them, Jatin Mehra, 21, had already learnt coding at school but what he experienced that day changed his understanding of the web. “It was a different experience to learn from people, charts, videos, sound clips and games as opposed to a static blackboard,” recalls Mehra.

You can use technology to enrich the learning experience or you can shy away from it, but it’s not going to go away

Apple, which released its Classroom app this March, is working towards turning an iPad into a teaching assistant. Classroom guides students through lessons, tracks their progress in real-time and allows teachers to remotely monitor any device and guard against misuse. The app also has the added advantage of specially curated iBooks and learning material. One such resource was designed by Apple Distinguished Educator Gwen Vergouwen. The multi-touch book, World War I:A Battle of Perspectives, teaches students and history enthusiasts about the events leading up to the war. From ID cards of war prisoners to letters exchanged between soldiers, the book turns the past into something touchable and approachable. In an interview to Europeana Pro, Vergouwen says, “Digital resources make it possible to experience cultural heritage in a way that wasn’t possible before. And I’m sure we are only at the beginning of technological innovation in learning. Maybe one day I’ll invite a virtual Napoleon to assist my classroom.”

Bringing technology into classrooms isn’t only about digital infrastructure. Education apps by Google and Apple are designed to change the way people think and approach problems. Moonshot thinking (the combination of a problem, a radical solution and the technology that makes the solution possible) and 10X thinking (a thought-process where improvements aim to be ten times and not 10 per cent better than the competition) is the foundation of Google’s work, an unspoken mandate for every employee and project it takes on. This approach to learning is expected to have a profound impact on the very idea of education and problem-solving itself. “What 10x and Moonshot does is inspire you to break-free of mediocrity. It gives you the drive to come up with breakthrough solutions. Textbooks and high marks alone will not make you a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. Innovators need to have a continuous hunger to be the best there is,” explains Naman Pugalia, co-founder of FourthLion Technologies and former analyst at Google.

Bringing technology into classrooms isn't only about digital infrastructure. Education apps by Google and Apple are designed to change the way people think and approach problems

In a 2013 interview to Wired magazine, Google co-founder Larry Page was equally emphatic about teaching people to have ambition and tackle the really big problems, especially in the field of technology: “Where would I go to school to learn what kind of technological programmes I should work on? You’d probably need a pretty broad technical education and some knowledge about organisation and entrepreneurship. There’s no degree for that. Our system trains people in specialised ways, but not to pick the right projects to make a broad technological impact.”

SMART CLASSROOMS also influence the psychological and emotional development of children. Hideaki Koizumi, a fellow and corporate officer at Hitachi (which has recently launched digital projectors for classrooms) in Tokyo has been researching the concept of Mind-Brain Science for several years now. His work aims to use brain imaging techniques to improve education so that children can be taught about love and hatred alongside Physics and Biology. “Education should take precedence over science and technology but that doesn’t mean the latter cannot be used for the former’s benefit,” says Koizumi, adding that there is a clear difference between learning and education, which is often overlooked in conventional schools. “Learning is to form neutral circuits through external stimuli. Education is to control and supplement that external stimuli which prompts learning. Through successful brain mapping we’ve noted that young children respond better to creative and innovative methods of teaching. To put it simply, the learning centres of their brain light up when shown interesting things like colours, moving objects, anecdotes, gaming challenges and so on.”

Amita Gupta, the department chair and professor of early childhood education at City College of New York has also observed the same results in her research. “Would you remember the name of a Mughal king that is written on a board? Or would the chances of you remembering that name improve if it was a part of a video walkthrough that took you to through his palace, his kingdom and showed you the legacies he has left behind? That is what innovative and digital teaching can achieve—the power to show you why something is relevant enough to be remembered,” she says. A graduate of Delhi University and Annamalai University, Gupta grew up in India before moving to the US for her post- graduation. Years later, she recounts the difference between teaching methods in the two countries. “I found that learning was often robotic in India, even at the primary level. It’s a wrong assumption that two or three-year-olds should be limited to light subjects such as colours and the alphabet. The first five years of a child’s life is when they should have the maximum exposure to new knowledge, information and innovation.”

But that’s easier said than done. Aside from the cost of new technology (one Chromebook alone costs Rs 13,400), many teachers object to smart classrooms, which they feel limits their role and cuts out the ‘human factor’. Vicki Colbert, who founded the Escuela Nueva model of learning (where teachers become facilitators and students design their own pace and method of education) in Colombia, has had first-hand experience with how frustrating it is to change a prevailing mindset. “It has taken us over 38 years to finally build a system of education where students are the decision makers. Teachers were sceptical initially. Nobody wants their role to be minimised from decision-maker to decision-facilitator. It takes time, persistence and sincere effort to make people realise that education should be democratic and that learners can make their own choices. Education can coexist with innovation,” says Colbert. Over the years several government officials and educators from India have been sent to Columbia to learn from the Escuela Nueva project, but Colbert maintains that it’s not government support alone that counts. “Change cannot happen without the support of the community. People have to open their mind to new possibilities.”

When Nobel Laureate George Smoot met with students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in 2014, he reiterated the same thing—open your mind to new possibilities. “Humans are going to innovate and evolve no matter what,” says Smoot in an interview to Open. “You can use technology to enrich the learning experience or you can shy away from it—but it’s not going to go away.”