Parents need not budget for their children’s education. No school fees. No uniform fees. No textbook fees. No stationery bills. No lunch packs. The school picks up the tab for all of these essentials of formal learning.
That is putting in a nutshell how Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School in Besant Nagar empowers underprivileged families through the free gift of education made possible by donors. The school is being run as part of the Theosophical Society’s charity work.
The pandemic led the school to offer the gift again in an all-new package, this time tied with a digital gift-bow. With the crisis scoring out in-school attendance, Olcott school was up against the same challenge as other free schools being run for the underprivileged: Filling up the virtual classrooms.
“When we started online classes, only around 30 percent of the students would attend them, as a majority had no access to a smartphone and Internet. If there were 25 students in a class, only eight of them would turn up for the classes. Once parents started going to work and took what was usually the only smartphone at home, the attendance got thinner still. So, we started having these classes after 6 p.m.,” notes Sashikala Sriram, honorary academic director at Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School.
Difficulty accessing devices and Internet data is now an all-too familiar script. Efforts to revise the script have usually involved drives to source used smartphones, tablets and computers. Olcott school’s reworked script is a tad more imaginative and innovative than most others’.
To get to the chase, in September, the school placed 120 brand-new Samsung tablets in the hands of its students from Classes X to XII, and connectivity via a Jio SIM card in every device. Its donors loosening their purse strings, the school managed to collect the ₹16 lakh necessary for the project. At the time of this article going to press, the school had extended the project’s scope and placed an order for another 40 tablets with Samsung, and the beneficiaries of this effort would be the Class IX students. For this phase of the project, an additional ₹5 lakh was raised, according to Sashikala. She estimates that by factoring in both the purchase of the tablets and the recurring expenditure of recharing the students’ SIM cards for a year, the cost per student comes to around ₹13,000.
It was a long process that led to these results. It includes introducing features that would prempt the possibility of students misusing the tab, and extending monitoring powers to teachers just to ascertain that children use the digital resource responsibly.
Two IT professionals volunteering with Olcott school for over a decade, Rahul Shankar and Sandeep Rajarajan are among the main scriptwriters of this digital-learning story.
When they got in touch with Shashikala in the midst of the pandemic to find out how the school was managing its online learning programme, they had a digital classroom model in mind. At that point, even to them, the implementation part of the concept was still largely amorphous. However, with the school willing to try it out, they quickly knuckled down to finding out what shape it could take.
Now, while the duo attended to the technological aspects of the project, the school raised funds to buy the devices and allied services.
“Rahul and Sandeep created a fund-raising flyer which we sent out to all our contacts,” recalls Sashikala.
Rahul points out that from the beginning, they did not countenance the idea of placing used devices in students’ hands, reasoning it out that doing so would be a short-sighted move that would possibly have to be repeated every year as the used devices are likely to pack up sooner than later.
Instead, the plan was to buy new devices that could be passed on to subsequent batches with some refurbishment, thereby ensuring effortless continuity of the digital learning programme.
“When you have a uniform system like this, you are directly in touch with the manufacturers, so you know who you can count on when you are having technological issues. They are also aware that it is being done for a good cause and so a good partnership is struck,” says Rahul, adding that even after schools reopen, the digital learning through this model can continue, and keep students primed for taking competitive exams.
“Initially, we were looking at paid features with which you can control enterprise devices. However, learning that Google gives its G Suite application (basic) free for non-profits and not-for-profit educational institutions, we applied to them and got it. We also got a school domain (olcottschool.org) and created accounts for students in it (We are in the process of developing the website). It reflects a model followed in institutions abroad where every student has an ID based on the school domain. With these accounts we got the students’ tablets started,” explains Rahul.
One of the striking features of the model is restricting access to unwanted apps through an android device management system, available in G Suite.
“Only essential apps are installed. Students can’t install PUBG, Candy Crush or things like that. Even if they go to PlayStore, it will show them only those apps that we have configured for the school. At present, we have given admin powers to two teachers. Through the Chrome browser, these teachers can also restrict access to certain websites,” explains Rahul.
The tab comes with a SIM card, and the two architects of the initiative and the school management understand having a call feature is a double-edged sword.
“We gave them a tablet with a SIM card facility because we can’t expect them to have WiFi at home,” explains Rahul.
“We wanted to be doubly sure students would not be hampered by network issues, and when we expressed our concern to Jio they went to the places where students largely come from and showed the network capabilities by sending us screenshots from there,” says Sandeep.
Considering teachers are denied in-person interactions with students, a call facility is a good alternative, and a much-needed one as children are also battling the pandemic, each probably in their unique manner, and would do with some kind words.
“We found out that in most of the students’ households, there was only one device. As these students can make phone calls with this tablet, teachers can now call them up and find out how they are doing. Earlier, they had to depend on their parents’ mobiles,” says Rahul.
Alive to the possibility that children may make unwanted calls that would land them in trouble, some checks are being introduced into the system, though it is far from being entirely fool-proof yet.
Rahul points out that by virtue of the Jio Enterprise services, teachers are enabled to keep tabs on children by tracking their usage patterns with the Jio SIM card.
“Jio has extended admin features to some teachers, so they can check if misuse has happened, though the SIM can’t be blocked. If someone sends an SMS, then the admin gets a notification immediately. The teacher can ask who they are sending an SMS to. From the portal, it is possible to see who it has been sent to. It will take some more time to get things more streamlined and formalised, like a big enterprise,” says Rahul.
Sashikala underlines the effectiveness of a feature that would prevent students from misusing the SIM by removing it from the tablet and using it in a mobile.
“The students can’t put the SIM back in the tablet without bringing it to the school. They have to provide the pin, which only the teachers concerned know,” she elaborates.
Sashikala discloses that on a Sunday before it was time to hand over the tablets to the students, an online session was conducted with those parents who could be a part of it, to brief them about the initiative. It was essentially an exercise that sought to co-opt parents into the initiative by getting them to take responsibility for the safety of the tablets and to help it take the desire course. Not leaving anything to chance, when the tablets were handed over to parents and their children together, a written undertaking from the former was undertaken.
“These children are first generation learners, and many are hampered by the lack of a conducive learning environment at home. So, we impressed upon the parents that they should keep from watching television when the kids are studying. Invariably, a child would be living in a one-room house, where the quiet required to attend online classes may be lacking. Some children come from dysfunctional families where the father would be frittering away the earnings on alcohol. There are children who help augment the family’s income by doing odd jobs such as delivering milk packets or cleaning cars before coming to school. The document that we got the parents to sign underlines their responsibility for the safekeeping of the tablet and that they have to ensure its safe return to the school after the child’s schooling has been completed,” says Sashikala.
Rahul says that parents who value this development in their children’s learning journey would be happy with this digital learning model with all its built-in checks, as they know that when their child opens the tab, it can’t be for anything other than education.
He adds, “You cannot do anything else with the tab. People like me have a work laptop and a personal laptop. Similarly, for these students, it is a school device.”
To make the initiative sustainable, Rahul and Sandeep focussed on training the teachers to monitor it and take action if any of its strands straggle out of place.
”We worked on two Saturdays training the teachers. We have given the entire G Suite dashboard to the school so that teachers on board can monitor what happens at school, from their mobile phones. Through the admin panel in the G Suite, they will get to know if someone has finished their entire data pack for one day, and can find out from the student what depleted the pack too soon,” says Sandeep.
“On Teachers’ Day, we took them through the process — how to set it up, how to restrict and monitor the gate — and also on a step-by-step tour of the G Suite. Following the primer, we set up the 120 devices along with them. Once you set it up in the G Suite management, all you have to do is open the tablet and enter the kid’s ID and it automatically synchronises and downloads all the apps that are required for the device. Once the teachers learnt it they did not need our help anymore,” says Rahul.
Sashikala points out that the Rotary Club of Chennai Mitra has supported the initiative by donating five new laptops to the teachers.
Says Rahul, “This is a work in progress. We are learning about the different ways in which the tablet can be put to misuse so that in the next round we can put more restrictions. For the time being, the restrictions we have placed involve apps, games and websites that can’t be used.”
“We have accepted the fact that children are not going to use the tablet for studies all the time,” says Sandeep, adding that how the information ecosystem is designed and through continual engagement, students can be nudged to use the tablet to gain information that would contribute to their overall development as individuals.
Rahul believes that this digital programme can have an impact beyond the classroom.
“It is enabling the students to be more digitally-literate. So, there is something we are contemplating. What if we install the e-governance apps? Of course, we have not done it yet, as this is left to the discretion of the school. Through these apps, the children can help their families.” Following the success of this initiative — which they have named ‘Vidamuyarchi’ (vidamuyarchi.org) after a larger vision by the same name they have conceptualised — Rahul and Sandeep are now exploring how they could extend the digital classroom model to other schools that face similar challenges. Rahul points out that the state government’s Kalvi TV programme is commendable with its YouTube channel covering the whole gamut of subjects in every class, in both English and Tamil. “However, the benefits of such programmes will be lost to students unless they have a device to access them.”