Transforming The School To Online — In 3 Days


As mentioned in my last article describing the impact of COVID-19 on the school, Rajendra Lohia Vidya Mandir (RLVM) remains closed during the India-wide COVID-19 lockdown. This lockdown will last until April 15th, and is likely to be extended. There is a possibility that schools in the area may not be able to open until June or July.

Around the world, many colleges and schools facing similar closures have started to provide online classes. Similarly, in India, “upscale” city schools have been quick to move to online/virtual teaching. Many virtual classroom vendors offer relatively quick and easy solutions – provided the school has the funding, and its teachers and students have the basic required computers and connectivity.

Online Teaching Challenges in Smaller Indian Towns

Going virtual in Hathras, a smaller Indian town, is quite a challenge. Educators and corporate employees in North America are used to always being online. Here, we have been conducting virtual meetings for years now. So, it was a reality check for me to understand the issues schools in India like RLVM face in providing online education.

Our first management meeting on how we can switch to online classes was sobering and quick to conclude. Just to give you an idea of the fundamental challenges that remote learning for RLVM students would have:

  • Only a handful of teachers have laptops. Most have smartphones that allow them to video conference or record audio/video.
  • The school has no laptops to provide to the teachers. We only have desktops in our Computer Lab.
  • Very few students have laptops at home. A significant percentage of the students’ families don’t even have smartphones with the ability to access apps or videos.
  • While some of the staff/students have a broadband internet connection, many rely on 4G or 4G hotspots at home. Coverage is spotty.
  • Our school is not yet in a financial position to afford online/virtual classroom services.
  • Hathras suffers from sporadic power outages

On top of these issues and despite the pervasive use of mobile phones in India, the schools in Hathras – and really the Hathras public – are still very much used to doing everything in-person. For example, only last September (2019), we introduced online tuition fee payment (using a popular Indian payment processor). Despite it being easy and virtually no cost for parents, less than 3% of parents used the online payment option. Most parents still prefer to come to the school and line-up to pay their child’s fees in cash – avoiding the traceable digital transaction!

The School’s First Ever Web Meeting with Teachers and Key Staff on April 7 2020

Teachers Were Determined

Still, our Principal and teaching staff took up the challenge. They made a genuine effort to implement online teaching. Three things were clear about this initiative:

  1. We have to limit ourselves to the tools & technology teachers and students have at home
  2. There should be zero or minimal additional costs to the students (and school)
  3. Our initial effort may not be “best in class,” but it can still be effective

WhatsApp and Zoom to the Rescue

We started with the school’s first-ever web meeting on April 7th with 45+ teachers. After the usual initial glitches we have experienced even in North America, the teachers were able to come up with a plan to deliver online content (videos, notes, assignments) using WhatsApp groups for each class.

WhatsApp is the common denominator in India! While not everyone has a smartphone, we do believe 90% of the households[1] will have at least one smartphone and are familiar with WhatsApp. The class-level WhatsApp communication will soon be supported by the RLVM YouTube channel and our school’s website.

On April 8th, we launched online classes for students from Prep II (Kindergarten) to Grade 9. We do expect some initial issues, and we will learn, adjust, and improve along the way. Full credit goes to the school Principal and teachers in taking on this challenge!

Example of a Teaching Video Created for the Online Effort

Leadership Lessons

It was incredible to see the principal and teachers drive this initiative. They showed leadership and rose to the occasion. They themselves were motivated to do something, and they knew better than me what was feasible for them to do from their homes to achieve the desired outcome. As the Managing Director, my role was to ask them, “What is possible,” encourage them, and support their efforts. For the rest, it was much better to leave it to the team.

Example of teaching material used online. Only a few teachers had computers at home. So, most used simple technology like pen & paper, whiteboards (some teachers had them at home), and their mobile cameras.

Going forward, we need to monitor and adapt our virtual teaching capabilities as we learn from this experience. Post-COVID-19, a “new normal” will exist for the school, and there may be a long-term role in curriculum for remote education.

Wish us luck!

[1] We acknowledge that we are unable to provide equal education to 100% of the student population (i.e., the ones with no smartphone access). But considering the unprecedented situation due to COVID-19, we believe some online teaching is worth pursuing for the 90% of students who do have access.