Opinion

The school with a million children: A thought experiment

Over the next few weeks, the schools in India and many other countries will be undergoing nothing short of a metamorphosis. They will lead the way to welcome a whole new era of how learning is carried out.

This thought experiment was triggered over a seemingly harmless question in a webinar we recently hosted. Towards the end of the webinar, during the Q&A, a school principal asked what the long-term impact of online classes will be once the things return to, well, normal. At that time my response was that most schools will continue to adopt technology at a higher pace than is the current norm, however it will not go back to the pre-Corona stage. Once you have seen the benefits that the technology solutions can bring to your entire ecosystem there will be a lot more openness within the schools to continue to adopt technology in education even when the children begin returning to the physical school premises. However, this question has continued to linger, and the answer evolve. Let us do a thought experiment and see how far reaching can the impact of technology adoption be.

Two of the most important aspects of successful schooling experience are Teaching or conducting classes and ongoing assessments (in form of classwork, homework, FAs and SAs). Most, if not all, schools are today firming up their capabilities to ensure these aspects are covered with minimal disruption. They are doing it by means of technology products adoption and teacher trainings. Once the classes and assessments begin as always, albeit via the computers, tablets or smartphones the obvious fall out will be the extra-curricular activities that the school offered. However, the parents will fill in those gaps by hobby classes within the communities they live in. So, the extra-curricular activities will likely become more hyper-local, if you will, instead of being consumed only at the school.

My biggest hypothesis is that this will trigger the wave of a new type of schools. A school with a million children but no big buildings. The schools with the vision and foresight will get the best of the academic minds and educators and run the schools as always according to a certain syllabus they align with and on a weekly calendar. Only the students will not need to come to the school. They will follow the regular timetable as always, attend classes as always but on their computers, submit assessments as always but all from their homes. Why will that happen, we may ask. There are a number of compelling reasons and let us go into them.

Real Estate and associated costs. A school that does not need the children to come to the school will eliminate a number of costs related to the children commuting to the school. Here is a potential list: real estate cost, furniture and equipment, transport, canteens, housekeeping etc. All gone. Such a model will prompt the school to pass on the benefits to the parents as well who now will find top quality private education a lot more affordable. And accessible. But, “Why will the school reduce the fee?” one may ask. Good question, and its answer leads us to the next reason.

No limits on number of students per class. Today we are limited by the size of the classroom and how many students a teacher can address meaningfully in a class. Those limits will not exist when you address the students via online classes. Growth in the number of children signing up will not be dependent on the size of the school’s physical campus and buildings but ONLY by the results it delivers and the quality of the faculty they can attract. Once 

Access the best faculty. Globally! One of the biggest pains of the schools in the far-flung interiors of the country is the non-availability of the best quality and qualified faculty. This problem will be eliminated from the root. A school in Tinsukia, Assam can sign-up an English teacher from Bangalore to teach students all across North East India.

Missed a class? Just replay. This is easy. Today, when a child misses a class due to ill-health or any other reason they need to rely upon the notes of friends or self-study to go over the portion that the teacher covered in the class. No longer. Just replay the recording of the class later on and get up to speed before the next class.

Additional time at hand. Today students across the country spend anywhere between 30-45 minutes commuting to the school one-way. When a student walks, cycles or uses a school bus for the school commute it ends up taking a small physical toll on the body. This additional 60-90 minutes in the hands of the full of energy young learner will be a gold mine of talent development potential. Personally, I hope learners across the board will use this time for programming skills. That is the new age life skill, much like English language, that we must equip our young school goers early, so they do not find that a handicap later in life, something their parents found in English language skills. But I digress as it is a topic for another discussion.

While this thought experiment is little oversimplified and does not answer all questions, but I believe a lot of them will quickly get answered as school begin adopting and adapting to technology in spirit over the next few months. As schools adapt to the new model, it will build a solid feedback loop into the EdTech solution provider ecosystem evolving and improving the solutions. We already have very powerful solutions to help schools conduct online classes as well as assessments. Both of which will continue to become better and more empowering for the teachers and students. 

Here are some more questions that arise. Some have answers but some will need to be discovered and will likely need collaboration with the right thought leaders.

Q 1: Access to devices. We are assuming that students will all have a computer at home. That is not true and unlikely to happen as the cost of a good PC is anywhere between Rs. 50,000 to 70,000. A smartphone is not the right choice for extended learning sessions.

A: True that the smartphone is not the right choice for extended viewing day after day. But we have a number of tablet options that as a third the cost of a good PC. These tabs provide as good if not even better learning experience for the learners.

Q2: High speed Internet. Another assumption is that we have omnipresent and working 4G network across the nation. This is not true.

A: Yes. That is true as well. Whatever the Airtel girl might be saying on TV, 4G is not omnipresent. Not even close. Not even close to close. The answer for now will reside in wired broadband which is relatively reliable. Even when the sessions are disrupted the student can view the recorded session later on.

Q3: Why will there be a need to run live classes? Why can the school not just pre-record sessions from the teachers. Pay them once for their service and just let the students view them at leisure and take assessments to clear grades.

A: Possible. But I think one of the key reasons why we send out children to schools (besides the learning the subjects) is discipline. And being on time and following a certain pattern is a key ingredient in building a culture of discipline. Another is to be able to interact with the teachers in real time as and when the questions come up in the mind during the session.

Q4: What about subjects where there is a need for physical presence for example the science labs for higher grades? The homes cannot be expected to have Bio, Chemistry and Physics labs setup.

A: This is a good question and had me stumped for a bit. AR and VR solutions are a possibility but working in an actual lab is a tough experience to break. Maybe that problem can be solved by planning the good old physical visit to the school. That will need additional infrastructure by the school but still a very small fraction of what they are currently used to.

Q5: A lot of softer aspects need to be considered. We will need the learners to manage screen time. They will lose out on the real human social interactions that they learn at schools. How do we fill those gaps in?

A: Yes. Valid points. All of these and more will likely become part of the student orientation prior to beginning formal classes. As far as needs of human interactions and physical activities go those will be fulfilled with the communities where the students and their families live in. The parents will definitely need their children enrolled in the after-school activities/sports coaching near their place of residence.

Conclusion

There are a lot more questions and I dare say even more answers and possibilities. The next few months will be an experience like never before for the entire school ecosystem. We will have some stutters along the way for sure but overall it will be a positive transformational experience. This will definitely not stop and wind back to the old way. The ecosystem will evolve, and this vision of a million-student school is one possible outcome out of many more variations that we will see in our lifetimes. Much earlier than what we would have bet on 3 months ago.

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