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dimensions of a virtual classroom

You enter and sit down in a classroom at the pre-decided time, fully immersed in learning mode. There is a particular set of subjects that you wish to learn. You see a list of assignments ready and presented for you to work on, at your own pace. The professor opens the forum for discussion, and invites you to ask any doubts that you wish to. You interact with your fellow learners in forums, teaching and learning simultaneously.

What would you say if the classroom was your computer, and your learning forums are located in cyberspace?

The penetration and wide reach of the Internet in India has led to the online learning movement spreading far and wide, with 370 million Internet users as of 2017.  As of 2020, the online education market in India is estimated to be around three billion.  Online learning is a wide umbrella, with various types and subsets, and is used for a myriad of purposes. It ranges from utilisation of the Internet as a resource for assignments – to actual studies and courses in virtual classrooms.

Several colleges around the country have set up Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)s, where students are able to enrol in and attend online courses at a flexible schedule, from their own homes,  without the constraints of being students of that college. Students can obtain part-time as well as full-time degrees, are allowed to set their own schedules, and can work at their own pace.  There is a wide variety of degrees available for any interested learners – not just university students but working professionals with busy schedules who wish to obtain further degrees, a complement to their working lives. These courses typically charge lower rates than traditional courses. For instance, while a private engineering college might charge eight-ten lakhs for a course, a degree can be obtained online for an average of 15000-20000 INR.

Websites such as Khan Academy and Coursera have sprung up in order to allow learners to take up a wide variety of supplementary courses as well. The courses range from polytechnics to psychology, and are filled with simple tutorials and assignments in order to allow the students to be graded and evaluated. Khan Academy functions similarly to after-school tuitions, allowing students additional help for tricky subjects through the usage of concept-covering videos contributed by academicians from all over the world. Coursera, on the other hand, is conceptualised as a virtual classroom, open worldwide for free.

“Students who have registered for a course will find reading material and weekly assignments ready for them, including videos uploaded every week dealing with new concepts. They can connect with their professors at any time to clear doubts. A student’s forum is open for discussions, where students may interact with each other”

athul suresh raj, student

The numerous benefits of online learning have been taken notice of all around the world. “There is no denying that online learning opens up a new world of possibilities for a student. They are allowed access to resources worldwide, beyond the ones offered to them in a traditional classroom”, says Akila Giridharan, owner of Empower Learning Solutions and online IELTS and communications trainer.

“There is a possibility of distraction. However, driven students, who wish to focus and learn at their own pace, thrive in these forums. It allows them to be given the individual attention that they need, and allows them to clear any doubt they have on the spot. Reserved students, who may not feel comfortable speaking up in class – they feel much more relaxed raising questions to me in a one-on-one Skype call. Working professionals and students with crazy schedules manage to negotiate a feasible schedule with them where they can optimise their peak learning hours. For all these people, online learning seems like a dream come true”.

Logistically, the arrangement of virtual classrooms sounds very difficult to accomplish.  The idea of teaching students all over the world, logging in at the same time, over the medium of the Internet still seems daunting for several virtual classrooms and professors. Students have raised the problem that online-classrooms present difficulties with the doubt-clearing mechanism that seems effortless in a traditional classroom. There are also questions raised about how effective the model would be, as learning on a computer allows for numerous distractions not present in a traditional classroom. It is possible that when typing out an assignment online, a student might be distracted and open other tabs, thus cutting down their attention span and learning capacities.

The absence of the rigid and fixed schedule of the traditional classroom might also induce students to be complacent with their submissions. The credibility of the courses is another concern.

“With all the millions of courses on hundreds of e-learning platforms, it is difficult to know which ones are useful and which ones are a scam”,

saravana prabhu, engineer

Undoubtedly the biggest concern with online learning, especially for traditional educationalists, is that it takes away the interaction between the students and the teachers that gives a classroom and school its essence.

As online learning continues to grow and evolve, these problems have been attempted to be addressed on several e-learning forums all over the world.  The youth-run startup, The Climber has attempted to try to smooth over these glitches in the e-learning system. “We select our mentors very carefully, and all of their credentials are put up on the course page”, says Rishabh Anand, former Vice-President of the Climber.

“We make sure that all of our courses have no more than twenty students per batch so the mentor can handle them all. We allow for as much interaction between the students and the teachers as possible. They are all put in a WhatsApp group together, so they can interact freely and share resources. The mentor’s contact information is handed to them so they can ask their doubts to them in private, and the mentor will respond within twenty-four hours. We have a team that checks in with each student after each session about whether it went smoothly, and address any concerns they have. We make sure to replicate the classroom feel in everything we do”.

rishabh anand, the climber

With online learning taking off all over the world, and the e-learning market predicted to grow bigger by the minute, we can perhaps conclude that with the glitches worked out in the system, online learning will emerge as a useful learning tool for education worldwide. Its wide reach, flexibility, endless possibilities and affordability makes it a useful complement to traditional education. Certainly, with smart-boards and video-lectures being integrated into traditional learning as well, it seems like the virtual classroom will become just one of the many dimensions of the education system.

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