Smart Schools– a myth or a reality?

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Avnita Bir
Director-Principal at R N Podar School, Mumbai.

In Twitter lingo, the term ‘Personalization in Education’ is trending and smart schools have become the buzzword for new age schools and edtech companies. They are increasingly being seen as the panacea for those wanting to jump onto the bandwagon of imparting 21st century skills to students. But, are smart schools a reality?

The advent of technology in the classroom has meant different things to different stakeholders. For school managements, it provided the much-needed frill value that could distinguish their schools from the rest. For teachers, it forebodes a sense of fear and trepidation that any change at workplace brings with it. For parents, it signaled a better education albeit at an increased cost. Not many understood how technology should or could be integrated seamlessly into the teaching-learning process. And myth and reality became inseparable! While schools recognized that technology was a reality they could not ignore if they had to survive in the 21st century, not many understood the layers and the nuances of the same. Ranging all the way from devices and hardware, to software, ERP solutions, Learning Management Systems, apps, social, collaborative, productivity tools, to digital content, assessment tools and data-driven achievement analytics, smart schools acquired new meaning in the SOPs of schools. A paradigm shift in education was being heralded!

Case file…

R N Podar School has always been a technology-driven school. Situated in the densely populated city of Mumbai, and facing many unique constraints of both space and time, we had to increasingly look for solutions that would help us to overcome our challenges efficiently and effectively. Technology used appropriately and prudently, proved to be a great boon in a resource-strapped school. The fact that we could self-learn, customize and improvise our interface with new tools added to the comfort that we felt in integrating them into our school.

For us, technology has become synonymous with empowerment. It has meant a kind of liberation from routine tasks that could now be performed more efficiently and effectively and have brought the excitement back into our work life. Starting from Smart boards in classrooms, educational content and software for different subjects, to teachers learning to make PowerPoint presentations and creating their own content, generic digital content and animations to catch the attention of students, our classrooms continued to evolve as we experimented with Cloud Computing and use of Google Apps for Education, went on to do a pilot with Khan Academy and explored the benefits of Flipped Classrooms.

The joy came not from getting a new ready-made solution by an edtech company that designed products in their silos and often didn’t understand the teachers’ needs or the students’ psychology. The exhilaration that teachers felt when they discovered, tried out and learnt to use a new tool to engage their students, the aha feeling of success after a series of failures, the strengthening of the bond between the teacher and her students as both embarked on a journey of learning…all pointed to an organic process of integrating technology seamlessly into the teaching-learning process.

What evolved as a result of this tryst with technology was not just buy-in from the teachers but the building of a culture of innovation and creative problem solving. We explored the use of Design Thinking and Maker DIY activities that encouraged creative thinking and led to the building of creative confidence among students as well as teachers. A whole new world of possibilities opened up even as we redefined the teaching-learning process. Technology and Smart classrooms were enablers to enhance the teaching-learning process and not to add to the frill value of a school. The level of technology integration was need-based and customized to suit the requirements of the students and teachers. The fact that technology freed us from a ‘one size fits all’ approach was a great boon even as we handled large class sizes. Technology and Smart Classrooms became a way of life and a mindset for us at school even as we enjoyed going beyond traditional boundaries.

Using technology as a boon

So how can the technology-enabled smart schools help solve the trickiest educational problems in a scalable, sustainable way? We all know that technology unevenly applied and inappropriately deployed, can cause more damage than benefit. Hence there is need for prudent and judicious use of the same. The following pointers could dispel the misgivings anyone could have about embracing technology in schools.

  • Use technology as a motivator for teachers to experiment and innovate. And not something to be feared. Create a culture in which new ideas thrive and are nurtured. This would require handholding and encouraging new incumbents to step out of comfort zones.
  • Use technology to strengthen the human relationships between stakeholders. The greatest danger lies in the teacher’s personal touch being replaced by an animation or automated response system.
  • Use technology to improve/enhance the face time between the teacher and the taught.
  • Technology, creativity and pedagogy have to be made compatible for the smart class to be successful. It is at the intersection of all three that we can see innovation in education taking place. Remote centers of content or tech development in isolation of schools will not work.
  • Technology has to be simple, smooth, easy to use, almost invisible, supporting pedagogy, customizable, adaptive, not just student-centric but also teacher-centric.

We are living in times of exponential and disruptive changes and the way to cope with the times is by being agile and adaptive in order to respond appropriately to the environment. Our children have never experienced the pre-Google era and as the world changes around us, we have to allow the winds of change to open our minds to new possibilities while at the same time being rooted in the human values that support us. It is imperative that schools approach the subject of technology and smart classrooms with due caution and integrate the same based on their school’s individual philosophy and culture.

Avnita Bir is an economist and the Director-Principal of the R. N. Podar School in Mumbai. She has worked in the Indian education system for more than 15 years, and she was a curator for Learn Shift India 2012, a conference held at Delhi, which was aimed at exchanging ideas on transforming Indian education.