There is no denying that changing times warrant staying in step but when Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said the “Indian government is planning to set up virtual classrooms and online courses for school education” in the course of his 2014-15 Budget speech and allocated Rs 100 crore for the purpose, it did trigger a debate – some likened it to a dilemma — among educationists, teachers, school management authorities and parents with regard to whether young learners really needed to saddled with high-end technology.

What has resulted, even if the crossover has not be as smooth as anticipated, nor is there a single path being followed, is that classrooms are in transition. “While people may be slow to adapt to the newer modes of education, in today&’s context smart classes are necessary add-ons and facilitate the teaching and learning process. With the changing times, educational requirements also change and even schools need to be flexible enough to cater to these changes. For example, consider the importance of smart phones in the present scenario and smart classes appear to be indispensable to the present education scenario,” says DK Chadda, principal of South Point School in Kolkata.

The current rise in schools promising the best education possible has spawned many start-ups like Spanedea, Vedantu and Eduwizard that offer at-home smart learning programmes for young students. They offer individual online tuitions, live online classes that students can attend from home, with the help of a broadband Internet connection and a computer/smartphone. These classes are conducted by expert tutors from across the country.

The trend is catching on. What with parents often complaining that going to tuition classes often drain their children&’s energy and they end up having no time for self-studies, applying for online classes is the only solution to this serious problem, as it requires no time travel and, as a bonus, the child is more comfortable and safe in his/her home, which makes studying much easier. Unlike traditional tuition classes, online courses are more likely to provide children with individual attention, catering to doubts in a more intricate approach.

“However, the content of the courses has to be revised and re-revised thoroughly before parents make their children take classes. Also, sometimes the situation can turn dicey if children take online classes as a leverage to spending their time engaged in not so fruitful online activities that may include wasting time over social networking sites and accessing inappropriate graphic content,” warns Chadda.

Sandra Fernandes, senior school coordinator at St Joseph&’s College, Kolkata, believes that “such heavy reliance on technology and the Internet invariably causes addiction amongst children. And young minds are, more often than not, misled in the online world”.

Like drugs and alcohol, the Internet also offers children and adolescents an addictive way of escaping painful feelings or troubling situations. They sacrifice required hours of sleep to spend time online and withdraw from family and friends to escape into a comfortable online world of their own creation. Children who lack rewarding or nurturing relationships or who suffer from poor social and coping skills are at greater risk of developing inappropriate or excessive online habits. Because they feel alone, alienated and have problems making new friends, they turn to invisible strangers in online chat rooms for the attention and companionship missing in their “real” lives. These children may come from families with significant problems, and they cope with their problems by spending time online.

Like Chadda, Fernandes too puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of teacher-student communication. “The smartness of the smart classes comes at the cost of interaction between students and their teachers and vice-versa. It has been the reality where teachers take leverage of the smart boards and projectors, wherein they create presentations and make their students watch it like simply a movie show. In our school we always lay stress on proper human interaction. Smart classes are really a nice concept provided students and teachers interact, with both sides putting forward questions and discussing these together. I repeat, if the teacher isn’t having a verbal communication with his/her students and only playing a presentation for the sake of taking class, smart classes are definitely a no-no,” she Fernandes.

“Making presentations in strict adherence to the scope of the textbook or the syllabus is a big challenge for teachers. For example, the digestive system is a topic that is taught to students right from Class III onwards. So we will have to be very careful regarding how much intricacy we include for students of each class learning the same lesson. On the other hand, if we miss out on the slightest bit of information, the student may develop an idea that the missed portions are not important and may skip them, only to land in trouble when they take their exams,” says Fernandes.

South Point School is very strict regarding the formulation of the modules and presentations that students are shown in their classes. “It is the very duty of the presentation in-charge to regularly go through the content and it is also mandatory for each teacher of the school to go to a certain lab designated for making presentations for the children, which is known as knowledge centre in the school, where teachers consider the scope of the syllabus and make presentations accordingly.” says Chadda.

Then again, taking online tests is rather a self-defeating purpose and plagiarism and dishonesty are areas of no less concern. Some critics feel it is easier to plagiarise or share answers because of reduced surveillance and increased connectivity. Institutions have begun to find ways to allay these concerns with technology to tackle cheating, like Turnitin and iThenticate. Another concern is the lack of face-to-face interaction between instructor and classmates. Students may experience a disconnection with the rest of the classroom, but schools are proactively looking into ways of alleviating the issue. The adoption of video conferencing technologies and even free-to-use group chats, for example, can help students interface with teachers and each other.

In a nutshell, smart education has come a long way since its beginnings, and more advancements are likely. Advocates are finding ways to tighten up the perceived shortcomings of e-learning, and new technological developments continue to add to the advantages that online learning may offer for students.