Education
For students and teachers with busy lives in crowded cities, online classrooms open up a whole new world of possibilities.

What if Iron man suddenly popped on the screen right in the middle of your Physics class? Or imagine if Harry Potter taught you the concept of an anagram? Would Physics or English still be as difficult to grasp?

Teaching is changing online, and teachers are wearing new avatars too. And thanks to them, the way we see classroom learning is also turning on its head.

Like 32-year-old Arjun Mohan, whose vocation as a teacher was inspired by his teacher Byju Raveendran. Graduating from NIT Calicut, Arjun went on to complete his MBA from IIM-K and joined the Tata Administrative Service. His evenings, were devoted to Byju’s in the evening.

But eventually, his love for Math and Science couldn’t be satisfied with a few hours each evening, and he took up teaching full-time at Byju’s in 2016.

What excites Arjun about teaching is that he’s able to help reinvent how difficult subjects are learnt.

"We realised that students needed coaching for CAT because they did not understand the concepts. Rather than using methods of rote learning and examination we adopted visual learning. Teachers who use examples and write on the board always connect to students better," Arjun says.

Arjun Mohan.

But persuading students to believe in and adopt these newer methodologies has not been easy. "Students believe that if we give them tons of material and they manage to go through it, they will crack the exam. But if you understand the concept and apply it, you don’t need to go through all that material," he says.

Problem-solving is at the core of Arjun’s teaching methodology.  He believes that, "if students focus on practicing, that is when the actual learning happens. For our students, their homework is watching our videos at home. We conduct workshops where we let the students solve the problems."

Arjun equates teaching to storytelling. A big fan of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, he often uses examples from the popular show and books series to illustrate concepts.

"Being connected to popular culture helps you stay connected with students. When I was trying to teach the concept of anagrams I used the Lord Voldemort example from Harry Potter. We created an Iron Man video explaining how his suit works," Arjun says enthusiastically.

Suryasnata Mohapatra, co-founder and mentor, World Photography School in Bengaluru, has been teaching photography to people online for almost four years now.

Online learning may not include face-to-face interactions between students and teacher in real life, and while the institute also offers offline workshops, Suryasnata feels that we have to evolve according to our changing circumstances.

"It is not a cakewalk, but we have to adapt to our current challenges and make use of what is available. We live in big cities and timing is an issue. If you have a tutor who is living 30km away from your home, it is a challenge for you. The advantage is that we have technology," she says.

Suryasnata Mohapatra.

So, students pick different packages based on what they’re looking for, and get access to recorded tutorial sessions on the site.

"If they have any doubt, they can clear it over Facebook or WhatsApp. Sometimes we have live sessions too," says Suryasnata.

Photography, like music or dance, is most often pursued as a passion, rather than as a profession. What this means, Suryasnata felt during her student days, is that photography is learnt through auxiliary courses with little flexibility built into them.

The internet has been a boon for many people facing the same situation as Suryasnata.

"It allows participants to take part according to their own comfort and time. Many are not able to follow their passion because they have a job or because they have other classes to attend. So we have to create a channel which removes these kinds of barriers," she explains.

"In Bangalore, an IT professional may spend nearly an hour commuting every day. What about using that time for learning? We have designed our courses in a way that anyone with a basic internet connection can learn," she adds.

When it comes to online classrooms, it doesn’t get more virtual than Kannada Gottilla which has taught Kannada to thousands of people on platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, Twitter and Facebook.

The initiative began as an attempt by a few techies to teach their friends the language. But now, the community has grown immensely to include 14 mentors and over 7,000 students worldwide.

The success of their maiden effort led them to launch Kannada Gottilla in November 2014.

"People don’t have the time and energy to sit in classrooms or break their heads over complicated lessons, especially working professionals. So, we did away with all of that," says Prashant G Ekbote, one of the founding members of the initiative.

Prashant G Ekbote.

There are three levels, Prashant says, with well-planned syllabi for each of them. While they broadcast common words and phrases that people following them on social media can pick up, the majority of their teaching takes place via Skype and WhatsApp. A typical WhatsApp group has three mentors and 25 students.

Each course-level takes 25 days to complete. Each day, a lesson is shared, and every Saturday the mentors do an assessment to see how well the students are doing. The lessons comprise of an English transcript as well as voice notes to help non-Kannada speakers to learn the language.

"Making the teaching space completely virtual has helped us reach people everywhere. We aren’t confined by the walls of a classroom. But one problem that comes with not having face-to-face interaction is maintaining interest," Prashant says.

"So every couple of days, the mentors will start firing fun questions in the group to see the progress and get people active and responsive," he adds.

It often happens, however, that the teachers and students don’t ever meet. But on every first Sunday of the month, Kannada Gottilla holds a one-day workshop in Bengaluru, where students and mentors get together. Here too, they use unconventional teaching methods, like music and drama.

"We sing folk songs, tell the Kannada stories we heard while growing up… The point of teaching a language is much more than the language itself. We want to tell our students about Karnataka, and the culture that the language is merely a part of. Some of our lessons include stories about notable historical places in the state too," Prashant shares.

Mentors at Kannada Gottilla. 

One of the best parts about a virtual classroom is that it lets mentors and students teach and learn along with their day jobs. Prashant himself works as a tech lead in Mindtree, and dedicates 2-3 hours to Kannada Gottilla every day.

"I always wanted to teach. Now I am doing my job and also my bit for my language and culture. The way technology is accessible for everyone to use, so should language be," he says.

One of his most gratifying moments as a teacher has been when a student from north India finished his Kannada Gottilla courses and became a fan of Sandalwood legend Rajkumar.

Another success Prashant recalls, was when a student became so proficient in the language that he wrote shayari (verses) for all his mentors in Kannada. "We still keep in touch," Prashant says proudly.

With inputs from Geetika Mantri and Monalisa Das.