By Vagish Jha
Like random mutations in the natural world under environmental factors resulting in the process of natural selection and genetic drift, Covid-19 seems to have changed the DNA of the educational system. The core of such a paradigm shift in the educational ecosystem lies in two linked factors: the nature of learners and the emerging EdTech environment, mostly visible in the pivotal role assumed by smart classrooms. In terms of pedagogic practices, it saw the crumbling of the centrality of textbooks and the teacher-led teaching system in a decisive manner.
COVID-19 marked the turning point in the evolution of the teaching-learning ecosystem. The sudden closure of schools led to the hurried beginning of online learning to ensure continuity. The two years of hiatus led to a ‘new-normal’ and the educational universe rapidly accelerated into digitization. The magnitude of this phenomenal growth can be gauged by a recent report released by MarketResearch.com that estimates the EdTech and smart classroom market size globally to be at USD 333.327 billion by 2027 as per the data culled from EdTech & Smart Classroom Market Intelligence Report – Global Forecast to 2027. Along similar lines, Smart Classroom Market in India has gained momentum in recent years, and it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.05 per cent and reach USD 16.11 billion by 2026.
Even though the schools have reopened, the importance of digital learning is there to stay as a majority of classrooms are now tech-enabled; using virtual learning, often termed as ‘smart classrooms’. This sudden boom in the expected spending on digitisation and smart classrooms in particular, however, doesn’t capture the three distinct phases that the idea and practice of smart classrooms seem to have gone through. The term ‘Smart classrooms’ has been in use for decades. But their function and meaning have undergone fundamental changes in the post-COVID period.
It was the year 2004 when the very first ‘smart classroom’ in India can be said to have been introduced. It was Prof. K. K. Trivedi, of IIT Mumbai, who ‘invented’ a magical box bringing together a computer and a projection system in one unit. This black box was, at that time, called a Compact Media Centre (CMC). The Outlook magazine featured this device as its cover story in which Prof. Trivedi positioned it as ‘an educational tool that will radically change the way Indian students, especially the poor, are being taught.’ A single CMC, the Outlook story further elaborated on its features, ‘can fill in for several conventional PCs in a huge classroom, with every student sitting with a wireless mouse, gazing at the giant screen’.
This was probably the very first smart classroom in India; acting as a supplementary tool of education where students could get out of the monochrome world of textbooks to view educational content ‘live’. Subsequently, this device became popular by the name of K-Yan, the Knowledge Vehicle. However,smart classrooms continued to remain supplementary even after the introduction of smart boards in schools in the subsequent periods.
The onset of COVID brought in a decisive disruption. Schools were forced to adopt online teaching to ensure learning continuity. Teachers struggled to come to terms with the ‘new normal’. In this phase, the use of digital platforms and devices suddenly increased. WhatsApp came as the saviour for those facing bandwidth issues. We saw a proliferation of what David Nemer in his book ‘Technology of the Oppressed’ called ‘mundane technology’. In any case, digital platforms remained mainly a carrier, a medium for teachers who used it for their conventional face-to-face pedagogic techniques to reach out to their students.
The limitations of such an effort began to show soon as teachers had no idea if students were engaged, or if meaningful learning was happening. But this was the phase when students emerged as the prototype of self-directed learners, exploring the digital world on their own. In most cases, students took the role of a teacher, telling them the correct ways of using digital platforms or tools. This was also the time when EdTech tools and platforms incorporated these pedagogical aspects to ensure learning. Teachers also realized the importance of digital technology to be able to reap the benefits from the digital world of EdTech.
Now that schools are open again, the meaning of smart classrooms has changed as a site of hybrid or blended education. The interactive boards are not just interesting tools that attract students’ attention. Keeping learning as the core, teachers today make judicious use of it. The digital resources help drive home concepts in multisensory ways, through the possibility of multiple representations. The students can now express themselves in a myriad of ways, giving them more freedom and creativity. The nature of evaluation and its related computation has undergone a major shift, giving teachers more free time to make their efforts sharper to address the personalized needs of the students. The Learning Management system (LMS) has acquired a core space in the teaching environment through which giving assignments, tracking, and evaluating them, promises to transform educational practices.
This is the beginning of a new era in the teaching-learning ecosystem where digital pedagogy is being practised more and more. Smart classrooms seem to be coming of age.
In the natural world, it is said, factors in the environment influence the rate of mutations but not their direction. Will the smart classrooms hold on to the directionality it seems to have acquired? Only time will tell.
The author is academic lead, head, teacher training, Schoolnet.