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Covid-19 put schools in a tight spot but this chain in Lucknow was ready

Parents orientation of CMS Rajendra Nagar Campus
On April 3, 2020, 45 students of Class 9 of Anand Nagar campus of City Montessori School (CMS) in Lucknow watched with varying degrees of restlessness and attention as their history teacher Amrita Singh held a 50 minute Zoom lesson to teach them about the Harappan civilization. The students were scattered all over the city but 45 of them managed to attend the class.

Elsewhere in the city, Anupama Sondhi of CMS, Gomti Nagar campus taught 33 students of Grade 9 about India’s constitution – a hot topic in India’s current milieu – over Google Classrooms. At the same time, a large number of the Class 12 students of the same school were busy in précis writing while Anupma Johari held forth armed with several leaves and small plants over video, asking students to identify different parts of the leaves and several voices perking up to answer in unison. 

As city after city fell silent under the grip of the countrywide lockdown in March, the CMS got a golden chance – albeit in an unhappy macro scenario – to test what it had been working towards for close to 8 years now. The early bird catches the worm and this worm has been firmly caught, if the sheer number of classes, videos and the volume of data being generated by the school during the Covid-19 lockdown is anything to go by. 

As early as 2011-12, education expert and academician Geeta Gandhi Kingdon (chair of education economics and international development at University College, London) was keenly aware of which way the wind was blowing. She could see the potential and benefits of online learning and could also see how it could solve some of the inherent flaws in the traditional way children are taught.

That’s why almost eight years ago, Kingdon and the CMS management started to bring her family run chain of schools in Lucknow – the City Montessori schools – with 57,000 children across 18 branches up to speed with online learning and teaching. The chain is like a mini-empire in Lucknow with 2196 academic staff, 798 clerical staff, 1830 support staff, making it a total of 4824 employees.

Why CMS stands out in the current crisis is threefold. One, very few schools of its size and segment are being able to deliver online education with any facility across India. Barring a handful of elite schools in the six metros – with fees bracket of Rs 25,000-30,000 a month and above – very few are able to provide serious learning and even at these institutions parents say the experience is “scrappy”. In CMS’s own fee segment – Rs 3500-8500 a month, there are hardly any schools in Tier II cities that are in a position to provide comprehensive education through the use of technology.

CMS’s ability to deliver is primarily due to its head start. In 2011-12, the school started to introduce interactive whiteboards in its 1125 classrooms. By 2014 or so, all the schools classrooms had the whiteboards and were equipped but soon the authorities found that nobody was using them. The whiteboards lay and gathered dust. That’s when they realised that their teachers were unfamiliar with basics – many didn’t know what a mouse or a keypad was, several couldn’t type at all, and so on. That’s when the CMS decided to set up an e-learning department to bring its staff up to speed. The school’s director of strategy Roshan Gandhi heads the e-learning wing.

Ms Sonam of CMS Aliganj Campus II holds online class
Soon after the department was set up, the school started intensive training curriculums for its teachers. A level one curriculum for teachers was introduced – even music, Hindi, librarians and physical education teachers went through it – and gradually became more comfortable and adept with it. After this, a second level of training was undertaken – a level two curriculum – and post that, many teachers were quite conversant with the use of technology. 

Simultaneously, CMS did two things: teachers were familiarised with the free resources available on the World Wide web like Teacher Tube (like a YouTube for teachers), Bolo, Khan academy, DIKSHA and other such similar resources. The school also started encouraging teachers to create their own content as Kingdon was uncomfortable with the idea of only off-the-shelf content. Some teachers did manage to create content to be vetted by the e-learning team but the school soon found that creating new content proved harder than envisaged. 

In 2013, the school bought the license for the Tata ClassEdge, an interactive content provider, one of the more expensive vendors but one that they felt suited their curriculum, methodology and style best. Teachers started using this and in some campuses, the school also adopted AI driven adaptive learning tools, especially for math learning. 

What made CMS more vigilant on this account was the fact that students often lost valuable time in Lucknow as the district magistrate often calls for closure of schools due to inclement weather. To overcome hiccups like these, CMS had set up Google classrooms for every grade and every child over Class 6 had a Gmail account and email address even prior to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Around March 8th, anticipating closure, Kingdon asked the e-learning department to do a refresher training of all the campus IT Assistants. A further two-day training was held for the teachers on March 14 and 16 in the use of Google Classrooms. Emails of students in Class 3, 4 and 5 were created with the staff and teachers working overtime, as senior classes already had them. Parents were brought on board to ensure that a tablet, phone or a laptop was available for the child with some kind of connectivity, which has become far more accessible thanks to Jio. 

CMS Anand Nagar students
As the lockdown began, the teachers started using Google Classrooms, Google Meets and Hangouts and Zoom to engage directly with groups of students, making it more interactive. Studies show that learning in two months of summer holidays is set back by one month and since the lockdown period could be protracted, the loss in learning could be quite stark. Further, one of the main objectives is to keep children engaged and cheerful. “For cognitive and emotional well being, children need routine, structure and regularity, and they also need social connection with peers. This is what we as teachers are most concerned with”, adds Abha Anant, principal of the CMS Gomti Nagar branch. Online learning is novel and many kids giggle in delight as it happens and this too is an important aspect of the learning. 

Attendance and participation is now varying between 70-75 per cent (in the low attendance campuses) to 90 per cent in the high attendance ones. “We have been working with two primary objectives: NTLB “No teacher left behind” and NCLB “no child left behind”, explains Kingdon. She says things are “far from perfect” but this has been a forced learning experience even for the school. Progress is being measured regularly and the 18 principals have Zoom meetings to keep abreast of how everyone is faring. To keep morale high and results good, CMS has always invested in talent and experience. Teachers at CMS are paid better than most government and private schools in the city with primary full-time recruits starting at around Rs 6 lakh per annum while senior level salaries are higher with Rs 12 lakh per annum paid to experienced senior teachers. The per month fee in classes 11 and 12 is Rs 8860, all-inclusive. 

Almost all schools around the country have jumped in to try and provide their students some kind of routine, structure and learning during the Covid-19 crisis but in most cases the online teaching has been scrappy for a host of reasons including poor connectivity, a lack of appropriate devices, lack of teacher preparedness, inability of parents to assist their wards, lack of familiarity with technology or at times even sheer apathy. Very few institutions – mostly in much higher fee brackets - are managing to do a robust job. A head start helped CMS stay a bit ahead of the curve. The Covid-19 crisis may not be premeditated but online education has been rearing its head for a while now.

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