Tertiary level Virtual Classrooms are really taking off, but can VCs connecting teachers and learners in different parts of the world have an impact on secondary learning? A recent project linking a team in New York with teachers and their classes in Andhra Pradesh established some principles for good practice.
Virtual Classrooms in the development context
Virtual classrooms, which are classes taught live over online learning platforms, have taken off within the last decade. While this has been most noticeable at the University level, virtual classrooms have also been used to improve educational opportunities for children and teenagers in developing countries, both through international and national programs. Virtual Classrooms offer a promising, low-cost solution to overcome the limited resources typically available to low income communities. Yet, these conditions present a unique set of challenges for setting up and managing a Virtual Classroom.
From September 2018, our team at New York University Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service worked with Ek Kadam Aur, a non-profit organization that works to help underprivileged children lead successful and productive lives, to carry out an impact evaluation of their Virtual Classroom program (VC). We focussed on their high school program with ninth graders across two schools in low-income settings in Andhra Pradesh, India. The VC took place twice a week and taught extra-curricular content outside of the regular school syllabus. As the student’s regular classes were taught in English, the VC was delivered in English by international lecturers.
Are Virtual Classroom programs really as successful as their widespread uptake implies? Our impact evaluation found positive effects on student’s confidence levels, communication skills, and academic motivation as a result of the virtual classroom program. Student’s math scores also showed improvement compared to demographically similar students that did not have a VC program. The students themselves said they enjoyed the VC program, since it exposed them to academic experts from all over the world, and taught them new topics outside their routine curriculum.
After speaking with the local teachers in India, we found that participating in the VC inspired them to change their teaching behaviors as well. Teachers shared that the VC lectures gave them good teaching material that they could reference within their own classroom sessions. Interactive activities introduced by the VC were also conducted again by teachers in their own classes. The benefits are therefore two-fold — the VC program appears to be improving students’ academic and behavioral outcomes while building the capabilities of local teachers, which may in turn further bolster the positive impact on student outcomes.
Challenges and limitations in low income settings
Having the necessary resources is essential to any program’s success. However, schools in lower income settings often face financial and technological constraints. Thus, the equipment used for the VC program was kept to a minimum, with only one large display screen, a web camera, microphones and a sound system. However, internet connectivity is one thing that cannot be compromised on. The schools we visited made special efforts to ensure continuous internet connection, but having connectivity is neither a given nor easily achievable in every situation. Educators looking to implement similar programs in rural areas should certainly keep this in mind.
Best Practices for Virtual Classroom Programs in low-income, development settings
This is known to impact student outcomes, and teaching quality in virtual classrooms is no different. In this case, success is heavily influenced by both the international lecturers and local teachers.
International lecturers must consider their audience and the importance of context while delivering content. Virtual classrooms that make use of interaction between the lecturer and student, as well as between students, have reported greater advantages than those that do not. Working with high school students will require more interactive content and engaging visuals, as well as being careful to tailor their speech to be appropriate for young, international audiences. Technical jargon should also be explained before using them.
All teachers must be active
Local teachers must take an active role in reinforcing the concepts taught in the virtual classroom, as well as viewing these lectures as a resource for their own teaching. With enrichment programs that introduce brand new concepts to the students, it is important that local teachers can answer any outstanding questions and facilitate further discussion to reinforce learning. Teachers should also take the opportunity to adopt good practices and avoid potential pitfalls that they observe during the VC lectures to their own lessons.
Students as IT assistants
Teachers might have difficulties using the technology required to set up the virtual class as well; in some cases, teachers do not have computers at home, let alone experience with different online learning platforms. Proper training is necessary in enacting a Virtual Classroom. A good strategy we observed is to also train students to be their class’s ‘IT assistants’. Not only will this provide practical assistance to their teachers, it will also help instill a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Technology and virtual classrooms bring about great promise for the education field, particularly in developing countries, and our experience supports this. VCs serve as excellent supplements to conventional teaching methods and with proper implementation, can help students move one step closer to realizing their full potential.
The authors hold a Masters in Public Administration specialising in International Development Policy from New York University. G. Kee has worked with non-profits, national governments and international organizations. She looks forward to returning home to Singapore to work on policies addressing inequality. J. Hirose has done research in Japan under the Boren Fellowship. She enjoys working in international and policy related settings and holds a special interest in global education. Mariel Palomino is an international development professional focusing on incorporating environmental and social standards into business strategies. She aims to leverage private sector expertise and resources to tackle global issues and promote sustainable solutions.