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The Keyboard teachers:Classrooms versus Cyberspace, and why some teachers are beginning to opt for the latter E-Mail this report to a friend

Nidhi Taparia

"Its strange when people ask me where I teach, because I don't teach anywhere. I teach on the Net."

This would probably sum up the tale of many teachers who now have classrooms online. Faceless children, endless hours and an almost instant learning process of distance learning: Meet the virtual professor.

The Web credits teaching online to Vicky Phillips, who designed America's first online counselling centre for distance learners. Having taught more than 7,000 learners online, the lady says, "I've flunked a few of them. I've never personally met any of them."

'Keyboard colleges and schools' are now gaining popularity in India, as are teachers online. Like Rekha Agneeswaram, who has been at Compassbox for the last nine months. With an MSc in Chemistry, she has moved down from teaching postgraduates to ninth and tenth standard students.

"It has been a challenge to teach online," she says, after having taught more than 3,000 students online already. "The biggest difference is that, on the Net, you don't use standard lessons. You prepare and write your own in as simple a language as possible." Through compass box, Agneeswaram creates lessons suited not just to the Net, but also to the student reading them. "In a textbook, while a chapter might be explained with diagrams, these may not be self explanatory. In my chapters, they are. I continuously try to imagine myself in the shoes of a student and simplify the chapter as much as possible."

And so does Naavi Vijayshankar, who used his teaching expertise to start teaching cyber law online, and offering diplomas through his site. "I write many of my own lessons though, just as Sir Isaac had to do. My penny post is the World Wide Web. I post assignments to electronic bulletin boards, use email to distribute lessons, convene classes and give lectures in chat rooms when the need arises. I also provide a message board for students to interact, and web pages to store student replies to questions."

Teaching in cyberspace is an exhilarating experience for Agneeswaram. "I like the interactivity the Net offers, as well as the lack of time constraints. In a class full of children, I might need to coax them to be interactive but, once online, they do a lot of the talking and asking and they take the initiative which, to me, marks a change from the offline mode of teaching."

Also, according to these teachers, there is more teaching and learning than just sticking to the syllabi. "It need not be merely cut and dried, and explained to the point, if I sense that a particular student has not understood a basic concept. I can explain to him right from the very basics to help him understand the subject. And all this without the student having to worry about being ridiculed by peers for asking such questions," says Agneeswaram.

However, the Internet cannot completely replicate the rapport that a teacher and student can share in person, adds Vijayshankar, "Teaching online requires a high level of empathy. Only an experienced offline teacher can understand the requirements of students and try to compensate for the lack of interaction. It is a difficult process."

The inability of not knowing each student in person or to be able to view his or her expressions while a lesson is being taught is compensated though, says Agneeswaram. "I know my students not by their faces or seat positions in a classroom; I know them by the words and ideas they express their problems with. In cyberspace, I listen, read, comment and reflect on what my students have to say - each of them in turn. What they know, they must communicate to me in words. They cannot sit passively in the back row twiddling their mental thumbs as the clock ticks away. They must think and interact!"

Both agree that being net savvy is a prerequisite. "It's a completely different medium that makes its own demands. Right from writing short crisp sentences to explaining a complicated chemistry concept, one needs to use online tools completely to illustrate a point - like 3D animation to explain the reactions," explains Agneeswaram. For Vijayshankar, his biggest difficulty is "to maintain an error free distribution system or create password protected individual study rooms for the students."

While, for Agneeswaram, the age category is defined, for Naavi Vijayshankar, the students' range from professionals to students. "They can be anywhere from a 40 plus to an 18-year-old thinking about learning law. Many of them know what they are talking about, especially with learning cyber law and case studies. It encourages them to argue and present their perspectives without the censoring of a professor, who might be tempted to step in to 'calm down' or 'refocus' an otherwise wonderfully enlightening classroom debate."

The future, according to Vijayshankar, is bright. "In fact, while many people find it hard to imagine a college with no campus, nowadays I find it hard to imagine teaching anywhere other than in the liberal freedom that is cyberspace. I can reach out to a large audience at minimal cost. For specialised courses, this is one way of aggregating students who may be scattered in different locations."

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