Rahul Puri, Head – Academics, Whistling Woods International

Rahul Puri is the Head of Academics of India’s finest film, communication and creative education institute, Whistling Woods International & Managing Director of India’s leading entertainment company, Mukta Arts Ltd. A business graduate from Kings College London, he started his career as an investment banker at UBS Warburg. Rahul Puri moved to Mumbai in 2002 and worked in the sector of Corporate Finance & Strategy before he joined Mukta Arts Ltd. to produce and distribute Indian films.

Rahul is now involved in all aspects of the company including financing, distribution, production, exhibition and marketing. He was keenly involved in the set-up of Whistling Woods International and now is setting up and building out a chain of Cinemas under the brand name of Mukta A2 Cinemas.

With the COVID19 Pandemic hitting hard across the world, one of the places that was the first to be disrupted was education. Schools and colleges were immediately closed as they have run traditionally on the congregation of people in large numbers for many years. With a virus that essentially feeds on people coming together and with a generation’s academic and vocational learning at stake, many educational institutions turned to a platform long viewed suspiciously by academic practitioners – the online learning area. Now with little choice, schools and colleges are embracing the platform like never before and the results are encouraging, meaning that once this crisis is over, the learnings from online education could be a small silver lining in a cloud of darkness.

There have been many many learning resources online for a while. Khan Academy is a free online learning platform that has been very successful in many of the basics in terms of academic concepts and education in many subjects. It is not the only one but online education was also seen as supplemental to the usual brick and mortar, face to face instruction needed for serious education. In India, companies like UpGrad have pushed the idea of online learning for vocational courses like Digital Marketing and Big Data and there have been many other successful online courses for certificate or diploma learning from many universities around the world. The logic though remained that for a real education, a student needed to be in the real world with a teacher, professor or faculty, getting in person attention. Online courses were something to do part-time to build a better CV or add to the learning already being garnered.

That status quo has now literally gone out the window as online learning has become the norm now as schools and colleges try to ensure that in a lockdown period that could last upto 6-8 weeks or more, students education does not suffer. This means faculty and school management rushing to deal with some of the issues that online education has suffered from for many years – for instance a lack of interactivity, class pacing and positioning, mentorship and guidance and the lack of a classroom environment. Teachers and faculty around the world has had to think long and hard on how to address some of these issues as a prolonged period of online learning needs to keep them as well as students motivated and excited to come to class, despite the lack of socialising long seen as so crucial for all classes. At Whistling Woods International, we too have quickly had to adjust our class plans to accommodate this new medium and the results have thus far, been illuminating. Given that for creative and practical oriented courses, online learning is much more tricky, we have had to rethink many inputs to ensure students are getting the inputs they need in this crucial period.

Students have embraced this new platform well. Video calling is not a new thing for the current generation and many had already taken to it to ensure that they could speak and see their friends around the country and the world. Logging onto a class is now an extension of this and unlike college or school with fixed timings, these classes can be more flexible in when they are scheduled as both students and faculty need to ensure that their household chores are taken care of as well. This coupled with a reduced class time mandate (no one wants to be staring at screens for 6 hours a day) means that students can bring energy and input to their classes for a shorter period which won’t allow the class to drag which sometimes happens with university norms regarding class times and credits. The online platforms still allow private chatting – which we at WWI – have not stopped. If students are unable to treat the experience like a class -which would include some amount of talking to each other, then the purpose would be defeated but there is also the option in large batches of chatting with the faculty to get their attention or bring them back to a point that perhaps
needs to be re-explained or needs more clarification.

The dreaded attendance feature is now something that can be relaxed. Too long have many colleges in India functioned on a ‘showing up is necessary’ ideal that isn’t always realistic. In the online space, classes, discussions, doubt clearing sessions, can all be recorded and posted because if a student was unable to meet the class timing (busy with housework and helping parents in a difficult time) or their internet was unstable and prevented them from joining, they can rewatch the class at a more suitable time and then rejoin the next lecture with all the inputs intact. In addition, after watching the class, they could maybe have a one on one with the faculty to clear up any clarifications they may have had. Faculty also has designated ‘office hours’, where they will be available to answer students questions and queries and also engage in feedback, discussions, etc, so that students know they can approach them during this period and get answered in a fairly rapid manner.

Of course it is not a perfect scenario. Students who are uninterested or wish to remain incognito easily can, especially in large groups, simply muting their mikes or turning off their video. Many schools have mandated that video must be on, but in a country like India, where the internet is spotty, there is an easy get out for that. Many privacy concerns also exist. ‘Zoom Bombing’ has become a thing with so many schools moving to that platform due to its ease of use but unless serious security protocols are implemented, it can leave those classes exposed to the odd idiot looking for something to do. However the pros are currently outweighing the cons as the platform brings together the huge benefits of the internet – interactivity, information and real-time engagement in a manner that means that although we are all apart, education and learning can continue to be given the priority it needs in these challenging times.

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