Save our schools. Save us. Save our future!
Those words are written beside pictures of crying children and a burning school building. They form artwork created by a school-aged child from Indian-controlled Kashmir, site of one of the world’s longest continual conflicts. The piece is part of a series of drawings produced by Kashmiri children on their return to school after four months of absence due to violent unrest.
Sadly, it is not unusual for Kashmir’s schools to be shut down because of the now 70-year-old conflict, nor is unusual for them to become targets. More than 35 schools in the region were burned down over the past 18 months.
With traditional brick-and-mortar schoolyards frequently rendered unsafe, the ruling Indian government is turning to remote video conferencing schools to bring educational continuity to the area. The technology could one day become the permanent way of conducting class and not just a stop-gap in times of crisis.
Video Conferencing Schools in Kashmir
The Indian Human Resources Development Ministry has included video conferencing programs in its new strategy to bring education back to Kashmir. The initiative centers on reducing the isolation of students in the area by adopting the curriculum used elsewhere in the country, establishing exchange programs with outside schools, and using video conferencing to link far away teachers, classes, and individual students. There’s even a virtual buddy program planned, whereby students from Kashmir will get to foster long-term relationships with peers outside their hometowns through regular video calls.
As long as there’s enough internet infrastructure in Kashmir to support the use of video conferencing–and India is currently undergoing a massive overhaul of its fiber optic networks–it could allow entire classes of students to meet regularly online, either from shared venues, like public halls or sporting stadiums, or from their own individual homes.
We’ve already seen it done in remote and disaster-affected parts of the U.S.
Virtual Schools from Alaska to Florida
Some of the most remote school districts in Alaska, including those reachable only by dogsled, were recently granted hundreds of thousands of dollars by the U.S. government to establish video calling links with expert teachers across the country. By improving internet connectivity to remote towns and enabling local schools to buy state-of-the-art video calling hardware, it is hoped that native communities can receive a first-class education without having to leave their traditional lands.
That same principle applies to Kashmir. With video conferencing technology, children in the area shouldn’t have to choose between their safety and their education, or their future opportunities and their native lands.
The U.S. also offers a glimpse into how video conferencing can help students continue their education after a natural disaster. Hurricane Irma disrupted the schooling of all 2.8 million school children in Florida earlier this year, with at least 70 schools shut down for more than a week. During that time, teachers were able to conduct classes online using affordable laptop computers that were distributed to students at the start of the school year.
That timeline seems insignificant in comparison to the months of school absences Kashmiri students endure, but the basic principle is the same–video conferencing requires only minimal technology to bring real-time communication to a disaster zone.
Online Lessons within a Conflict Zone
Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of video conferencing’s ability to provide long-time remote support in a conflict zone comes from the medical field. Overworked and under-resourced doctors in Syria are currently receiving expert assistance from overseas medical experts as part of an ongoing international partnership. The external critical care experts are available online to supervise surgeries, review x-ray and lab results, and diagnose patients.
If that kind of time-critical assistance can be produced over a video call, then setting up a virtual classroom using video conferencing should be simple.
Provided solid internet infrastructure is in place, the Kashmiri students would need to be issued with laptops–or even smartphones–and signed up to a free video conferencing platform, like Skype. Group calls among dozens of students and teachers could then be broadcast whenever class is in session, and students could spend all their school days online. They would have to spend their communal downtime playing online rather than with their school friends, but that’s better than missing out on education altogether for months at a time. If class was permanently held online, perhaps local communities could arrange their own local playtime adventures in a safe, friendly environment.
It may not sound like a “normal” education, but this virtual method could be the safest way to ensure the students of Kashmir have access to the fundamentals of learning.