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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Virtual Classrooms That Proffer Education And Peace

Well, if you can't make the papers, then make it to the papers! It has been a while since I have written something for the mainstream media, which explains my excitement about being featured in a story in English-language Nepalese newspaper, The Rising Nepal. This is a story about Pax Populi, a peace-through-education initiative under the umbrella of the Massachusetts-based NGO, Applied Ethics, Inc. founded by Bentley University professor, Robert McNulty. Enjoy reading it! 

Virtual Classrooms That Proffer Education And Peace 

Kirthi Jayakumar

Two young women are conversing online, using special video conferencing software. One lives in Chennai, India, while the other one is in Kandahar, a city in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Curious about what the girls would be chatting about? Well, this is not a teenage gossip session but a virtual English class. The programme that brings them together is called Pax Populi, the non-profit wing of Applied Ethics, an organisation based out of the United States of America.
While the plethora of its volunteer tutors, who happen to be ordinary citizens with varying professional qualifications and backgrounds, comes from all parts of the world, a chunk of them are Indian. In fact, the Indian team comprises eight committed individuals, from cities such as Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Vadodara, each of whom spends a couple of hours a week helping their students to not just master the finer grammatical nuances of the language, like how to use proper tenses, prepositions and adjectives, but also giving them easy public speaking tips. The classroom goes online using the Big Blue Button video conferencing software that helps connect tutors and tutees with ease.
Although the tutors are given a defined curriculum to administer, they do have the autonomy to execute it creatively. Pax Populi collaborates with a Kandahar-based institution, the Kandahar Institute of Modern Sciences (KIMS), as well as educational institutions in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, and Herat in the western part of the country. Students from these institutions are linked up with various tutors to go through an intensive 12-week training programme to improve their English. Many of them have a functional understanding of the language, and often require assistance with sharpening their skills.
Sharing her experience of reaching out to young people in Afghanistan, Shrija (name changed), a tutor from Chennai, says, “I have had the chance to teach three students so far, and it has been an extremely rewarding exercise. Those of us who have volunteered as teachers are part of this programme because of our greater desire to serve the cause of peace. We are given a set curriculum that we tailor to our student’s needs. I can truly say that every session is a beautiful experience.”
Nidhi Shendurnikar, an independent researcher with interests in politics, peace building, gender and popular culture, echoes the same sentiment. The Vadodara girl elaborates, “When I first heard about Pax Populi, I was intrigued by the idea of having an online model for peace education. At the same time, I was curious to learn more about Afghan culture. I took up this work with great enthusiasm because I felt like I had a duty towards these brilliant young people from Afghanistan who deserved better life opportunities as much as we do. I saw this as a chance to get inspired by their resilience and courage. I have not been disappointed in my expectations.”
It has been established without the shadow of a doubt that education does contribute significantly to building peace, and eventually in the breaking down of barriers. While it does indeed create more literate people, it also creates a culture of sensitised individuals built on a state of mutual understanding, respect and equality.
Writer, educator and designer Eisha Sarkar, another Pax tutor living in Vadodara, explains, “I have been a volunteer tutor with Pax for three months now and I thoroughly enjoy the activity because it has given me the opportunity to sample the rich culture of Afghanistan from the comforts of my home. My student, Qasem, is a 26-year-old teacher of from Herat who speaks English, Dari, Farsi, Tajik, Pashto and Arabic. He and I have managed to communicate with each other in English, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi, demolishing barriers of ethnicity, race, religion and gender. If that's not rewarding, I don't know what is."
Shrija agrees with her assessment and reflects on the same ideals, “Very often, we consider education to be only about literacy, but it is really much more than that. Though we teach English, we spend a lot of time with our tutees and invest time in understanding each other’s cultures and to build values of empathy and respect for the diversity we each represent. It is very moving to share something from your side, and to look at your own world through the eyes of someone living in a country that has known more war than peace. One of the biggest talking points has been Bollywood among young women, and cricket, among young men. One of my student’s favourite films is the Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’, and another student of mine just loves actor Kajol!”
If the teachers are so thrilled with this interaction, imagine the reactions of the students on the other side. Shabnam Manati Khadija, a student from Kandahar, says, “Pax Populi is a global peace-building programme. It links people from different cities in the world and gives boys and girls a chance to get valuable, quality education. As a student with Pax I feel very happy and fortunate. It has gotten the chance to improve my English skills without stepping out of my hometown. I have the most brilliant teacher, and she isn't only a teacher, but my dear sister. The one thing that really makes me interested with this programme is that it enables me to be a peace-builder. As a human being, I love peace and I love working for peace. This effort has allowed me to fulfill my dream of working for peace building through social collaborations.”
Aslam Watanyar, a student and the coordinator for the programme at KIMS, adds, “As a student, this online programme has really been helpful for me as it has supported me in my endeavours to improve my English. I was always motivated by my teacher, who was honest and a very powerful educator in the programme. I learnt many things from her especially the various aspects related to her culture, tradition, religion. We even spoke a lot about cricket!”
With the Internet rapidly growing as the next big work space, the online space is certainly proving to be highly efficacious. Using the net, and connecting via video and audio conferencing, India’s tutors for Pax Populi have been successful in bridging the one-hour time gap between India and Afghanistan. On occasions, the internet does play truant, but it isn’t something that throws a spanner in the works for the classes that progress undaunted.
Unconventional classroom
The unconventional classroom and teaching media does not reduce the effectiveness of the lessons. As Sarkar says, “I have been teaching for over seven years and the idea of a virtual classroom has always appealed to me. Whereas one-on-one teaching is relatively new to me I am glad Pax Populi allows for interactivity with the student through video, audio and chat. Though it cannot match real-world contact, teaching online is the next best thing especially because you can share your skills with people thousands of miles away.”
-- WFS

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