In May last year, as life came to a halt following multiple rounds of lockdown, and students in Rajasthan’s Kota desperately reached out to state governments to help them get home, Soyeb Aftab took a decision. “The Odisha government sent buses for us, but I knew I wouldn’t find the same study environment in Rourkela. So I decided to stay back and continue my preparations,” says the 18-year-old who lived in Kota with his mother, and continued his coaching at the Allen Career Institute.
The move paid off. In October, Aftab not only bagged the top rank in the NEET exams, he became the first to score 100 per cent.
“There was a lot of talk about the pandemic, the virus, but I just blocked it… Virus ka darr toh tha heen (I was scared of contracting the virus), but I paid attention on online lectures, tests and WhatsApp discussions with my teachers,” says Aftab, who has got into All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.
As the pandemic disrupted most academic calendars in 2020, Kota, the country’s biggest coaching hub, was forced to make the digital switch in a matter of days.
With the future of 1.5 lakh students at stake, says Pankaj Birla, vice-president at the Allen coaching centre, the shift to ‘Allen Digital’ was prompt. “We managed to reach 100 per cent of our students in a matter of months. Since the syllabus for most batches was completed by March, we focussed on clarifying doubts through our ‘e-solution’ platform, where teachers had to respond to queries within 24 hours,” he says.
Another staff member closely associated with the online shift says that within two months, the institute arranged for high-quality equipment at teachers’ homes, and began uploading lectures. “We also set up a mentor programme which helped a lot of students who didn’t have laptops or had poor Internet connectivity. Under the programme, 50 students were assigned to one mentor, and they could call them anytime to ask questions,” he said.
For students in remote areas, the institutes came up with other ingenious solutions. “Many of our students in J&K did not have 4G or 3G connectivity, and couldn’t see online lectures. So, we put the lectures on a pen drive and posted it to them, says Pramod Maheshwari, director, Career Point.
But overall, he says, 2020 has taught us that the digital platform is an effective and flexible medium of education. “Students can revisit recordings of lectures to understand a subject; they are studying at home, so there is more moral support; and there are no travel hassles,” says Maheshwari, adding that that while the institute’s students are among the toppers in NEET and IIT-JEE exams, “it would unfair to compare the results with last year, since most of the coaching was completed in physical classes before the pandemic.”
Maheshwari’s team has also begun taking applications for the next session, and this time they are giving students the option of both online and offline classes. “Surprisingly, we have double the number of applications for physical classes as last December, and most people are opting for our ‘Gurukul’ campus, where the students cannot move out of campus and there are accommodation facilities for families too,” he says. Career Point is charging Rs 90,000 for physical classes and Rs 30,000 for its online course.
Sangam Kumar, 18, who, in the early days of the pandemic, left Kota for his home in Bihar’s Jamui district, says, “There was a lot of panic then, and we were all scared… Once I got home, I felt at ease,” says Sangam. “I got into engineering colleges but didn’t get the stream of my choice. I am planning to drop a year and return to Kota,” he adds.
Back in Delhi, Aftab has begun another set of online classes. “AIIMS has begun its first-year classes. I went to the campus only once, while getting enrolled. The pandemic has taught me that nothing is impossible, and I can’t wait for physical classes to resume,” he says.