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Sunday, July 05, 2020

In deserted Kota, problems real and virtual

It had been a week since the first lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus was announced, and Kota, the thrumming nerve centre of the country’s coaching industry, had begun to feel the first effects of a slump.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: June 7, 2020 5:23:02 pm
coronavirus covid-19, covid-19 impact on education, kota coaching centres, kota coaching centres coronavirus, covid effect on coaching centres A student undergoes thermal screening at an Allen centre in Kota

On April 1, R K Verma, popular among students as ‘RKV Sir’, put up a 17-minute video on YouTube to announce the launch of the digital learning platform ‘ResoSir’.

Study material, practice tests, and recorded and live lectures can all be accessed through the portal, Verma, the managing director of Resonance coaching institute, said.

It had been a week since the first lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus was announced, and Kota, the thrumming nerve centre of the country’s coaching industry, had begun to feel the first effects of a slump. Overnight, the classrooms of its 300 big and small centres cleared out, and, in little over a month, the 1.5 lakh medical and engineering aspirants who greased the wheels of the town’s coaching economy, pegged at Rs 3,000 crore, returned home.

“The digital platform was supposed to be launched in June, but we had to take urgent steps to ensure that students’ preparation was not hindered. So, we launched on April 1 and gave the students a week’s time to arrange for laptops, phones and Internet,” says Verma.

Explained

A new blueprint

pegged at Rs 24,000 crore, the coaching industry is struggling to keep up revenues. Owners of big coaching institutes, who stand to lose the most even as they make a hurried transition to online, have reached out to the government to develop a blueprint to regain trust of students, parents.

Resonance, among the five big coaching centres in Kota, has 25,000 students.

Over the next few weeks, the centre bought and rented cameras, tripods and monitors, and distributed those among its 600 teachers. “It took us a month to get accustomed to the online classroom and hold live classes,” says Verma, who also teaches physics. “We now have classes from 7 am to 7 pm. I have a high-definition camera and board at home, and I hold four to five classes a day, each attended by nearly 100 students,” he says.

In another part of the coaching district, the 500-odd staff members of Allen institute, spread across 13 centres in the town, have also been transitioning to this new normal. Known for its large classrooms, bundles of detailed notes, and mic-wielding teachers that guaranteed a seat at the country’s premier engineering colleges, Kota’s biggest coaching centre has also had to reset its 30-year-old coaching grammar in the past three months.

“We have upgraded our internal portal, the Batch Progress Monitoring System. It now provides lectures, notes, everything… We have partnered with Test My Prep application for assessments,” says Pankaj Birla, vice-president at the Allen coaching centre that has approximately 50,000 students in Kota.

They are also gradually overcoming some of the initial hiccups. “We had to re-shoot videos in the early days because of poor light, sound, and technical glitches. Now, our R&D team goes through them with a fine-tooth comb, and most of them are good to go in one shot,” he says.

However, as they race to set up their virtual infrastructure, most coaching centres admit to challenges. “In-depth classroom teaching and one-on-one problem-solving sessions brought students to us. In online classes, most students keep their videos off to save data. The teachers can’t see them, there is no reaction. Interaction is difficult,” says Verma, explaining why, eventually, the students have to return to classrooms.

Also, while most coaching centres refused to quote a figure, by most estimates the industry in Kota is staring at an 80 per cent revenue loss if students don’t return by July.

“In our meetings, our focus is to keep the coaching going through online platforms so that everything seems normal for our students. But this is only for now. It’s not that enrollments have been cancelled, they have only been deferred,” says Allen’s Birla.

For the Rajasthan government too, getting Kota’s coaching economy back on its feet is a priority. “Livelihoods of many people in Kota are attached to the coaching industry. I have been receiving calls from coaching centres and discussions are being held on ways to open up Kota. About 40 students per class as opposed to 120, and adhering to the government’s health advisory are some of the measures that have been discussed,” says Rajasthan’s Higher Education Minister Bhanwar Singh Bhati. “Next week, coaching industry members will join me in a webinar to discuss further steps.”

Recently, Kota North MLA and state Urban Development Minister Shanti Dhariwal also held a meeting with seven coaching centres to discuss the way forward. “The coaching neighbourhoods in the town could be turned into restricted zones. No outsiders will be allowed to enter these areas. We have to make families believe again that Kota is safe,” he says.

Since the mid-’90s, neighbourhoods such as Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Indra Vihar, Kunadi, Jawahar Nagar, Indraprastha Industrial Area, and Talwadi in Kota have emerged as coaching hubs, which over time spawned a myriad of businesses — hostels, canteens, restaurants, stationery shops, photo-copy stores, cyber-cafes, gaming zones, among others.

At Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, where hotels, studio apartments and hostels flank coaching centres, every sector linked to the industry is feeling the heat, says Naveen Mittal. “There are about 2,500 hostels in Kota, and a majority of these owners had taken loans to build them. We had about 50,000 students and most of them have left. Each student spent Rs 80,000 a year on accommodation — now you do the math,” says Mittal, who owns two hostels and heads the hostel association in the town.

The group has suggested guidelines for hostels to follow once students return. “Thermal screening at the entrance, one room per student, and only 30 per cent of the hostel’s strength at the mess during meal times — are some of our suggestions,” he says.

A BJP MP from Rajasthan said he has been receiving representations from people worried about hefty loans taken to build hostels.

Ten kilometres away, in Kunadi, a long row of ‘home tuition’ centres that had cropped up in the shadow of the coaching giants have seen “zero” business since March. “No one wants to call our teachers home despite the fact that there has been no Covid case in any of coaching neighbourhoods,” says Y K Jain, owner of Y K Jain Classes in the area.

“I had 1,000 teachers registered with me who charged Rs 8,000 for 25 hours. I thought students would prefer tuition classes to big coaching classrooms now, but that hasn’t been the case. If this continues, I might have to move to another business,” he adds.

The fear is real, says Dr Zafar Mohammed, chairperson of Pragati Group of Academies that runs three schools in Kota. “Most of the students at the 1,500 schools in Kota are outstation students, especially from Classes 7 to 12. Parents trusted us and left children as young as 13 here. They have all gone back and students of Classes 11 and 12 are unlikely to return,” says Mohammed, who has nearly 3,000 students in his schools. “I still have to pay 150 staff members. The fate of every business linked to coaching is in danger.”

Mohammed also worries about the increased screen time for students. “Most institutes didn’t allow students phones, and a majority of hostels did not have Wi-Fi to avoid distraction. And now, the same teachers are telling them to stay glued to their phones and computers for hours!” he says.

Also, says Jain, access to a phone and high-speed Internet is difficult in rural areas where many students come from. “3G doesn’t work well here, how will it work in villages?”

However, Resonance’s Verma hopes for a middle road. “Right now, we must focus on making this system work. Students who are appearing for the 2020 JEE have completed their course. Those going from Class 11 to 12 have enrolled, and only a few Class 10 students whose exams has been deferred have not. But even they are making inquiries about online classes. So, in the future, we will have a mix of both virtual and physical classes,” he says.

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