By Gavin Gibbon
Online learning in the UAE is about more than just sending kids a book of worksheets and leaving them to get on with it, it's a community effort, from the tech providers and teachers through to the parents and students themselves
From an initial two-week period over the revised spring break, you could almost hear the collective sigh as the UAE Ministry of Education announced on March 30 that online learning would continue through until the summer.
Students, who hadn’t seen their classmates or kicked a ball around in the playground with their peers; parents, who had already experienced 14 days with their little cherubs, negotiating various mathematics, English, history and geography questions; and, of course teachers, whose classroom had shrunk to the size of a computer screen and the four walls of a villa or apartment.
This is education, but not as we know it.
But that’s not to say students aren’t trying as hard from the comfort of their homes; it’s not that parents haven’t developed levels of patience they probably never knew they had; and it certainly doesn’t mean the hard work and dedication employed by the region’s army of teachers has slipped away.
It seems that, for everyone involved, right now, every day is a school day.
“In terms of the learning of our teachers, I’d say this has probably been the richest period in any of our careers, from a technology perspective”
Mark Ford, principal, English College Dubai, tells Arabian Business: “Running up to the announcement and certainly after the announcement I think it would be fair to say that everybody in the profession is working far, far harder than they ever have before.
“I’m speaking for my school but I think generally from what I see on social media, most schools are really pulling out all the stops and making it work.”
At the same time, he adds: “In terms of the learning of our teachers, I’d say this has probably been the richest period in any of our careers, from a technology perspective.”
Globally, UNESCO reported that 776.7 million school children have been affected by school closures around the world as a result of Covid-19 – almost 1.1 million in UAE schools.
The KHDA has launched a new platform called ‘In This Together’, which is a new resource aimed at helping the education community take full advantage of online and distance learning.
Indeed, the hashtag #inthistogether has been trending on Twitter. But there is a feeling that solidarity isn’t shared across the board.
Given the current economic situation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, parents are quite rightly demanding schools look at their fees structure for the third term.
There is an argument that, with school buildings sitting empty, overheads will be greatly reduced and such savings can be passed on to parents during this time of particular hardship.
Al Najah Education led the way with a 20 percent reduction, followed by others, including Ford’s English College Dubai and Taaleem, which announced up to 25 percent off fees.
“It is already clear that education technology start-ups are benefiting as more and more students are moving towards online learning currently”
While GEMS Education and Kings’ Education have both caused uproar among parents for enforcing a ‘means-test’ to determine which families are eligible for financial support and others that must still stump up the full amount.
In defence of schools, there has so far been no reductions announced for education establishments from providers such as Du, Etisalat, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), MoE, Dubai Municipality and the Dubai Civil Defence.
While the greatest overhead for any school is its teachers and there is no question they are earning every dirham of their salary.
Gavin Walford-Wright, chief people, marketing & admissions officer, Taaleem, tells Arabian Business: “The switch to e-learning has set new challenges for all of our 740 teachers.
“Their workload has increased significantly with some teachers working up to 15-16 hours per day to innovate their lesson planning to fully engage their students who are learning from home.
“They have been giving live feedback to parents and students as well as marking work that has been submitted online.”
For what is already a hugely tech savvy generation, traditional classroom tools have given way to a plethora of Google apps; Google Hangout, Google Chat and Google Classroom. While teachers are fast becoming You Tube celebrities in the education world, posting their lessons online and sharing from others across the internet.
A range of excellent platforms for education are currently available for self-study and distance learning via the internet, such as Khan Academy and Edrak, and Madrasa, a leading e-learning platform. Madrasa, launched by the UAE in 2018, provides 5,000 video tutorials in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and more, available for free to over 50 million Arabic-speaking students.
“I have to keep messaging the teachers and tell them to be realistic with their expectations, pace yourselves, this is now a marathon it’s not a sprint, and we’re saying the same to the parents and students”
According to a report from Dubai-based consultancy and advisory group, ValuStrat, the global EdTech market is expected to be worth $40bn by 2022.
While the Dubai Future Foundation predicts increased demand for distance learning post coronavirus.
“It is already clear that education technology start-ups are benefiting as more and more students are moving towards online learning currently,” it says in a report.
Jamie Beaton, CEO and co-founder, Crimson Education, has revealed plans to launch its online high school in the UAE at the end of this month, with the hope of attracting some 3,000 - 4,000 students every year.
He tells Arabian Business that schools worldwide had been relatively slow to invest in new technology due to budget constraints and a reluctance from teachers to adapt to the different ways of working from home.
However, he says increased connectivity and the spread of coronavirus has had a profound impact on the industry.
“Edtech was viewed as a graveyard place for venture capital to invest in. But in the last four or five years it’s become a hot space because of various dynamics.
“First of all, with growing internet penetration around the world, the user experience of these apps has got a lot stronger. Secondly, schools are becoming a lot more tech savvy, so they’re much more willing to try different methods of technology.
“I think that’s led to significant growth in investment in the education technology,” he says.
Ford, who is still hosting daily assemblies, says that with online currently working so well – proof of which is the positive responses from some 300 or so parents - the attention is shifting to safeguarding the mental wellbeing of students and teachers.
UAE residents who feel psychologically overwhelmed by the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic can now seek help through an online initiative by the National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing (NPHW).
Over 50 psychology experts will help residents overcome their psychological challenges in a series of programmes across digital solutions and social media channels.
In terms of English College Dubai, Ford says they are keeping in regular contact with teachers, who have created their own groups to share ideas, lessons and best practice.
“I have to keep messaging the teachers and tell them to be realistic with their expectations, pace yourselves, this is now a marathon it’s not a sprint, and we’re saying the same to the parents and students. You’ve got to monitor and make sure that the amount of screen time is sensible, with a mix of exercise,” he says.
“We’ve got some young teachers; even for our older teachers with families it’s a big strain but they’re sat in front of a screen for six or seven hours a day. They’ll be doing several hours of planning because to deliver online learning to a high quality, it’s not something you can pull out of the hat.
“It’s quite isolated so we’re doing a lot of video conferencing, we’re setting up little wellbeing groups to make sure everybody keeps connected because it’s quite an isolated time for a lot of people, by the time you’ve prepared lessons and everything else, you’re probably sat in front of a screen for up to ten hours a day, which is a huge amount of time.”
Ordinarily the end of the summer is greeted with moans and groans as the educational fraternity readies itself for a return to school. You get the feeling everyone will be happy to be back in the classroom sooner rather than later.For all the latest Education news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.