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Schools in the UAE resume after a break on Sunday (August 29). But classes won’t be buzzing with the sounds of excited children as blended learning continues to keep most of them at home. COVID-19 last year had driven students away from schools and universities into the safer confines of their homes.

With students studying online, the lingering worry was that they all were missing out on a well-rounded education. Many of the social skills are learned outside the classroom through interaction with their peers. That’s the downside to distance learning.

In the time of coronavirus, distance learning was perhaps the best solution. More than a year has elapsed since the classes have gone online. Although it helped students continue their education, e-learning is not the same as classroom learning.

Teachers had to improve their online teaching skills and schools had to upgrade their infotech infrastructure. It was a struggle but teachers too learned along the way, as did the students. Yet, there were problem areas: poor attention spans, digital distractions, and lack of physical cues were some of them. Lack of social interaction with other students worried many parents.

Online learning for younger children worked to some extent as long as the parents were at home. When the parents headed back to their workplaces, there was no supervision. So it was a relief when some schools reopened their classrooms as the number of infections waned.

Schools started to offer blended learning: a mixture of classroom learning and e-learning. So when classes restart, blended learning is likely to continue at least for a month. In Dubai, the classrooms will return to full capacity in October.

We talked to officials at the schools and universities, parents and students to find out about their experiences of distance learning and the challenges of resuming classes on the premises. Here’s what they said.

Distance education was new to most schools. But teachers adapted well and adopted newer technologies to help students learn from their homes. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Online education: How schools overcame the challenges

Online education was new to most schools. But schools and their teachers rose to the challenge. It wasn’t perfect, especially to teachers so used to the classrooms. Yet they adapted new methods and adopted newer technologies to help students learn from afar. Far away from the coronavirus.

Shiny Davison, director of learning at Gulf Model School (GMS), said their teachers have been using technology inside the classroom with various apps like flipgrid, padlet, spinner wheel, Socrates and Edmodo.

WhatsApp groups too were a huge help to students in obtaining quick responses from teachers. “We provide students access to teachers after school hours also to help them with their doubts and queries. Google links are shared with students to collate their concerns. Recorded sessions are stored in the School Learning portal for students to access whenever required. Video Recording (VR) and Artificial lntelligence (AI) are incorporated into the lessons for pupils from primary to secondary school. There’s also recorded feedback for students,” she said.

Shiny Davison
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Even before the pandemic arrived, Dubai’s Regent International School had upskilled the staff, students and parents with workshops on the use of tools and applications for distance learning, according to Jason King, the principal. However, technology in education is not enough, and it is all about a balance, he added.

The Heriot-Watt University Dubai too followed a similar path with plans for an enhanced digital blend to their learning and teaching, Tadhg O’Donovan, acting deputy vice-principal (Academic Leadership), said. “The pandemic accelerated this process. We have found that digital learning materials have been advantageous for those students seeking asynchronous learning, i.e., a student is able to learn independently, at a time convenient to them. All this has benefited our postgraduate students in particular, many of whom are studying for their Master’s degrees whilst working at the same time,” he said.

“The new campus at Dubai Knowledge Park is fully equipped with a digitally-enabled learning environment that supports the overall delivery of a diverse range of programmes, which include Data Science, Construction and Engineering, Accounting and Finance, Psychology, Architecture and Design, Computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI),” O’Donovan added.

The university’s Vision and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) was the key to providing remote support. “This allows us to deliver live and recorded video content, set quizzes, surveys and assignments, encourage online discussion, track progress and manage grades. We have also leveraged digital learning practices that we already use in some existing courses to create several additional digital materials for the benefit of all our students. Additionally, we understand that these are unique times, and our tutors are continuing to provide one-to-one support via email and other digital communications tools,” he explained.

Heriot-Watt also took a ‘blended’ approach to sports and physical activities. “Our students and staff have access to an online fitness platform that has more than 4,000 workouts, nutrition advice, wellbeing advice, fitness challenges, and we have also maximised opportunities for in-person participation in sports and training where this has been permitted,” O’Donovan said.

Daniel Adkins
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How technology is changing education

COVID-19 forced universities to quickly adapt their teaching and support online delivery, Daniel Adkins, group chief executive officer (CEO), Transnational Academic Group, education management services provider for Curtin Dubai, said.

“The education sector had to address the disruptive changes that technology has been making, many of which will become permanent. For example, a disturbing trend we have seen is certain companies have been transitioning away from university degrees for certain jobs in favour of certifications earned online. All these changes will probably have the most significant impact on the way post-secondary education is delivered in modern history,” Adkins added.

Gulf Model School’s Davison said new learning tools and technology have even changed the approach to education as they enabled students to develop effective self-directed learning skills.

“We have seen a paradigm shift from teacher-centric to student-centric education. A positive outcome has been that students are able to identify what they need to learn, find it themselves and use online resources, apply the information on the problem at hand, and evaluate their feedback. This has directly resulted in a drastic increase in the productivity and analytical reasoning of students,” she said.

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What parents say about online learning

Some parents are keen to send their children to school, when classes resume. Meghna Khan, a career counsellor at MK Counselling Services, is one of them. An Indian mother living in Dubai, Meghna Khan and her husband Mohammad Umar Khan, who works at Microsoft, are looking forward to their daughter returning to school. Alishbah, 8, will join Grade 4 at Dubai International Academy (DIA) in Emirates Hills.

Meghna Khan
Meghna Khan and her husband Mohammad Umar Khan with their daughter Alishbah. Image Credit: Supplied

“During the pandemic students adapted well to online learning. I prefer to send my child to school. I would keep her at home only if COVID cases are high. Being away from the classroom does affect the mental wellbeing of a child and her personality. They miss meeting their friends and having face-to-face interactions. I think a vaccinated child can attend school,” she said.

Pakistani expatriates in Dubai Muhammad Adnan and his wife Tazen Akhtar are also looking forward to their children Muhammad Alyan,5, and Muhammad Ayaan, 4, getting back to school.

“Online learning has been a very new concept as a parent. I was not ready for it. But as the classes progressed I found myself very involved and informed about my child’s education which was really interesting. I think online learning is as complete as the onsite classes. The only thing my children miss is socialising,” they said.

Muhammad Adnan
Muhammad Adnan and his wife Tazen Akhtar with their children Muhammad Alyan and Muhammad Ayaan. Image Credit: Supplied

What schools say about online learning

At least one school official is worried about parents’ perception of online learning. Punit M.K. Vasu, chief executive officer, The Indian High Group of Schools, said one of the biggest challenges for us has been the perception that parents are happy to stay at home and help their children through online learning.

“We want parents to understand that children are social beings, and they need social interaction. Parents need to understand that COVID is here to stay, and we are not going to get a permanent solution in the world. They need to send their learners back to school,” Vasu said.

The Indian High School Dubai has 13,000 students and 1,650 support staff. “We are talking about a huge machinery. So we encourage children to come back. We have vaccinations in place. We have airlines operating in full capacity, so why not schools?” Vasu asked.

Aditya Nair
Image Credit: Supplied

What students say about online learning

Indian expat Aditya Nair, 16, a Grade 11 student at GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai, misses school life. “Being at home just isn’t the same. Learning with my friends and meeting my teachers is something I want to experience again. I miss the classroom. The learning experience at school has always been fun and exciting. What I miss most is being able to conduct experiments in labs, my favourite part of being a science student,” he said.

Pakistani expat Salah Fahad, 14, Year 10 student at the Wellington International school, said: “I have never been so excited about going back to school. Although I participated in virtual classes for the majority of the previous year, I did go to the school for a while. During virtual classes, I missed interacting with the teacher and the class. I particularly missed the PE time when we would play fun sports, which used to give us a nice break from the classroom,” Fahad said.

Salah Fahad and Fahad Farooq
Salah Fahad and his father Fahad Farooq. Salah Fahad, Year 10 student at the Wellington International school, said: “During virtual classes I missed interacting with the teacher and the class. I particularly missed the PE time." Image Credit: Supplied

How schools and universities enforce COVID protocol

Universities and schools in the UAE place a lot of emphasis on safety protocols in preventing the spread of COVID. All of them ensure that the advisories from the authorities in the country are implemented.

O’Donovan of Heriot-Watt said: “Adequate social distancing, mask-wearing, and other precautions will remain as per national guidance issued here in the UAE, as well as the detailed protocols issued by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA).”

Gulf Medical School sends constant reminders and circulars to parents and students, the director of learning at the school said. “All our school staff are vaccinated. We are also keen to ensure that all our students are vaccinated as per the regulations issued by the authorities. Sanitisers and social distancing stickers are visible across the school, Davison said.

“The Physical Education (PE) periods will be conducted in small groups of eight to 12. As a large majority of the students opted for online learning, we adopted aerobics, gymnastics and Leslie walk (indoor walking workout) for physical activities. Emphasis is also laid on meditation, she added.

Other measures at the school include the closure of the canteen and removal of water dispensers. “Students have to bring their food, and sharing of food is discouraged,” Davison said.

The Regent International School has worked out ways to hold assemblies and sporting events without breaching the safety protocols. “We’ve been able to celebrate the successes of our students, school productions and host graduations whilst adhering to safety precautions. We ensure that the wellbeing of our students and they go home feeling cared for, feeling supported and make sure that they are getting an outstanding level of education,” Jason King, the principal, said.

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Why universities and schools won’t reduce the fees

When classes moved online, parents thought the school fees would be slashed. It stemmed from the belief that the overheads would be less. Barring some exceptions, the fees were not reduced. And schools had some convincing reasons why the fees remained unchanged. One of them is long-term leases or property ownership.

While parents and students think online or blended classes are less expensive for the university, Adkins said it is far from the truth. “In three to five years, the cost of offering interactive online classes will be the same or could be even higher than live classes,” he said.

“The only savings would be in terms of electricity for air conditioning, and this would be more than offset by the increased internet costs and the costs of the online delivery software. This does not take into account the additional costs for simulation software and other tools needed to provide the best possible education when it is not possible to use physical equipment,” Adkins said, adding that simultaneous face-to-face and online classes further increases the costs.

Tadhg O'Donovan
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Some educators in the UAE have been making concessions on a case-to-case basis and in special circumstances. Help to some deserving students has come in the form of financial aid, Adkins said.

The Indian High Group of Schools said they are already at the lowest price point. “We do not know what to expect of transport fees. That is capacity and volume-driven. I am interested in giving high-quality education at affordable prices acceptable to all,” CEO Vasu said.

“Space constraints [due to social distancing] have added a huge challenge. How many students do you put in a class, how many trips will our buses ply for an area? This presents two problems — more trips, more cost. That is a challenge, especially for an affordable school like ours. We don’t want to pass the cost to parents,” Vasu added.

Heriot-Watt University Dubai is not looking at lowering its tuition fees for the new academic year. “[Delivering online education] may cost us more as we may have to make further investments in digital technologies and training in order to be able to continue offering an equivalent quality of education and experience,” O’Donovan said.

What’s the future?

One of the fallouts from the pandemic has been a drop in the enrolment of students in 2020. “This was mainly due to parents’ financial uncertainty. The financial impact on parents and adult learners also resulted in a significant number of students dropping out of university either permanently or until the employment situation improved,” Adkins of Transnational Academic Group said.

He said the university launched a special scholarship scheme for Indian students based in India due to the pandemic, which allowed for a fee reduction of approximately Dh8,000 or Rs160,000 when enrolling for the September 2021 intake.