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Dubai: E-learning came into our lives as quietly as COVID-19. Over the past few months it has established itself as an alternative form of learning not just in the UAE but around the world.

How has the experience been for you? Ask 10 people and you will get 11 answers. That’s because we have strong views on the subject. Most of us tend to look at things from one angle - the one that affects us the most. So, if we have children in lower grades using e-learning, our experience may be different from that of children in higher grades.

The point is not about whether e-learning can take the place of regular learning in school, it is about whether we have made the best use of this alternative form of learning given the circumstances.

As you read the views below, think about all those who are involved in the process of e-learning – the teacher who has to work long hours to prepare the lesson and ensure that the message is conveyed, even though he/she cannot see the children physically, the student who has to sit in front of the screen and stay focused for many hours, the tech support team that ensures coordination and the countless others who work behind the scene.

E-learning can be a boon or bane - depending on how we perceive it.

Schools provide more than textbook learning

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

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Online learning is fine. We all do it these days. Whether it’s learning MS Office or Final Cut Pro, the training videos are out there. And they are very effective.

E-classes is an alien concept for me. I still can’t wrap my head around the very idea. Schools provide a multi-faceted approach to education, something that cannot be replicated online.

To me, classrooms are for studying what’s in the textbooks. The focus is on what’s in the syllabus. E-learning helps. But schools provide an atmosphere that helps shape a young person. It allows students to interact with each other and improve their social skills.

Even the competitions, the fights and jealousies all contribute to the learning experience. They help instil qualities that will steel them for the future. All of that will come handy when they grow up and face real-life situations.

Although there’s more emphasis on books, education is a rounded affair. Children develop other skills through extra-curricular activities like sports, arts, public speaking and so on. Some of these will help hone their personalities. Talented ones even make a career out of it.

Schools provide an atmosphere that helps shape a young person. It allows students to interact with each other and improve their social skills.

- Shyam Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

These are elements of education that online teaching cannot impart. So there’s every reason for a return to schools and colleges. My son agrees.

A young man who’s in the final semester of a Master’s programme, he too hates e-learning. “You miss the visual cues online,” he says, even if it’s the same professor on the screen. “The level of comprehension is totally different,” he adds.

Moreover, he misses the interaction and debates with fellow students. And the group projects. These enhance the learning experience. He just can’t wait to get back to the classroom. He misses campus too.

Online learning and classroom learning have their places. But e-learning cannot replace school education.

Navigating disruption in COVID-19

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, Principal and Director of Delhi Private School Dubai

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COVID-19, at first, was a gentle whisper from a far off land. We were dimly interested. When the whisper became a murmur and the murmur became a shout, we sat up and took notice.

On 23 March, we strapped on our virtual boots, shook off our apprehensions and muscled into the unknown. The journey, rife with twists and turns, is already 3 months long. We have survived and even thrived.

While most schools, ours included, integrated technology into teaching and learning a decade ago; this new reality was metamorphic.

How do we teach our syllabus heavy curriculum in full measure? How do we train our teachers, parents and students to speedily and seamlessly adapt to this new platform? How do we ensure that students are engaged and inspired? That their eyes don’t hurt from the glare of electronic devices? That they exercise in the absence of P.E; that they remain safe in the cyber world? How do we look after the wellbeing of our teachers? How do we ensure that parents are on board, often juggling careers, kids and housework, all at once? How do we know that our children are actually learning?

We were a virtual shoulder when a student’s parent became sick, we offered a sympathetic ear when a colleague became too stressed to continue teaching, we organized competitions, held ceremonies and celebrations, yoga and clubs, reinforced life skills, read stories to our littlest, played games, danced and sang: all of this, virtually!

- Rashmi Nandkeolyar

We took a deep yoga breath and found answers as we travelled the often-rocky path of online teaching. We learned to listen with close attention to what our family of stakeholders was saying. We established multiple channels of communication: WhatsApp groups, helplines, emails, SMS; we wanted everyone to know that we were always there to help!

We were a virtual shoulder when a student’s parent became sick, we offered a sympathetic ear when a colleague became too stressed to continue teaching, we organized competitions, held ceremonies and celebrations, yoga and clubs, reinforced life skills, read stories to our littlest, played games, danced and sang: all of this, virtually!

We encouraged dissent, divergent opinions, innovative solutions, extensive research into technology, meaningful collaboration, noted multiple poll results, collated and analyzed data, rewrote school policies and established cyber protocols.

We instituted a research wing in every phase of our school (ROL= Research for Online Learning), including our alumni in this task. We began to send a monthly progress report to parents (REAP= Report for Early Action for Progress) and followed up with a virtual PTM. We used the weekly class teachers’ period to laugh and play with students, but also to seamlessly assess wellbeing and offer solace and solutions. We found software to proctor assessments while staggering tests to ensure that all students had compatible devices. Every day presented a challenge; we became adept at solutions.

The dexterous dance was not easy. We often stumbled, but we dusted ourselves and tried even harder. We redefined our rich curriculum to meet the new reality. Technology became our buddy; one that we will heavily rely on even when we return to school.

This has a cost. As work and home time becomes blurred, we have to remind ourselves that we, too need to be entertained, to read a book, watch television, chat a little, dream a lot. We, too, are mere mortals, afraid of the bug; know despair, loneliness, dislike change and instability.

And yet, we know now that we are much more capable than we knew, that our resilience is made of steel and that we are agile and dynamic in all circumstances.

We will find a way to dance, no matter the beat of the drummer, however tough the circumstance.

Different strokes for different ages

By Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter

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When you are a mother of twin boys, aged 5, and a ten-year-old daughter, you get to experience the virtues and pitfalls of e-learning. It’s an unmitigated disaster when it comes to my young boys as the two imps look at their keyboard as a great place to pour their milk into. But the story has a happier ending with my ten-year-old daughter who has embraced her new teaching reality with gusto. I am not good at math, but e-learning has taught me a simple formula: your success with distance learning is directly proportional to your advancing age.

My young ones fidget and yawn as soon as their teacher comes onto their computer screen. If you are as young as five, then you simply don’t have the discipline to sit through a 30-minute session. In my experience, my twins do cartwheels the moment they are asked to read and the whole exercise makes you feel bad for the teachers on the other side of the screen. They are being punished for something that’s inherently not their fault. How do you stop a child from flitting around the room looking for their toy cars?

I have lost count of the number of times when I cajoled and bribed my twins with candies to get them to sit in one place. Judge all you want about my parenting techniques, but that’s how I am managing on a daily basis with my twins.

- Manjusha Radhakrishnan

But it’s a different story with my ten-year-old girl. She’s loving the study-from-home scenario and is keen to take responsibility for her own work. I have seen her grown into an independent young girl who has figured out the permutations and combinations of e-learning.

Her success with virtual learning is linked strongly to her age. She’s at a stage in her life where she understands instructions and is disciplined enough to see it through. But expecting children below 7 to sit in one place and pretend to be interested in a virtual class session is asking too much. If we lived in an ideal world, distance education for those under 7 is an exercise in futility. As parents, that frustrating episodes with your tiny tots can leave a lasting scar on us, while the small ones cart-wheel their misery away.

Virtual classes can never replace the real classroom

Sadiq Shaban, Opinion Editor

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Two of my kids have been taking online classes for the last two months. And I can safely report that it has been no less than a struggle for them and for us. It is not that kids do not enjoy their virtual classrooms but when your children are small and you have little time at hand (while simultaneously trying to manage your own work from home), things often don’t go as per plan.

In KG and early grades, most kids have a low attention span that requires constant guidance and supervision. Parental fears also mean that you seldom leave the kids on their own, given the internet’s inherent dangers. Even when you tick all the boxes – there is the bigger challenge of keeping the child engaged throughout a session.

All through the coronavirus-induced remote classes, never has there been a day when the attention span of my youngest one lasted a full session. Fifteen minutes into a virtual class, she stops paying attention and scurries away from the tablet. The teachers (from their virtual windows) try their best. We try our best but this is uncharted territory for all parties involved: school, parents as well as the kid. Understandably, the situation is not ideal for anyone.

All through the coronavirus-induced remote classes, never has there been a day when the attention span of my youngest one lasted a full session.

- Sadiq Shaban

Even when you cajole them somehow, small kids have difficulty staying motivated. Since they cannot fully interact with their peers and friends during the Zoom classes (or over Google Classroom), it invariably leads to a certain amount of exhaustion. I have no idea if this will go away in time or lead to a long-term disconnect in kids but frankly we are walking on thin ice here.

Modern schooling is not designed to be online. You cannot fault the kids too. The pedagogical approach is pre-Covid-19. Imposing online classes on four year-olds is not only tricky but it might altogether degrade their interest towards studies. Be as it may, if there is one place I want to see the kids in the next two months, it is their school. I already miss the yellow school bus!

Schools should have written off classes till summer

Ashley Hammond, UAE Editor

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I can see how e-learning might have helped some parents get a closer grip on what their children are actually doing in school and how it may have highlighted any issues that may not have previously been apparent. But, for me, it’s been sheer hell.

It makes a huge difference if your children are slightly older and more responsible, or if one of the parents are off work, but for someone like myself with a seven-year-old and five-year-old, and a wife who – like me - also works from home, e-learning has been a gift from the netherworld.

This may appear lazy parenting or irresponsible to moan about the juggling of something as crucial as your own child’s education. And yes, I agree, ‘if there’s no time we should make time,’ and ‘your family has to come first’, so sweet, yes thank you for your pearls of wisdom.

For someone like myself with a seven-year-old and five-year-old, and a wife who – like me - also works from home, e-learning has been a gift from the netherworld

- Ashley Hammond

But, here’s where it gets real, I’m not a teacher, and it’s been a long time since I was in a classroom. On top of that my wife and I have to work to pay for the classes that we’re essentially assisting or delivering.

You might say just plonk them down in front of a computer and let the teacher do the rest but it doesn’t work like that, you have to be on hand. And having the distraction (yes, I used that word, I’m sorry kids) of having to see to that as well as my own work, with precise times and passwords and codes for this lesson or that, this kid or that kid – it’s just a nightmare.

My wife and I have never rowed so much alI our lives as we navigate through this minefield together and we just hope it ends soon and the kids can go back to real school.

Of course, it was the best alternative to continuing an education during a crisis. But, I often think schools should have just written the year off until summer, especially for the younger kids. Failing that the workload and stress of set times should have been eased, for the parents as much as the kids.

From ‘nothing much’ to ‘pretty much everything’

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

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I have two family members using e-learning at home – my son in Grade 10 and my wife, a teacher. Watching them use this new form of learning has been a unique experience for me.

Unlike parents of children in lower grades who need to sit with their children and help them with technology, I don’t need to do it as my son has worked his way around Microsoft Teams and can handle the process by himself. However, having positioned my laptop next to where he sits, I have a good idea of what is being taught in class. I have been able to keep abreast of reflection, refraction, quadratic equations and figures of speech, to name a few. Knowing what happens in class on a day-to-day basis is itself a victory for me.

I have now realised that pretty much everything is being taught in class by teachers who have spent many hours working on PowerPoint presentations, hoping they convey their message to an unseen audience.

- Alex Abraham

Throughout most of last year, I struggled to figure out what was being taught in class.

“What did you learn in school?” I would ask my son.

“Nothing much,” would be the standard reply for many weeks.

I have now realised that pretty much everything is being taught in class by teachers who have spent many hours working on PowerPoint presentations, hoping they convey their message to an unseen audience. I say this because in the higher grades children seem to think it is ‘cool’ to turn off their video while the class is on. I listened in on a conversation recently between an exasperated PE teacher who was trying to get the class to do a few high-intensity exercises. With students refusing to turn on their videos despite all requests, it is anybody’s guess what they were doing at this time.

On the other hand, I have seen the enthusiastic response from the Grade 1 children my wife teaches. Their videos are switched on and they are eager to take part in discussions. Of course, their parents sit with them and help them learn during the course of the day - which also means that e-learning for children in smaller classes is not easy if both parents are working.

I have also realized that my son has plenty of energy left even at the end of the day because he does not have to get up early to catch the school bus or come home in the sweltering heat after school.

E-learning cannot take the place of regular school, but under the circumstances, it has achieved the purpose for which it was designed.

WFH plus e-learning: What could go wrong?

By Omar Shariff, International Editor

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When my sons, aged 13 and 10, started e-learning at the beginning of the school year in mid-March, I felt proud of human ingenuity. Overnight, the school system had been adapted for a virtual world. Just like that, teachers and students had been trained for lessons on Microsoft Teams – a programme I hadn’t even heard of until then. (Hadn’t heard of Zoom either, but that’s not very relevant here).

In those glorious days, I was still doing WFO (work from office). By the time I was ready to leave home, the kids were already two hours into their school day, on their newly-purchased Huawei tablets and Sony headphones. The transition from classroom to online classroom looked seamless.

With my sons' headphones gone, my WFH life became miserable. Loud teachers, disinterested pupils, and constant bickering. I now work to the soundtrack of “Boys, behave yourselves”.

- Omar Shariff

But looks can be deceiving. I started working from home in late March (if memory serves, as I am losing track of time). The three of us sit in different locations in the main hall where the internet reception is the best. Immediately, I started observing strange behaviour, especially in the younger one. Sitting with legs spread out on the sofa without a book and pencil in hand during Maths class, as though watching a boring movie. Putting on the camera and walking away to make ‘mud cake’ in the microwave during dance class. Playing the fool with classmates using a multitude of emojis in the chatroom (which is expressly forbidden). Alarmed, I instructed him not to use the headphones as, for all I knew, he could not be in class at all. (I once caught him playing Bomber Friends during Social Studies).

However, with the headphones gone, my WFH life, which by then was already not going well, became miserable. Loud teachers, disinterested pupils, and constant bickering. I now work to the soundtrack of “Boys, behave yourselves”.

I’ve also learnt quite a few things about his teachers. I know, for instance, that one teacher likes South Indian food very much as she often talks about frequenting a particular restaurant. Another teacher adores J. Balvin’s song Mi Gente, as he puts it on in almost every class. I know that his Arabic teacher is from Egypt as she uses ‘Ga’ not ‘Ja’.

Children these days are brilliant with gadgets and communications tech. It stands to reason that they’d be completely at home with e-learning. So, why do I think it has not worked too well? Because it is one thing to use gadgets for entertainment, quite another to use it for learning.

Distance learning: An unrecognised achievement

By Samihah Zaman, Staff Reporter

e-learning mother helps child student
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I’ve done it! I’ve really done it! There won’t be any record of this achievement, but after three whole months of it, I feel like there should be some way to recognise this feat.

I’ve successfully homeschooled a four-year-old – an extremely active four-year-old who knows his mind and who was quite happy to be home for what seemed to him like an extended vacation. I did it while also working a full-time job, caring for an infant and managing a household with multiple other members, including a pair of cats. Surely there should be some way to add this to my resume?

It certainly took superhuman skills.

Every morning, while making sure that my work assignments and tasks were on time, I had to wake and feed a young boy who was only just getting used to the school routine when the coronavirus outbreak shut down the educational institutions. While I made sure that my daughter was fed and dressed, I had to encourage a little boy who was itching to play to complete his activities and schoolwork on time. And when he was engrossed in some of the most engaging play, I had to convince my darling son to get to bed so that he was ready for another day of learning.

From the outside too, distance learning may not seem like a lot of work. But when you factor in the mood swings, the inquisitive thoughts and the easily distractible mind of a preschooler, it’s clear that remote education is going to be no walk in the park. Add to that the absence of peers, and the fact that I was transforming a space of relaxation – our home – into one filled with urgency and routine, and it may become clearer just why I’ve dreaded every new day of this undertaking.

My appreciation of the dedicated teachers grew manifold as I helped my son get through his KG1 lessons. They were smiling and present, and sent feedback on every completed task.

- Samihah Zaman, Staff Reporter

There were the regular lessons in English and language, along with basic science experiments, Arabic texts, Islamic learning, art projects and even PE activities. Each took a completely different kind of fortitude and mental effort to get done, and the workload felt exhausting, especially in Ramadan.

But my appreciation of the dedicated teachers grew manifold as I helped my son get through his KG1 lessons. They were smiling and present, and sent feedback on every completed task. How did they manage it for numerous submissions sent in by all 23 students in the class, I wondered. In addition, there were multiple live sessions every day when they connected with the children. These required some supervision and digital manoeuvring on my part, which I didn’t enjoy, but I noticed that my son was always excited to see his teachers and have an opportunity to interact with them.

It certainly got better over time, especially for my growing boy. He woke up excited every morning, and asked me eagerly what kind of ‘activities’ his teachers had scheduled. And while it wasn’t always easy to get those tasks completed, many of the resources and lessons his teachers assigned stayed with him, occupying his lively mind while replacing his requests for more screen time.

I also won’t take away from my son’s resilience. Cooped up in an apartment for months on end, he has remained joyful and keen about his lessons for the most part. He has developed new skills in math and language, expressed his joy at being able to ‘attend school’ with mommy, and taken leaps towards becoming a more responsible and independent child.

The coronavirus has been a challenge to all of us in so many ways, and certainly the distance learning journey it necessitated hasn’t been the easiest. But after a whole semester of it, I can only say that I am glad I’ve been able to keep my son safe from the infection while also continuing with his education. The school he is at also certainly did the remote learning well. And if the outbreak hasn’t disappeared before September, I would be ready to do it again, albeit with a definite sense of resignation, knowing that the academics will only get more demanding.

But make no mistake, I am thrilled about his summer break. Knowing that I only have to turn in my own work from now on certainly feels like my very own vacation!

What do the children say?

Pupils satisfied with distance learning, but concerned about safety when they return to school

By Anwar Ahmad, Staff Reporter

Abu Dhabi: Pupils in Abu Dhabi schools expressed their happiness that they feel very comfortable with the ongoing distance learning modules and are willing to come back to their classrooms when all safety and precautionary measures are complete for their safety.

They say initially they faced some technical issues as it was entirely a new experience for them but gradually adopted the system and loved it.

Ann Mary Joseph
Ann Mary Joseph Image Credit: Supplied

Speaking to Gulf News, Ann Mary Joseph, 14 years old from Abu Dhabi Indian School, said, “It was entirely a different kind of new experience for me having the distance learning classes so routinely. In fact, it gave us more space and interaction time with our teachers and we comfortably discussed topics and problems with our teachers. So it has been a wonderful experience for me.”

The only thing during the distance learning classes I miss is our friends. I can’t meet them in person and walk around with them, she said.

“The school environment provides a comprehensive personality development, so I welcome if it opens sooner or later with proper precautionary measures and vaccination of children that can boost their immune system,” said Joseph, who studies in Grade 9.

Ali Al Bastaki
Ali Al Bastaki Image Credit: Supplied

Ali Al Bastaki, 10 years old from the International School of Choueifat in Abu Dhabi, said, “I am very happy with the distance learning and faced no issues. In fact, it taught me much more. Initially we were reluctant to take up e-classes but it has been truly a good experience.”

“After starting e-classes, we faced some difficulties of technical problems, internet connection and sometimes, the new methodologies practiced by teachers for distance learning. However, we gradually learnt the technicalities and comfortably enjoyed the new learning experience,” the Emirati pupil in Grade 6 said.

“Now not only me, but all students feel more comfortable taking lessons through distance learning modules,” Al Bastaki said.

Teachers also made good effort and familiarised all pupils with new tools and technical handling of computers and video conferencing patterns.

However, it’s all been a good experience,” he said.

Elizabeth Joseph
Elizabeth Joseph Image Credit: Supplied

Elizabeth Joseph of Grade 5 of the Abu Dhabi Indian School, said, “I liked the online education system during this challenging time of COVID-19 because it is a good way of learning as we have been getting the education at regular school time.”

She said that during online education sometimes teachers are not able to see what all students are doing, while in the classroom all are under strict vigilance of teachers.

“I would not like school to reopen until the safety precautions are taken by the students properly as well,” Joseph said.