Dubai: Three weeks into distance learning, teachers, students and parents in the UAE say the experience has been both challenging and rewarding.
Schools and offices are currently closed as a precautionary masure against COVID-19.
According to them, the technical side has rolled out easier than feared, but the work-life balance and daily routines are yet to stabilise fully, as living rooms become classrooms and coffee tables become work stations.
Parents of early-years children have been split between helping their wards with distance learning and their own job responsibilities. For teachers who are also parents of younger children, this has been especially difficult time-wise.
Despite the challenges, the school community, including parents, seems to be largely holding it together.
Leave no one behind
British Orchard Nursery teacher Emma Hopkinson has two children in secondary school and one in primary.
“The younger one needs more guidance from me with his work but the school has been amazing. With regards to teaching my own class, it’s been about having strong organisational skills, being patient and having a firm routine, to ensure no-one’s learning is compromised,” Hopkinson said.
“As teachers, we’ve been confident right from the start. We launched distance learning as soon as, and as professionally as, we possibly could. But it’s not just about technology: children thrive on routine and that is something we need to always provide to them as well.”
To help parents adjust to the situation, Hopkinson stays “available all day for them to contact me”.
Going the distance
Indian High School teacher Nidhi Mishra is also putting in more hours, largely stemming from a separate evening meeting to plan for the next day, to ensure everything is in place for students when they log in.
“When we work in school, we take care of these things during recess time. But now from 7am to 3pm we are busy teaching children – whether posting videos and power point presentations on Google Classroom or hosting a live session with students on Zoom. Evenings are spent planning the next day’s programmes. It is very hectic now, but one we are getting used to.”
Sunmarke School’s deputy head of secondary Tracey Bishop said being away from her students has not been easy.
“As teachers we enjoy being with young people. The affirmation of purpose of seeing their faces light up when they grasp a concept or reach a personal target is not there. Nuances of empathy are difficult to communicate across a screen,” she added.
Bishop also pointed towards improvising new ways to teach subjects such as art.
“Practical subjects that require specialist spaces and resources which are available at our school are sorely missed. For example, as an art teacher, I find students can engage well in critical studies and drawing skills. The challenges come with lack of the specialist equipment and this stifles creativity and flow. However, I have been amazed how the school’s practical teachers have adapted their practice with the use of video conferencing, live demonstrations and even collaboration work.”
Julia Robertson, who is head of sociology (and has other roles) at GEMS Modern Academy, said teachers at the school had been using online platforms before the school closures, which helped them transition fully to distance learning.
“This could be the future of education and as teachers we are constantly evolving to deliver the best provision to our children. The move to technology at this scale has also sparked a heightened sense of exploration within the school community,” Robertson added.
All teachers who spoke to Gulf News said they miss interacting with their students in person.
Jordanian mom Samia Nimer, whose children Nauf and Omar attend Lycee Francais International de l’AFLEC, admitted it was hard initially to get her two children – in grade three and another one in kindergarten – to sit tight through a class session.
“They would be distracted and ask me every now and then for breaks. The children did not feel they were in a school as they were learning from home. So they were a bit relaxed in that sense. As a mother it was a heavy load on me. I had to ensure they fall into a routine and discipline. Three weeks on, that is what has happened.”
“Every morning they understand it is e-learning time.”
Lebanese mother Reneva Hneineh has to spend more time with her son John, 9, a Year 5 student at GEMS Wellington International. John has attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and so as a mother, Reneva has to sit all morning with him to ensure he gets along well with the sessions.
“The school does a brilliant job of looking after John. The school has a special support staff who keeps a close eye on John. At home I have to do it. It is a big job on my hands. Sometimes I miss out on my younger child’s studies but luckily the e-learning system allows lessons to be recorded and saved.”
Her daughter Kaityln goes to a French nursery – Le Petit Poucet. “Again the nursery is amazing. If I do miss a class for her I do it later in the day as the nursery saves lessons which cannot be done during a live session. Having said this, nothing like a proper school day – not just for children, but parents as well.”
Roula Khawla, Lebanese mum said she finds it a challenge to contain her children and make them sit through a session. Her older child, Roudy Abu Hana, 5 is barely getting to understand the e-learning concept. He enjoys seeing his friends and teacher, but is not concentrating enough. But her three year old, Luna, will hear nothing of it. “She runs everywhere and it is hard explaining the concept distance learning. She cannot fathom why her teacher is presenting herself in a computer when she actually sees her in person.”
How are students managing?
Asmita Pramanik, a grade 12 student of Delhi Private School (DPS) Sharjah, said: “Personally, I feel it’s true that when you’re at home, you have more distractions, like family time and gadgets. But I think our school has been doing well by setting deadlines for uploading completed assignments. So we have to stay focused; our learning is closely followed up and it has been very effective.”
Shrey Kholi, another grade 12 DPS Sharjah pupil, said time management can be difficult for some students learning from the comfort of their home but he personally did not face such issues.
“I think it’s been a good experience and motivated us to do more. You always want to impress in this new way of learning,” Kholi added.
“There have been one or two glitches but we have amazing technical team leaders who are available to contact always – and they get it fixed right away.”
Unais Patel, a Year 8 student of Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park, said he initially was “really worried” about distance learning.
“I wondered about how I would do my normal work and was anxious with not being able to see my friends every day. I thought I’d have to learn all by myself without any teachers. However, I have now seen the many benefits to it. E-learning has helped me to develop my independent skills more than I could imagine. It has allowed me to continue my daily routine from the comfort of my home,” he said.
“I also get to see all my friends on a daily basis through Microsoft Teams. I even still have PE lessons with my teachers! Every subject is taught online by my school teachers according to our usual school hours. My teachers are always available whenever I need them to resolve any queries I have about lessons.”
‘Not always easy’
Zachary Koeing, 16, a grade 12 student of SAFA Community School, said: “Distance learning demands a lot of self-motivation and dedication and it requires so much commitment to learning how to work efficiently in your own environment – not always easy!”
His younger sibling Margot said: “It is complicated and sometimes a challenge. I don’t like to be on the iPad constantly. But I have adapted and learned new technologies and new ways to learning my lessons with video conferencing with my teachers.”