Digital duress: While schools consider these devices essential to learning, parents say they are under “digital duress” to comply with the emerging e-requirements Image Credit: XPRESS/Ador T. Bustamante

Dubai: Schools are on a ‘BYOD’ (bring your own device) drive, asking students to bring laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc, to class.

Even nurseries are being equipped with IT rooms complete with computers and tablets so that children as young as two and three get the “necessary” exposure.

While schools consider these devices essential to learning, parents say they are under “digital duress” to comply with the emerging e-requirements. Many claim the devices are not just a drain on their finances, but also pose a serious threat to the cognitive and social development of their children, besides their overall health.

The father of a Class 8 student at Our Own Indian School said he had spent over Dh4,000 in the past year on his son’s devices. “Last year the school enforced a new rule whereby students had to carry tablets from the next term. I wanted the best for my son so I invested Dh2,300 in an iPad. But a month later he told me it was not compatible with the school’s operating system. So I had to spend an additional Dh1,900 for an Android tablet. As if that were not enough, I may have to shell out Dh2,500 more for a laptop now,” he said.

“How will I recover the cost? Besides, I am afraid my son will misuse his school time as these devices give easy access to games.”

Schools like GEMS Jumeirah Primary School have introduced BYOD as an option. In a circular to parents, the school said: “If your child has a device which you currently own and that you as parents would allow your child to use at school, we welcome you to be part of this new BYOD initiative.”

The scheme, introduced to years 5 and 6 students in September-October, also allows shared access in a group, with the school’s ICT network team monitoring usage.

At the Taaleem-run Greenfield Community School, Amun Qureshi, Director of Education Technology said, “As a 21st century educational institution we have full school WiFi connectivity. We acknowledge that smartphones, iPads, tablets and laptops are a factual component in the lives of our students and we embrace openly and actively the exploratory use of these tools for education. We promote students to bring their own devices. We have expanded the curriculum to include BYOD-driven topics.”

Catching them young

Mary Kay Polly, ICT coach for Taaleem’s Raha Internatonal School in Abu Dhabi, said: “We have implemented a BYOD initiative from Grades 3-5 in the primary school and from Grades 6-12 in senior school. In addition, Grades 4 and 5 have specific BYOD iPad classes, two per grade. In the iPad classes, parents must open a Google account for their child as well as an iTunes account and be willing to spend up to Dh500 for purchase of apps for the device as requested by their class teacher.”

Dubai British School, also run by Taaleem, encourages students to bring devices but calls it a “devices welcome policy”, not BYOD. “By implementing BYOD, we feel it would add pressure on parents and would have implications if we were to implement it fully,” said Mark Ford, principal.

He said primary students do not bring devices to school as it leads to “issues with security”. Around 80 per cent of secondary students bring their own devices. “We provide students access to computers, through 4/6 laptop trolleys, two IT suites and 16 computers in the library. DBS has WiFi throughout the school, which is password-enabled. There is a usage policy and mobile phones can be used at the individual teacher’s request.”

But even where devices are an option, parents said they are under pressure. The mother of a Year 4 student in an international school said: “Although it’s optional, students will have to carry the devices or risk being left out. I am not sure I am comfortable about this because my daughter will slowly but surely stop using her head – all she will do is click on her iPad for any information she wants.”

Another parent at an Indian school said she isn’t happy with her daughter using computers all the time. “She is expected to make presentations and research the net for regular classwork. Textbooks and notebooks are increasingly being replaced by technology. It will lead to overdependence on computers and adversely affect my child’s reading and writing skills.”

Doctors say using tablets for long periods can make children vulnerable. Dr Rajeshree Singhania, a Dubai-based neuro-developmental paediatrician, said: “We have had parents facing behavioural and developmental issues with their children as they are hooked to these gadgets. Even children as young as three and four throw tantrums if the TV is switched off. Teenagers get addicted to gaming and do not interact with others. ”

Overuse could have a toll on the eyes as well. Dr Prashant Bhatia, Specialist Ophthalmologist and Medical Director at Vista Healthcare Clinic, said: “Incessant use of tablets can make children prone to developing computer vision syndrome.” Symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, neck pain, redness in the eyes, fatigue, dry eyes, vertigo and dizziness.

Educationists, however say e-learning is here to stay. Cheryl Rogers, senior adviser of digital professional development at GEMS Education Group, said all GEMS schools are being set up with secure WiFi coverage to access the school network and internet, allowing students and teachers to bring their own devices.

She said the initiative is being managed in phases starting from Grade 3. “Our platforms for learning have to keep up with the times and BYOD ensures a more interactive and innovative method of teaching and learning.”

Poonam Bhojani, CEO, Innoventures Education, said its schools are also embracing BYOD. “Dubai International Academy is the first school in our group to offer BYOD. The programme was begun in September 2013 among Years 7 to 13 students..”

She said students have access to a filtered internet connection that enables them to do research and collaborate with each other. “While we have started with laptops, we may include other devices in future as the aim is to personalise the learning experience.”

GCS’s Qureshi said: “We impose a strict BYOD acceptable use policy to protect the school and students. We have taken steps to educate students and parents on digital citizenship, so that they may cope with the risks of unfettered online access.”

Sudhir Kartha, founder & CEO of KES Group of Educational Institutions, said: “Introducing technology to children can be useful as long as they are monitored and supervised. I foresee text books giving way to e-books as they get cheaper by the day..”

Kartha, who runs educational institutions in Dubai, Ras Al Kaimah, India and UK, has a dedicated online learning space for students who come together to sit in a live classroom.

Dolly Lalwani of Growl Media, which has introduced educational apps for schools, including nurseries, said: “Children adopt to technology as they are born into it. The interactive nature of technology ensures better learning and recall. It is also more engaging.”

A mother of two, however, she feels technology can be a double-edged sword. “I am concerned that my kids are constantly talking to a glass screen. They are very useful when it comes to learning but they can hamper your social skills.”

With inputs from Anjana Kumar and Shveta Pathak, 
Staff Reporters