Virtual learning experience of the last few months to drive further innovation in learning
As schools look to re-open this September with the appropriate safety measures advised by the UAE health authorities, the virtual learning experience has been transformative for educators, parents and students. From the rapid rollout and management of the e-learning experience to the shift in mindsets, the journey over the past few months has been both challenging and exciting for the future of learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw schools worldwide rapidly adjusting to an e-learning model. In East Asia, for example, with American School Hong Kong (ASHK), political unrest had already led to the school being closed from February 2020, and the subsequent viral outbreak necessitated the delivery of an online learning program. ASHK’s sister schools: Fairgreen International School, Dunecrest American School and American International School in Abu Dhabi in UAE, as well as those in Egypt, Cyprus and Lebanon, all part of the Esol Education network, soon rolled out their own robust distance learning programs, some with just a few days’ notice.
According to Dr. Joseph Nettikaden, Esol Education’s Chief Information Officer, Esol schools were fortunate to be in a strong position to implement e-learning both from a platform and device standpoint. With a 1:1, bring-your-own-device policy from Grade 3 onwards, and 1:1 classroom devices available for Grades 1 and 2, teachers and students were already familiar with the protocols and platforms required for learning, collaboration, sharing and assessing student work. The shift to virtual learning, however, meant adding a new layer of video conferencing, recording lessons and broadcasting. It was here, within the face-to-face component of e-learning where training had to be provided – with the synchronous model it was learning how to manage a virtual classroom with multiple students at the same time, and with the asynchronous model – teachers had to familiarize themselves with video recording and broadcasting tools.
As soon as the leadership teams knew that school closures were imminent, they got together to plan what an e-learning day would look like for students and teachers, and set expectations. They would typically break it down by different age levels, and then they thought about what learning would look like for core classes versus electives. They then examined special subjects including PE, Music, Art and Drama, and how teachers would conduct those classes virtually. Next was to think about expectations from families with multiple students, given the guidelines of the government concerning working from home and social distancing.
Wellness was also another big aspect that Esol’s school directors kept an eye on. Counsellors were called upon to help the community maintain their wellbeing and manage stress, both of isolation and having to adapt to a new way of learning. Naturally, staff, students and their parents are all affected by this unusual global situation, and the schools’ leadership ensured working with counselling teams to ensure community wellbeing.
One of the other concerns that schools had with this major shift was bandwidth availability across many of the geographies where they operate: how would the telecommunications network cope with the sudden surge in demand for Internet connectivity? However, while there were a few expected challenges during the first couple of days, whether at provider level or ISP, they did not hear that any more. Fortunately, for Esol in the UAE, education regulators, ADEK and KHDA, coordinated with the telecom authorities, to make videoconferencing available. They also worked with Zoom, who made their premium version available for free for UAE-based educational institutions.
The biggest development was to see how students have really adapted to online platforms, they are a generation of digital natives, and they are really shining in their usage of the various applications. Another positive aspect is that this experience has made teachers and administrators a lot more comfortable with using new technology, adapting and experimenting, upskilling themselves. They have developed a new appreciation for technology. As schools look to re-open in September, this experience will greatly help with the level of acceptance, usage and adoption of new learning technologies and application. Teachers will now have the confidence to really step out of their comfort zones, as they have proved to themselves that they can adapt to new digital platforms.
Technology has become a great equalizer now, this e-learning experience will pave the way for new educational technology tools to come in to classrooms to enhance the learning experience, and bandwidth needs will continue to grow as we support more and more e-learning avenues going forward. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will continue to enhance student learning, by providing teachers deeper data insights into individual student attainment, allowing them to tailor learning experiences for each child. Augmented reality (AR) will also provide unprecedented virtual learning opportunities for students, allowing them to truly experience the past, present and future!
“The whole world has come to realize the importance of technology in the learning environment – this experience is a real proof of concept of technology enabling robust learning. Teachers have effectively become content creators, being challenged to deliver engaging and creative lessons remotely, and we will see a lot of innovation in the future. I can see blended learning and virtual lessons being more of a part of routine educational practice in the future, allowing teachers to use instruction time to reinforce knowledge rather than just deliver concepts. Virtual classrooms within classrooms will be another trend, with world renowned specialists beaming into classrooms from anywhere in the world. Augmented reality will also present great opportunities in the near future!” – Dr. Joseph Nettikaden, Esol Education’s Chief Information Officer.