More related stories about the coronavirus

For Zayaan Ali, a 10th grader at Gems New Millennium School (GNMS), regular school days mean waking up earl, pulling on his neatly pressed uniform in a hurry and grabbing some breakfast before rushing off to catch the school bus. But over the past couple of weeks, he is in no hurry when the alarm goes off at 7am. Curled up in bed, he enjoys the extra winks he can get before casually slipping on a pair of jeans and a tee to attend classes that are now happening right in his room.

After the Covid-19 outbreak, educational institutions across the UAE had to implement a range of measures to facilitate remote learning at very short notice. Despite the challenges involved with the unanticipated move from on-campus classes, faculty are using the opportunity to explore new modes of teaching, taking advantage of technology to enhance the educational experience.

Being one of the first schools to start virtual learning, Gems New Millennium School initiated classes for the 10th and 12th grades as early as March 8. As a Microsoft Certified Showcase School, they are using the Microsoft Teams software for remote learning. ‘Since the teachers were regularly trained to use various Microsoft learning tools, we were adept at executing online collaboration and learning when it became the need of the hour,’ says Fatima Martin, principal and CEO of GNMS.

Steps were quickly taken to ensure there was no drop in the quality of education being provided. From rolling out modern education programmes to web-friendly initiatives, all stops were pulled to keep students abreast of their courses.

For Priyanka George, Secondary School Coordinator for Social Science and Psychology at GNMS, virtual learning ensured effective participation of students by reducing potential distractions. It also gave teachers the liberty to tweak lessons and presentations to make it more visually engaging to keep the students attentive throughout. ‘[Because we are online] we can customise and track intervention plans for all cohorts of students at the click of a button,’ she says.

GNMS is not alone in this.

Dubai International Academy, which commenced classes on March 22, uses Toddle, a specialised online platform designed for the IB programme. ‘The first few days were interesting, exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,’ says Candice Combrinck, head of primary at DIA. ‘Some minor glitches with accessing documents and instructional videos were there, but that was due to “Wi-Fi traffic” at home for some families,’ he says.

With online learning, you need to constantly find ways to ensure the students remain engaged

Online learning has been a tool to support learners at Raffles International School for over three years. But the most important consideration was to make sure parents were aware of what to expect at this time, says the principal, Tim Richardson. ‘The partnership between school and home has never been so important as now with the distance learning scenario.’

Primary, middle and high school students are not the only ones who are coming to terms with distance learning.

British Orchard Nursery launched BONline, an online programme comprising mini-tutorials and activity sheets to help toddlers and young children to achieve their Early Years Learning goals. The curriculum features videos made by teachers that provide visual guides to parents and young children on educational and entertainment activities they can do at home. These include teaching them the importance of washing hands, threading and lacing, making playdough, gloop making, teaching matching sounds and science experiments, among others.

‘The programme ensures that the term 3 curriculum goals are met and will help the children progress to the next academic year with confidence,’ says founder and CEO Dr Vandana Gandhi.

But getting kids to sit before the computer for studies is no easy task, as Annie Mathew found. Parent of Lisa, a pre-primary student, Annie says, ‘The fact that she is at home as is her father, brother and I, means there are so many distractions. She pops into the kitchen half a dozen times for water, some snacks, more water, then into the living room to check out what her brother is up to… getting her to sit in a place and do her activities is quite a task.’

To help the little one and to bring about a semblance of attending nursery school, Annie packs Lisa’s school bag just as she used to when the girl was attending her regular nursery. She also makes sure Lisa changes out of her night clothes and is in a comfortable chair before her laptop. ‘I make sure she doesn’t sit on the sofa or is in her bed,’ says the Dubai mother.

Toeing Annie’s line is Pusha Karim, Dubai-based mother of two. She ensured her children – Fariza (Year 6) and Zehra (Year 4) – set up their own workspace at home ‘to give them a sense of responsibility and excitement’, and dress in formal outfits rather than pyjamas for their virtual classes. ‘It makes them more focused on their lessons. It’s like they are in class and not relaxing at home,’ says Pusha.

Getting kids to sit before the computer for studies is never an easy task

For students of the American University of Sharjah who are pursuing undergraduate and graduate programmes that include subjects as diverse as project management, aerospace engineering, advanced physics and human biology to pottery, drawing and music, Dr Salwa Beheiry, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, is keen to offer as close a personal touch as possible when teaching in the virtual world.

‘The challenge remains the “personal touch” that comes with face-to-face interaction. In class, you can always engage the students; see who needs more attention, who is paying attention and so on. With online learning, you need to constantly find ways to ensure the students remain engaged,’ she says.

Cindy Baker, who teaches at AUS’s School of Business Administration, is happy her students are excelling in this new mode of learning as well. ‘The students seem to have much more of a desire to direct their education than they did before. They’ve given ideas on how they can contribute to the online discussions – everything through introducing the topic, presenting examples or summarising the day’s lecture. They have even suggested quizzes at the end of each lecture to be sure everyone is tuned in and responsive,’ she says.

Across the campus, at the College of Architecture, Art and Design, Professor Brian Dougan, who teaches drawing and pottery, quickly improvised his teaching to devise creative ways to deliver hands-on, traditionally “low-tech” courses, using both old and new technologies.

‘This shift to online teaching has been both labour-intensive and time-consuming, but I have found iLearn to be an incredibly versatile tool. As a teacher of abstract concepts and different ways of thinking, this has been an opportunity to rethink my pedagogy and the way I do things in ways I’ve never had to before,’ he says.

For his pottery students, for instance, Dougan adjusted assignments to include a small-scale project that students can create off campus. He has also shifted the focus on graphics by emphasising drawing and template-making in preparation for returning to CAAD’s pottery lab when classes resume on campus.

New ideas to work with online are fast developing in the fine arts arena too.

Individual and group music lessons in both piano and voice are being delivered remotely via video platforms with AUS issuing roll-up digital piano keyboards to piano students to use in their virtual learning experience.

While bringing her class is 'very much a learn-as-you-go process' , Dr Sherri Weiler it is ultimately helping her become a better teacher

‘I’m hoping to enable all students to have access to a virtual keyboard that allows students to compose and simultaneously hear their own compositions,’ says Dr Sherri Weiler of AUS’s Performing Arts programme. ‘While this concept is still very much a learn-as-you-go process, I feel that being forced to do this is ultimately helping me become a better teacher.’

At the BITS Pilani Dubai Campus, the Impartus platform being used and remote/virtual labs for practicals are proving to be hugely beneficial to students practising distance learning. ‘Every class and activity is recorded and communicated to students and their parents and students’ attendance is around 80-100 per cent for most of the courses,’ says Dr R.N. Saha, Director of BITS.

It’s something that has left students happy. For BITS Computer Engineering student Ashrit Kumar Dash, the recorded lectures are a resource tool that offer him the option to review in case he needs more clarity on any concept. ‘I’m quite happy with the online classes,’ he says. ‘Saving on the daily commute mean I can use that time productively.’

For Sophia Evans, Business Executive at Microsoft who is working on her EMBA, and son Ethan, a second year Psychology student at Middlesex University, distance learning is a mixed bag.

While Sophia says Zoom, the software used for her class, is helping her engage effectively with her professors and cohorts, Ethan moans about not having a direct learning approach with his teachers in school. ‘Ethan is sent a lecture presentation with foot notes and in some instances a previous recording of the lecture as a method of delivering content. This limits interaction or open conversation with the professor and peers alike,’ says Sophia.

Ethan is also unhappy ‘not being able to interact with friends and being housebound where there is little change in scenery’.

For his pottery students, Dougan adjusted assignments to include a small-scale project that students can create off campus

Three weeks of online learning later, Zayaan Ali too admits he’s feeling a bit bored. ‘While the teachers are doing a great job of making the lessons clear to us, I miss interacting with my friends, playing football and participating in all the events regularly conducted at school,’ says the student of GNMS.

He makes it up by ‘phoning at least one friend to catch up on all things non-academic. It helps a great deal,’ he says.

Staying focused at home is something Mohammed Rayyan Rahman, 20-year-old Junior 2 student of AUS, is also struggling with, although he admits distance education has been a learning curve. The fact that he can wake up ‘just five minutes before the class and attend it in my pyjamas’ is the biggest benefit. But the change is not without pitfalls. ‘Not all professors have found an effective way to teach online. But it’s getting better,’ he says.

Since many students are ‘attending school’ in their pyjamas in the comfort of their homes, Candice head of primary at DIA, admits their enthusiasm is a bit of a rollercoaster ride. ‘To get in “the mood” for classes, some of our students have opted to be dressed in school clothes.’

The principal of Raffles would second that idea. Tim recommends that students maintain a consistent routine as if attending regular school and to wear their school uniform during the distance education programme if it helps them focus. ‘We have also given them guidelines on creating a dedicated work space and establishing ground rules with other family members regarding expectations during “work time”,’ he says.

So is distance learning the way forward?

For Sumaiya Imran, whose daughter Nuha is a Grade 10 student of GNMS, nothing can replace studying in a bricks-and-mortar classroom and interacting with teachers. ‘Assignments and notes being online increases screen time, as students are staring at the screen for five hours or more,’ says Sumaiya. ‘With face-to-face interaction, teachers can understand from the student’s body language what the child has understood as not all students are proactive in asking questions.’

The school’s principal Fatima agrees that not all learning can happen through theory and simulations. In online classes, the provision for investigations, practical and interactive forms of study is minimal. ‘Also, students are unable to effectively communicate for collaborative projects and harness their multiple intelligences. The absence of pedagogical intelligence and face-to-face access of the learning mechanisms could prove detrimental to students of the online classroom model,’ she says.

Ashrit for one agrees. The computer engineering student is waiting for regular classes to start again. ‘I don’t think that online education is going to be the system of the future; nothing can beat direct interaction between a teacher and a student. However, with the changing global scenario, online classes may be seen as a more affordable and accessible form of imparting education,’ he says.

Tips for students

To ensure efficient learning during this period:

Make your own classroom: Demarcate a space specifically for studying. Clean and sanitise your computers and laptops regularly. Keep your books and notes close at hand. Make the space personal by adding a plant or a soft toy.

Create an action plan: Plan your day-to-day activities around your studies. Commit to spending at least 30 to 45 minutes a day perusing your course material prior to class so you have complete clarity in what is being taught.

Plot assignments/classes: Once you receive your course material and class schedule, mark your assignment deadlines on a calendar, place it where you can see it clearly and refer to it regularly. It’s important to have a clear overview of your timetable, workload and due dates.

Get a study buddy: Distance learning can be lonely at times, so coordinate your schedule for assignments with a sibling or a parent. Alternatively, you can get an online buddy – this will also ensure you both stick to schedules.

Take breaks: Distance learning can be as intense as traditional learning. Take short breaks between virtual classes to maximise the learning experience. 

Ask for help: It’s perfectly acceptable to speak up and ask for clarification if something is not clear. Contact your tutors if you have any questions. Teachers are there to help and guide you. You can always schedule a one-on-one consultation with your tutor.

– Andy Philips, Chief Operating Officer at University of Wollongong in Dubai

Tips for parents

Make a dedicated learning space for your kids: This is ideally where they don’t usually play games or watch television.

If it looks like a school, it is a school: Have learning-related items such as pens, books, writing tablets, blackboards and interactive learning games. Children are better equipped to tune into the task at hand when in a classroom-like environment.

Digital breaks: This is helpful, especially in the younger age group with shorter attention span. Give kids ample brain breaks and schedule learning activities for short bursts of time throughout the day. Endorse regular movement breaks such as dancing to music, performing animal walks, doing wall or chair push-ups, getting out and about in the garden, etc.

Plan your work and work the plan: Know your child’s daily/weekly schedule and learning objectives sent via relevant platforms. This will give you a handle on your child’s learning and help children prioritise and learn to create goals, tasks and deadlines.

Digital quarantine: Ironically, consider limiting your child’s gadget-use until schoolwork is completed. Games, apps and messaging can be distracting. Consider using a desktop or laptop for maximum online learning.

Team up with other parents: Check with other parents to see what they’ve found useful or effective. Share concerns/helpful hints. Be there for each other!

Encourage and celebrate your child’s achievements: Reach out to teachers for advice on suitable ways to give positive affirmation. And don’t forget to pat yourselves on the back too!

Expose them to new learning experiences: Learning doesn’t have to mean screen time. Excite their interest by creating small learning competitions among siblings or classmates – artwork, an interactive group game, a creative project like junk modelling or creating artwork out of recycled materials. Or encourage them to research something that is of interest to them.

Stick to regular bedtime routines: Don’t be tempted to push bedtime by an hour or two. Adequate sleep is essential for concentration, motivation and general wellbeing.

Keep lines of communication open: Daily, ask your child how they are finding their schoolwork, and whether they have concerns. Simple reassurances and understanding can go a long way in boosting motivation and alleviating any worries about schoolwork or missing social interaction. 

– Alison Lamb, Principal, Dubai Heights Academy and DHA’s Year 4 teacher Aaron Yasities