Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Coronavirus: how Covid-19 hastened the arrival of a once distant learning dream

Distance learning was scoffed at a decade ago but is now crucial to the UAE's efforts to educate its pupils amid Covid-19 concerns

Physics teacher Regina O'Dwyer demonstrates the virtual classroom. Victor Besa/The National
Physics teacher Regina O'Dwyer demonstrates the virtual classroom. Victor Besa/The National

Eight years ago, I was part of a team that led education technology training workshops for teachers in remote regions of Ras Al Khaimah.

The weeks-long programme introduced tools such as Google Docs and Google Slides, and included basic lesson plans to get students collaborating online.

From struggling to master a simple web search nearly a decade ago to a nationwide e-learning deployment this month, the transformation is astounding.

School closures started this week in the UAE amid a containment strategy of the Covid-19 outbreak. More than 300 million children worldwide are affected by classrooms shutting, and that number will almost certainly grow as the virus spreads.

Part of the struggle for parents and educators is uncertainty over when things will return to normal. Will the virus continue to spread? Could the entire school year be cancelled? There is one silver lining in this cycle of depressing news. School closures are putting a spotlight on education technology and its ability to replace the physical classroom. This is a shock test for one of the most promising and pivotal sectors in technology.

When I was in those classrooms in RAK, educational technology was still being scoffed at in many circles. Of course, technology-aided learning was a facet of many classrooms but the rollout was uneven and controversial.

In the United States, for example, some school districts embraced Silicon Valley’s promise of a brave new world of education infused with technology. Using computers powered by Google’s Chrome operating system, some educators rapidly augmented the classroom with all manner of cloud computing tools. But the prospect of genuine distance learning with pupils studying remotely was mostly a fantasy a decade ago.

This is changing and the global reaction to Covid-19 to shut schools and turn to remote learning demonstrates how advanced the sector has become.

In Hong Kong, some schools are using Zoom, one of the world’s biggest video conferencing platforms, to create a virtual classroom. Seesaw is another popular example of a technology solution for distance learning. It is a digital portfolio for younger students that enables teachers and parents to review students’ conceptual understanding and deliver personalised instruction.

Over the last decade, Google has become a heavyweight of educational technology through its suite of products in Google Classroom.

The tech giant offers a digital platform that effectively brings the classroom experience online for teachers and students through lessons, worksheets, grades and discussions.

The platform also integrates with the more familiar suite of Google collaboration tools like Google Sheets and Google Docs. Other platforms, such as Alef Education in Abu Dhabi, leverage advancements in machine learning to give students, teachers and parents real-time feedback and adjust lessons accordingly.

The growth of these e-learning programmes have changed the calculus of what is possible outside a traditional classroom.

The speed of deployment for distance-learning solutions in the UAE speaks to the rapid pace of development. From Sunday, March 22, schools will roll out a comprehensive e-learning curriculum for pupils, in subjects ranging from algebra to physical education.

With any new technology, broad implementation does not entirely hinge on code or hardware. This is especially true for educational technology and distance learning where children are involved.

There is ample evidence that children learn best when they read and write as opposed to interacting with screens. With the shift to e-learning via screens, educators will need to evaluate levels of learning retention when children return to the classroom. The long-term results of the school closures could be surprising.

It is hard to speak about positive news at a time of uncertainty around the spread of a deadly virus. But when it comes to educational technology, this may mark a turning point.

In order for technology to truly augment (and even replace) the classroom, the sector needs a shock test. It needs to be embraced by a large number of students, educators and parents to reveal its true strengths and weaknesses. Without the mandatory school closures tens of millions of children are currently negotiating, it is hard to see where such an opportunity would arise.

The lessons learned from this experience will influence the next generation of platforms and devices that will ultimately transform the modern classroom as we know it. We all have a part to play in this transformation.

Mary Ames is the director of strategy at Xische, a venture consulting and communications agency and publishing house in Dubai

Updated: March 12, 2020 10:42 AM

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