x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The pen will still be mighty in advent of iPad learning, says UAE education overseer

The rapid movement of devices such as iPads into classrooms will not bring an end to more traditional forms of education, one of its overseers promises.

Uncluttered desks: students at Abu Dhabi Men's College use their iPads in class as the education authority prepares them to take on the cyberworld. Christopher Pike / The National
Uncluttered desks: students at Abu Dhabi Men's College use their iPads in class as the education authority prepares them to take on the cyberworld. Christopher Pike / The National

The rapid movement of devices such as iPads into classrooms will not bring an end to more traditional forms of education, one of its overseers promises. But it will keep parents more in touch with their children's progress, and with education authorities.

Dr Najla Al Naqbi has a reassuring message for parents who fear the growing use of devices such as the iPad in schools spells the death of the skills they learnt as children.

"The skills that our older generations used in learning, from a pencil to a book, are not going to vanish," says Dr Al Naqbi, the programme manager for eLearning at Abu Dhabi Education Council, or Adec.

"We teach skills, not just informations. From the past we take the skills of writing and reading in Arabic and English and the knowledge of numbers.

"In the old days we had storybooks and a teacher reading to us. All this stays, along with the progress brought by change."

Her position places her at the forefront of the emirate's strategy to prepare its young to conquer the cyberworld.

She accepts the idea of eLearning comes with many misconceptions - of pupils replacing a heavy backpack full of books with nothing more than a tablet and charger, and of classrooms where the pencil sharpener and rubber are mere relics.

"There is a general misconception in the public's understanding of the definition of e-learning," Dr Al Naqbi says. "Once you hear the word you think only of iPads and laptops, but this is very wrong."

Adec is developing a comprehensive training strategy for eLearning in schools, universities and workplaces. Each requires a different approach.

Businesses regard eLearning as a tool for professional development to be used by employers and employees, Dr Al Naqbi says.

By the time students get to university, they should have learnt the basic skills needed to navigate the internet effectively and safely. There the emphasis is more on research and group discussions.

The basic skills of the new technologies will be taught in schools, with Adec's strategy to allow teachers considerable discretion about what is best for developing young minds, while offering strong community involvement from the primary grades to graduation.

Dr Al Naqbi gives the example of a teacher explaining the differences between oranges and apples to primary schoolchildren.

"Not every teacher will use the same method because every group of students is different," she says.

"Some may understand more through their sense of smell, while it might be the colour that grabs the attention of others.

"We trust our teachers' vision to see what ever she needs for her class."

When using devices such as computers and tablets, she believes it is "very important to us to create a base of healthy skills in our children". That includes ensuring young minds are not overexposed by "teaching them how to sit properly and when to stop".

Another major issue for Adec is the distractions devices bring for young children. Some schools have introduced controls that lock pupils out if they are playing games rather than studying.

"We are going to teach our children about cyber safety from a young age to protect their rights and the families rights and privacy," says Dr Al Naqbi.

Cyber bullying is another issue, "so we teach them from Grade 1 what and what not to share in public".

Future generations will also be educated to avoid difficulties and embarrassment from using social-media sites such as Facebook.

Dr Al Naqbi calls this "cyber citizenship", defined as learning "how to be a respected person while using the internet.

"It is about being ethical, respecting others for their personality, religion, nationality and opinion."

This approach means parents and teachers must be fully involved. Adec has introduced training programmes for both groups and plans to bring in more.

Last October and November about 300 parents across the emirate completed the first "eCitizen" training course organised by Adec in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Centre (Adsic).

The organisations aim to start a programme of training in schools next month, which will continue throughout the year.

"The last training course saw a large number of parents taking part, attending sessions in the mornings and evenings across a number of schools in the emirate," says Dr Al Naqbi.

"Parents are eager to learn more about the applications of computers and the internet and the uses of the latest technology."

At present, teachers have access to an Electronic Student Information System (Esis), recording grades, attendance and any other relevant information on a daily basis.

The platform also helps administrative tasks such as school transfers and new student registration.

It all adds up to great efficiency in managing student records and eliminates the time-consuming task of sending paper files between schools and the authority.

This technology will also bring parents closer to schools. An application called iAdec can be downloaded to smartphones and will connect parents to a team dedicated to answering questions and complaints.

Inside school, closed-circuit cameras connected to the internet mean parents will be able to watch their children's activities.

"For example, if parents are at work, they can now check that their child is in school or even see him live in class," Dr Al Naqbi says.

Parents will also have regular access to their children's marks, rather than waiting for end-of-term reports.

"In the coming years there will be even more interaction between home and school," says Dr Al Naqbi.

"A parent will able to send an SMS directly to the teacher if they want to ask, 'why did my child have a low mark in his maths test?'"

At the same, she stresses the technology should be regarded as a tool rather than an end in itself.

"Using technology does help students to learn, in collaboration with many things, but it should always be seen as a tool not a goal. We aim to mix technology and hands-on activities."

Teachers are "like a second mother or father" who can help a child navigate the challenges and opportunities of the latest technologies," Dr Al Naqbi says.

balhashemi@thenational.ae