According to UNESCO statistics, the closures of schools all over the world in order to contain the coronavirus epidemic has affected 91% of the student population. National exams have been cancelled, schools and universities are closed, and learning has moved from classrooms to homes. Parents are now tasked with home schooling, aided by digital technologies to provide education.
In the UAE, a temporary closure of schools and universities was announced from March 8; distance learning was then extended till June 2020, the end of the academic year. Meanwhile, the government began to work closely with school principals and teachers to immediately start pursuing online education.
The UAE’s education sector was prepared for this radical shift – in 2017, the UAE’s Ministry of Education formed a task force charged with implementing the ‘Transformation to Smart Education,’ and even implemented an experimental initiative. The Smart Education Portal, an interactive electronic learning platform, was designed to bring together teachers, students and parents and apply a new pedagogy.
Several private schools in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, have already adapted iterations of this platform, along with blended education that integrates classroom learning with online teaching. Families can access their wards’ progress reports, class schedules and school communications online, while students can communicate with their teachers, complete assignments and be assessed. These schools naturally had a ‘first-mover advantage’ when the current crisis necessitated a move to 100% digital delivery.
However, the shift to online learning has not been completely frictionless. Access to online learning across many private schools was conditional to payment of term fees. Some families facing economic pressure, on account of the coronavirus crisis, found it difficult to pay. School operators reported that the shift to e-learning meant increased operational costs – for digital training imparted to teachers and purchasing e-learning platform licenses.
The situation resulted into a confrontation between parents and schools; requiring the education authority, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), to step in and call for a compromise from both sides. Private school operators responded by offering fee reductions and flexible payment plans to retain pupils and ensure business continuity.
The episode underscored how online education can widen the digital gap. For students who do not have access to online resources and devices or those who require learning support, it can be an alienating experience, contributing to higher dropout rates. With schools closed, we need to pay special attention to those who are most vulnerable, not just physically, but also academically and psychologically. Online learning may be designed to avoid deepening this divide. When the coronavirus lockdown was announced, UAE telecom provider du extended support by waiving additional charges on data so customers could access school websites and homework. Measures such as these help make education accessible, even when it is online.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, home schooling was not a preferred option in the UAE. Under lockdown, home schooling has been the only option for students to continue learning. Just like in the UAE, schools all over the world have used basic platforms, such as those provided by Google and Microsoft, as well as e-meeting applications such as Zoom, to deliver online learning to students in their homes.
The current crisis has offered an opportunity for all stakeholders to reconsider how education is managed and delivered. Moving from traditional learning to a more flexible style that fits the current crisis and beyond requires redevelopment of the education system and its tools, and most importantly the empowerment of teachers. Schools and teachers should not be perceived just as vehicles for knowledge delivery but should also be able to control what they teach and how to teach it. Technology can also elevate the role of teachers from simply being knowledge transmitters to actively working as co-creators of knowledge, for their students.
Numeracy and literacy aside, schools are important spaces for students to establish and nurture social skills. Pastoral care is often regarded as one of the most important provision a school can offer its pupils. Staying connected with the school and classmates is essential for a pupil’s wellbeing, especially under the current circumstances. For teachers, providing pastoral care when a school is closed and children are at home can be especially challenging. The current crisis has seen students tap into reserves of resilience and adaptability, guided and supported by schools, teachers and parents. If students’ pastoral needs are not met, their learning would be compromised. The importance of the role played by teachers requires greater awareness, and under lockdown, it is a role to be done by families. Therefore, a great deal of aid from the ministries of education, through the mass media, must be directed to parents as well. Radio, television and SMS messages should be used to provide them with advice that will help them provide better support for their children.
Under these challenging circumstances, it becomes even more important to maintain students’ enthusiasm to participate in education, especially at the secondary level. With 1.53 billion learners out of school and 184 country-wide school closures,[iii] dropout rates are expected to rise on the back of economic pressures; prolonged discontinuation of school can increase these.
The challenge today is to reduce the negative effects of this pandemic on learning and school education whenever possible, and to use this experience to improve learning at a faster pace. Education authorities must also consider how they will navigate this crisis, without deepening extant gaps in society and ensuring that all children have equal opportunities for good education. The impact of the coronavirus on education will extend beyond the current situation. Schools may not return to what they were before the global pandemic, and the boom of learning from this period may have a major impact in shaping the new education experience.