What Schools have Learnt from Online Learning?

Much has been made and said of the learning experiences of our children during the Covid19 pandemic. But what of the schools? What have owners, school leaders and teachers learnt from this time of both innovation and upheaval? What, of the many new initiatives that have come about as a result of the school closures, will remain as future best practice? We talked to several UAE schools to find out.
What Schools have Learnt from Online Learning?
By Jenny Mollon
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Amid all the talk of the ‘new normal’ in every area of our lives, education has changed. There are very few educators who would tell you that, even if we had an ‘off switch’ for Covid19 and all the challenges the pandemic presents, things would return to just as they were before. Education has, simply, shifted and is now on a different path. The ‘new normal’ will continue to emerge and be discovered as we travel its length.

As Term 3 of this academic year now draws to a close, we asked educators and leaders from a number of UAE schools to describe what their own learning experiences have been during this time, and what they look forward to making a permanent fixture in their schools.

While this time has been undeniably challenging for students, parents and teachers, we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com have observed the rapid changes the education sector has made and seen the advent of new styles of teaching and learning, developing pedagogies and technological innovations. We felt the time was right to celebrate the positives that have come from all of the challenges.

We began our exploration of these many changes by speaking to Raza Khan, CEO of Al Najah Education. The Al Najah Education group own and operate a number of schools worldwide and many parents will be familiar with the group’s UAE schools; Horizon English School and Horizon International School. This regional and global outlook had given Mr Khan significant insight into the many changes wrought by the pandemic.

“This time has recast a new relationship between parents, students and children. Our students have developed the most incredible independent study skills, which I believe will stand them in good stead to make progress at pace next year.
"Our teachers have a greater appreciation for parents as co-educators and, more than ever, parents appreciate that there is no substitute for a highly skilled teacher in a school with great facilities. And schools have got smarter! I’ve seen so much creativity and innovation and incredible uses of technology”. Raza Khan, Al Najah Education

The theme of the power of newly acquired independent study skills and a new and greater understanding of what children can achieve autonomously was echoed by all of the schools we spoke to for this feature. At Nord Anglia International School Dubai, (NASD) Principal Matthew Farthing had this to say;

“We have learned how to deliver quality learning experiences in a virtual school, and how this helps to develop learner autonomy and the potential for higher levels of student self-directed learning under the tutorial guidance of the teacher”.

Similarly at Arcadia School, Head of Primary Mary Donnelly had felt that this period in time had changed expectations from both staff and students. Ms Donnelly commented that;

“Distance learning has redefined our expectations of students and the expectations that they hold upon themselves. What we all considered to be impossible quickly had to become possible! Throughout this period of online learning, we have seen our students take a greater responsibility for their learning.

"Whether it be accessing learning content or using online learning platforms, the students have demonstrated exponential growth in independence. At Arcadia, learning skills are a strong element of our ethos. We teach our students to collaborate with one another, think critically, to communicate effectively and to be creative in their learning and whilst it would be previously considered difficult to continue to drive such skills when distance learning, we have experienced quite the opposite.”

How schools will set these new, independent study skills into action probably represents another round of challenge and innovation in Term 1, and we look forward to understanding how schools intend to capitalise upon them. Study skills aside, what else might parents see change in the classrooms of the near future?

For Ian Wallace, Head Teacher at Horizon English School it was the transformative power of the relationships that a school community brings about that had really stood out from this time. This point was one which he intends to make a cornerstone of the curriculum when his students return.

“Yes of course, our use of technology has advanced so quickly. That is true… but this period has, more importantly, served to remind us that connection and interaction are absolutely everything! More than ever, our team know that the interactions between students and teachers are of the utmost importance. Those relationships, that connection are what makes a school”.

Mr Wallace went on to add that he felt that there was one area in which he felt that new relationships and connections would flourish as a result of this crisis: between UAE schools. “I think relationships between schools will be so much stronger. For example, we know now that we can so easily connect with lessons that are going on at our sister school [Horizon International School] if we need to. We can share knowledge and best practice with other schools. That is going to be really powerful for education in this country”.

In line with the thinking of Mr Farthing at NASD, the broader importance of the social skills acquired in school was something he and his team would develop on as a result of the changes to Term 3.

“This term’s experience has also further reinforced our understanding of the importance of social engagement that can only happen in face to face school. This social engagement is essential to learning as children learn from their peers. Perhaps more importantly, it is also essential to the well-being of the child and, I daresay to the well-being of society. How can children understand their responsibilities as citizens and their role in a greater, globalised context without learning who they are in school?”

Horizon International School is an all through school, and Principal Darren Gayle focused in on the new normal that online learning is helping to create for secondary students.

“It’s been fascinating. Some students have thrived by being able to learn at their own pace and on truly open ended tasks. I can’t think of a better argument for the importance of personalisation in education than what we have seen this term. I’ve seen so many students take real control of their own learning. It’s been down to them in a new way and they have risen to that.
"For every student at HIS, they have proved to us something I have always said. That learning and challenge is about ‘stage not age’. What I mean by that is that we’ve had to throw our students into some scenarios we wouldn’t have considered before and they have not just managed or got by, they have responded incredibly well. That is definitely something we can build upon”.

The foundations for a new future in education may well have been laid during this period. Technological innovations that have previously taken several years to embed into our schools have been become every day occurrences. At the same time it is clear that schools have been reminded of their essential function as a place of social and emotional development. It is these ‘soft skills’ that appear to be emerging as the cornerstones and focus of a 'new normal' in education.

See also: WSA TV: The future of technology in schools

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