UAE Schools Reduce Screen-Based Learning

As UAE schools embrace returning to “normal” post-pandemic, parents and educators are pausing to reflect on how technology is to be used in education. Having gone through a period of absolute reliance on screens, for even the very youngest children during school closures, deciphering what the new ‘normal’ looks like is not so simple...
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

As UAE schools embrace returning to “normality” post pandemic, parents and educators are pausing to reflect on how technology is to be used in education. Having gone through a period of absolute reliance on screens, deciphering what the ‘normal’ should be in and out of the classroom is the subject of much debate. 

With some UAE schools requiring children as young as four-years-old to use a personal tablet, many parents and educators think it’s time for a change. We spoke to school leaders, education experts and parents, and found some alignment, with many schools voicing an aim to move towards a more ‘hands-on’ approach for children in lower primary levels. 

For UAE primary schools that require children to bring their own tablet to school, this typically starts between Year 1/KG2 and Year 3/Grade 2, although there are a minority of schools requiring this from FS2/Pre-KG. Other schools provide these devices, distributing them as required for specific activities. The use of these devices in children’s learning, and the amount of time spent using them, varies considerably from school to school. We sought feedback from parents on their experiences.

“We are finding that our daughter’s school is much more tablet-led than we had anticipated” Amelia Andrews, whose six-year-old daughter is in a British curriculum school in Dubai, told us. “Activities that would very easily be carried out using a pencil and paper are instead on the tablet.”

This view, that schools are not always using this technology effectively or appropriately, was shared by Dubai-based father, Dan Ward: 

“Tablets and screens seem to be used as an easy way to make lessons fun but isn’t this just lazy teaching? Children are often already over exposed to screens without pushing this at school also.” 

We spoke to Sarah Polley, Assistant Head of Primary at Safa British School, about whether parent concerns on this issue were legitimate. Children at the school are asked to bring a personal device from Year 1, with children in the early years section introduced gradually, with a focus on digital safety. Ms Polley told us:

“In our view, parental concerns regarding the overuse of screens and technology are well founded and based on the fact that we are living in a time when access to devices is completely unprecedented.
Now that pandemic restrictions are easing, we are returning to more written work in exercise books, and more collaboration-based practical activities.
As a school, we believe it is essential to strike the balance between educating our students in becoming the digital leaders of the future and learning healthy self-regulation and screen-time habits." 

GEMS World Academy is also going through a similar change in direction. Primary Principal, Kristen Murphy, explained:

"As a result of Covid-19 and distance learning, all students have been afforded more screen time than is necessarily healthy, in our opinion. Due to distance learning, our policy regarding access levels for the iPad were lowered to begin for those in Grade 1. For the 2022-23 academic year, we have agreed that we will begin to go back to the pre-Covid days of minimal screen time and no devices for younger grades.

The newly opened Durham School Dubai has not had to directly contend with the influence of lock down when putting in place its policies and approaches to technology use. None the less, the school's messaging on this has perhaps captured the zeitgeist. landing at the right time with many parents seeking to limit screen use for their children more than ever.

Principal Mark Atkins has voiced a need to “focus on essential skills”, and “provide a strong foundation”, adding that while technology has an important role to play in education, it is “not the answer to all things”. Specifically on the subject of using tablets in the younger year groups, Mr Atkins said:

“When learning remotely was all that was possible, schools did amazing things developing their online provision but parents are very aware of the need for children to mix, to socialise and benefit from face-to face learning.
None of this is to say that technology does not have its place in school, of course it does and it can have a huge positive impact when used effectively. However, I believe there is still a place for work in books, for neat handwriting and for high quality written teacher feedback to every piece of work forming a lasting record of a child’s educational journey."

At Durham School Dubai, children are not required to bring a personal tablet or device to school. Tablets are utilised when deemed appropriate as a tool for learning but are provided by the school and distributed for specific tasks. The school also points out that it does not set homework based on apps or ‘educational games’ either. 

Of course, not all parents are feeling frustrations on this issue, and not all schools are cutting back. Parent of twins, Ellie Salkeld, expressed a more pragmatic view:

Tablets are here to stay, and being able to link them to programmes and classroom screens can make them a fantastic tool for creative and explorative learning. I want my children to be a part of this world - they are digital natives and I feel it’s inescapable. 
What I do expect of schools is to manage screen time sensibly, with safeguarding measures in place to guard against accidental or deliberate access to inappropriate materials or bullying - and specifically to help my kids to understand ‘safe technology use’ in the way that going to the swimming pool comes with ‘water safety’ tuition.”

Ms Salkeld's pro-technology view, and prioritising of digital safety, is shared by many schools. Mr Jonathan Roberts, Year 3/4 Assistant Principal at GEMS Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis, explained his school's perspective:

"With technology taking an ever-increasing role in our personal and professional lives, schools have a big responsibility to ensure students develop the essential digital literacy that they will need to thrive in an increasingly technological world. 
The first priority for schools must be to ensure we are devoting a sufficient time to educating students about how to use technology in a way that is healthy."

Mr Roberts went on to explain that the school aims to achieve balance, and expressed a view that where technology enhances learning a learning experience, its use is appropriate:

"At WSO, we ask ourselves, does this enhance the students’ ability to acquire information, communicate their learning or create something innovative with their learning? If the answer is yes, only then do we integrate it as a tool."

Are parents justified in feeling frustrated about tablet use in primary schools? As with many issues within education, this debate is not only an issue of school policy or approach, but in reality, may simply come down to the skill of individual teachers in using the tools they have available to them, and arguably the training and professional development opportunities made available to them by the school. 

UAE schools are largely aiming to find a balance, altering policies and ways of working as they do so, undoubtedly with some succeeding more than others on this front. The use of such devices, however, appears to be here to stay, even for our youngest. The debate now is not so much whether they should be used, but when and how they are being used. 

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