Our School Experience visit to iCademy Middle East consisted of a series of video conferences with key members of the school community. Students, parents, teachers and school leaders all took part to share their experiences. We were also able to see a number of iCademy lessons in action, both live and pre-recorded.
Our visit took place during the time of the Covid19 related school closures, so we were unable to tour the school’s Learning Center in Knowledge Village. You read more about the Learning Center in our iCademy Middle East School Review.
We begin by meeting three key members of the school’s leadership team. Attending our meeting are Jo Nolan, Head of iCad [the “iCad” programme is designed for students with additional needs, and is usually housed at the Knowledge Village Learning Center] and the school’s Special Education Needs Co-Ordinator, Maya Sleiman who is High School Department Chair and Caitriona Lane, Lower and Middle School Department Chair.
Given the June 2020 timing of our visit, our conversation opened with how the school had adapted to the UAE wide school closures. The clear message was that for most iCademy students and staff, there had been little to no change in school life – and this had been a real blessing in a challenging time! For those students who attend the school online only, there had been no changes at all. For students who usually attend the Learning Center in person, there had been more changes, but as iCad Leader Ms Nolan told us, the fact that the school already had the platform, software and ways of working in place meant that even for those students, the transition to online learning had been a relatively simple one.
“During the school closures, we have been able to provide stability for our Learning Center students in a way that, had they been at a typical brick and mortar school, there would have been more change for them to adapt to. That has been a unique factor for us. We transformed every aspect of their usual school day into an online one within 48 hours. It was that fast”. Ms Jo Nolan, iCademy
The Covid19 crisis aside, what did our team of school leaders think made iCademy unique? For High School Department Chair Ms Sleiman, the answer lies in the school’s ability to function in a way that is both traditional and flexible. She told our Reviewer that “We can give individual support and highly personalised plans. We are so lucky to have our software and an online platform that is rich in content and really easy for our students to use. Our students are able to be challenged at different levels. What our students receive consists of a mix of quizzes, assignments and lessons which they can work through at their own pace, there’s so much more flexibility than a traditional school. Plus, our teachers are readily contactable to offer support at the moment a student needs it”.
For the younger children in Lower and Middle School, Department Chair Ms Lane felt that fostering early independence and self-reliance is a key advantage of iCademy. “From an early age, our students can control how they structure their day. I think that is really helpful”.
Looking ahead to September 2020, the iCademy leadership team knew that the challenges of recent times meant that their school had generated significant interest from parents and may well receive an influx of new students for the next academic year. Were they concerned about this at all?
“The thing about being online is that it is simple to expand” said Ms Lane. “For us, nothing is going to change drastically. Every year we get new families who have never used an online school, so we know how to bring them into our community”. Ms Nolan agreed, saying that “there’s definitely a greater awareness of the benefits of online schooling. Parents value stability and consistency and we have been able to provide that. For us, September will be business as usual”.
Whilst many parents now have a better understanding of how an online school might work, many still question how the social side of a school that is either all or in part online works. The iCademy leaders are clear that at their school, friendships tend to evolve quite naturally. During live classes, children have time to chat at the beginning and end of lessons as they might in a regular school. Attendance at clubs such as crafts or photography club is encouraged and, in ‘normal’ times, the team organise monthly social outings such as sports, cinema or museum trips. If students particularly hit it off and want to share contact details, the teachers will seek permission from parents before connecting the children.
Before moving on to our next meeting with the parents, we login in to the school’s learning platform (Big Blue Button) to see what both live and recorded iCademy lessons look like. The first is a Grade 8 Language Arts lesson. Around 8 children join the lesson, although some are more active participants than others.
The lesson is aimed at reinforcing certain vowel sounds and the teacher utilises many of the software’s facilities including an interactive whiteboard (which students can annotate using pens labelled with their names) and slides. The software also has a microphone, camera and a chat box. The students seemed adept at using Big Blue Button and mostly worked collaboratively to complete the work set by the teacher. There were some behavioural issues, as there might well be in any school, but the teacher was quickly able to have this under control.
Our second lesson was a Grade 6 Social Studies lesson. As can be the case with flexible schooling, no students arrive for the lesson. This is not a particular issue at iCademy, as the lesson is simply recorded and will be available for students to catch up at a time which suits them.
Our team are also able to look at a recorded algebra lesson as well as a high school language arts lesson. Both lessons are engaging, and the teachers supportive. We did notice some resolution issues with the pens the teachers were using, making some of their workings hard to read. Teachers responded quickly to the students queries and the lesson progressed at a reasonable pace in both cases.
Our next video conference meeting is with a panel of iCademy parents. We meet five iCademy mums and dads, all of whom have children who attend the Learning Center in some form or other. For clarity, none of our panel were parents to students who attend solely online. In addition, all of the parents we meet have children with some form of additional need, ranging from mild to more challenging needs.
Of our parents, four of the five had chosen the school to better support the additional needs of their children. One father described his experience as “we were kicked out of every other school in Dubai [due to the child’s needs], so I guess this school chose us!”. Another Mum described the school as the “only thing that made sense” for her child with Tourettes syndrome, ADHD and OCD. She went on to add that at previous schools her child was struggling socially and that she often had to “educate the teachers” about his condition and needs.
For one set of parents, the school had seemed the obvious choice on arrival from South Africa, where the school year operates January to December. Rather than waiting some months for their child to re-join a school, he was able to join iCademy right away and at the appropriate starting point for him. Their son had joined from an Afrikaans speaking school but had progressed rapidly with his English. He had also received superb support for his mild ADHD.
The parents uniformly praised the small class sizes (approximately 6-8) and personal attention from the “excellent” teachers at the Learning Center. This calm environment had brought about many positive changes for one child, so much so his parents had been able to take him off medication.
The school’s Learning Center was closed due to the Covid19 crisis at the time of our meeting, and we asked parents to give feedback on the transition to online learning. One described the school as having had a “massive advantage” and that it “made no real difference”. The students were able to socialise online in Zoom calls and in online break out rooms with games, so the parents were happy that their “close friendships” could continue.
We asked the parents how, in normal times, the school ensured a level of physical activity in their students. One responded “for me, this is the missing point at iCademy. My son misses the sports and physical activity from his previous school”. The parents agreed that the school does their best by organising trips to gyms, walks to the local food court, yoga, swimming and sailing at a local sailing club during the good weather season. All that said, the parents would love for their children to have some outdoor space at the Learning Center.
Overall, parents felt that the school offered good value for money. There was some discussion about the general expense of schools in the UAE, but for iCademy, this was mitigated by the good quality education and the peace of mind that the parents now had, knowing that their children’s needs were being met. As one Mum said “I cannot put a price on his mental health” and another agreed that “…. before I always just used to feel sorry. Now I do not need to feel sorry any more”.
Children who attend the iCademy Learning Centre are not required to wear a uniform, but there are many aspects of ‘typical’ school life that prospective parents will recognise. Children attend school trips, including overnight camps to Dibba and take part in different extra-curricular clubs, which the parents all liked. Children who attend the iCad programme (for children with additional needs) are also able to focus in class on real life skills such as ironing, cooking and budgeting.
We rounded off our chat with the iCademy parents by asking what they in particular would like other parents to know about their school. For one Mum, the words spoken by her 14 -year old son, one week into iCademy life, were enough to describe their experience of the school “Mum, I feel successful” he had said. For others it was the personalised attention to both their child’s strengths and additional needs that stood out, alongside the “incredible flexibility”.
We were able to chat to High School English teacher, Alana Saadi and Lower and Middle School Lead Teacher, Cory Hurst.
Mrs Saadi, began by telling us about the “fantastic independence” she had seen in the students at iCademy. “I’ve really noticed their incredible autonomy. I’d be chasing them down for things in other schools, but not here!”
Mrs Saadi had been teaching with the school for a one year. We asked if the experienced had changed her teaching style. “Yes! I feel like I have had a vertical learning curve…But I have learnt so much, there’s a lot I would take back to a traditional classroom if ever I taught that way again, and I really enjoy preparing live lessons.” Mrs Saadi noted that the teaching tools and software available to her were fantastic. She particularly liked the availability of analytical tools which allowed her to keep a check on student engagement. “It means that no-one falls under the radar” she said.
Mrs Saadi agreed with the parents and leaders of the school in that “flexibility” is a key strength of the school. “Some of my students are young, up and coming professional sports people. This way of learning allows them to compete at a high level and learn at their own pace. It’s fascinating learning about their lives”.
If there were downsides to being an online teacher, it was the lack on in person interaction, Mrs Saadi felt. Some students were more difficult to build relationships than others and she did miss the buzz of an ‘in person’ classroom at times.
For her own professional development, Mrs Saadi had received lots of online support and training over her first year with iCademy. She had also learnt a lot from her fellow teachers saying that “this is a great community for teachers sharing information”. Mrs Saadi was not aware of having a mandatory number of hours of training to complete annually, as is the case with physical schools in Dubai.
We asked Mrs Saadi how she ensured that there was no plagiarism or cheating in her student’s work. “We have plenty of policies in place to prevent this” she said, adding that “as a teacher, you just know your student’s work and it becomes easy to spot anything out of place”.
We later speak to Mr Hurst, who is able to tell us more about life teaching the younger children at iCademy. He explained that although independence is encouraged in the younger years, these children do often need the support of a Learning Coach at home. A Learning Coach is usually a family member or home tutor.
Mr Hurst saw the key strengths of iCademy as the fact that “everything that is wonderful in a bricks and mortar school is still here, just with all our added flexibility, I’d really like parents reading this to know that. Don’t think this is not ‘equivalent’ to a typical school, because learning at iCademy is a rich experience” he said. As a teacher, he enjoyed watching his students really focus on their interests and strengths.
As for Mrs Saadi, Mr Hurst did find that communication with some students and families could be a challenge. Part of his role was to provide training and support for other teachers, but as for Mrs Saadi he was not aware of any set number of hours or courses that were mandatory for iCademy teachers. He thought that it might be useful to have some more tools for teacher professional development within the school.
We met with five fantastic iCademy students for our final video conference. Louis, Tallula, Manar, Ashdan and Hassan. Of the five, only Manar was an ‘online only’ student – the others all usually attend the Learning Center, for a varied number of days. Our student panel range in year group from Grade 8 to Grade 12 and have been with the school for between one and 12 years.
Hassan particularly loved that the school gave him the time to develop his own passions alongside his education. He particularly likes cooking and swimming. Ashdan had joined the school last year for extra help in maths and science. She is also a keen horse rider and the flexibility offered by iCademy allowed her time to compete in her sport. For Tallula, she was felt that the strength of the school lay in the fact that “Here, they make a plan that is made specifically for you. The plan is not the same for everyone. I can get the help I need. I have dyscalculia, meaning that I really struggle with numbers. Miss Jo was the one who found out why I found maths so hard. She has helped me work around the issue. That is what I love the school”.
Louis, one of the older students we met, loved that the teachers give you so much personal attention. He said, “The teachers are there for you 24/7 and they will move mountains for you! I wouldn’t want to go to any other school”. Finally, Manar loved the freedom that online schooling gave her “…it’s the right amount of freedom. The help is always out there for you".
Asked if they would change anything about their school, Hassan responded that he would like to see webcams used during online exams, to ensure that there is no cheating! Tallula answered that she would simply like to have even more teachers so that the school can grow.
The students who attend the Learning Center reported great relationships with their teachers. “They build your confidence” said Louis. For Manar, our online only student, she found that her relationships with teachers are not quite as personal, but that someone is always available by email to help her.
We were keen to know how Manar made friends within iCademy despite attending online only (and from Saudi Arabia). Early on, she had made a good friend (who lives in Italy) with whom she now chats for hours each day. The two had recently enjoyed collaborating on a science competition.
The school clearly does not overlook community involvement and the Learning Center students told us of Ramadan collections for workers and projects to support rescue dogs at a local rescue centre.
Last words from our students then – what would they like the world to know about their school? “It’s one of a kind” they agreed.
With so many parents now familiar with the concept of online learning, and with iCademy offering a tried and tested, good value platform for this kind of learning, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this school that offered ‘blended learning’ long before the rest of us had ever heard the term!
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