E-learning and schools in UAE: the pros and cons one year on

Children have enjoyed more rest during remote learning but screen time increased drastically

The rise of the Covid-19 pandemic changed the face of education across the world as classrooms emptied and learning moved online.

In March of last year, schools in the UAE closed their doors and adopted distance learning to contain the virus.

In the 12 month since, many pupils have been able to return to in-person lessons, though a larger number are still studying from home.

The National spoke to teachers and parents to uncover the pros and cons of remote education over the past 12 months.

Children catch up on their sleep as commutes are cut

A few studies in the UAE showed the benefits of children getting a good night’s sleep as they did not have to wake up early to catch the school bus.

The Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private schools regulator, reported that of the 102,854 pupils they polled for their Wellbeing Census, 60 per cent of pupils in grades six to nine got adequate sleep five days a week in 2020, compared to 54 per cent in 2019 and 55 per cent in 2018.

Another 42 per cent of pupils in grades 10 to 12 got a good night’s rest this year compared to 37 per cent in 2019.

A study of 538 pupils from grades 9 to 13 at Dubai College revealed the wellbeing of learners was significantly improved by at least an extra hour of rest afforded by a switch to remote learning.

Fida El Badawi, head of science and physics teacher for grades 11 and 12 at American Academy for Girls in Dubai, said her pupils were less sleep-deprived.

West Yas Academy used research to reschedule school timings for pupils while they studied online.

The school day used to start at 7.30am and was rescheduled to 8.30am for middle and high school pupils.

Caroline Waddington, a British mum of two children in Abu Dhabi, said her children got an extra hour of sleep while they studied at home.

Getting to grips with new technology

Teachers had to quickly adapt to new education technology when Covid-19 struck.

Now well-versed in teaching online, they believe the lessons they have learned can be put into practice long after the pandemic is over.

For instance, parent-teacher meetings could now be arranged via Zoom. Classes could be moved online in the case of any emergency or on a rainy day.

Teacher knowledge of education technology was greatly enhanced, said Joseph Kotarski, principal of West Yas Academy.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 1, 2021.  Schools look back at one year of distance learning.  British International School Abu Dhabi.
Patrick Horne, headmaster at BISAD.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anam Rizvi

Patrick Horne, headmaster at British International School Abu Dhabi said staff rose to the challenge.

Teachers who were unfamiliar with video-calling had to quickly adapt to using Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Ms El Badawi said that use of online tools, teacher-training in technology and parent-training was accelerated during distance learning.

“Yes, the pandemic helped. We can use these to make our lessons more engaging, and teach pupils 21st century-skills," said Ms El Badawi.

On the other hand, online learning created some problems, according to parents and teachers.

Social and emotional well-being impacted

Amani Nalouti, a Tunisian stay-at-home mother in Abu Dhabi, said her sons aged five, eight, and 11, struggled with the transition to online education.

"It was very difficult as they were not able to see their friends," said Ms Nalouti.

"My children are very active and to cut back to zero was difficult."

Ms El Badawi also said pupils felt isolated when cut adrift from the classroom environment.

Children’s social skills took a hit as they only spent time indoors.

"It is unnatural for children who are social to not interact with others," said Ms El Badawi.

Abu Dhabi pupils return to school:

"We had virtual events but the joy of coming to school and interacting with others is different."

Mr Kotarski said he had noticed a big impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils during the past year.

He said children learned to navigate social situations and social interact at school.

Screen time increases dramatically

While pupils were asked to limit screen time before Covid-19, teachers and children sat in front of screens for long durations to complete lessons during online learning.

"The virtual world took over our lives and we are looking forward to going back to normal," said Ms El Badawi.

In December, The National reported that ophthalmologists in the UAE urged parents to reduce their children's screen time after seeing more patients come to them with eye complaints during the pandemic.

More children had visited doctors last year with headaches, eye strain, blinking and fatigue, caused by spending hours on digital devices.

Parents’ well-being strained

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - February 14, 2019: Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal at Delhi Private School. Rahhal programme is in its second phase and heads of schools are discussing the challenges it faces. Thursday the 14th of February 2019 at The Gardens, Jebel Ali, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Parents struggled as they juggled work alongside monitoring their children's studies.

Being tasked with replicating a classroom environment at home posed its own difficulties.

Mr Kotarski said his school had many parents who were working from from home while trying to help their children with studies.

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal at Delhi Private School in Dubai, agreed that distance learning had proved a headache for some parents.

"Parents are not teachers and they are not meant to supervise their children's studies," she said.

"This was not a very healthy situation.

"If you have to juggle so many things as as a parent, you can get irritated."

She said parents jumped in to help children which was wrong from an education perspective. Teachers focus on allowing a pupil to learn something independently.

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