Zoom learning is no substitute for classroom experience, UAE teachers say

Heads of schools say online learning is a good model for emergencies but the traditional method is the real essence of education

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Rolled-up socks and makeshift weights replaced balls and scientific scales as the coronavirus pandemic forced classes to move from open school fields and well-equipped laboratories to apartments.

Even though teachers in the UAE adapted and learned to keep pupils engaged during virtual lessons, they are relieved to have them back in classrooms.

Teachers and heads of schools across the Emirates said online learning was no substitute for in-person classes.

Technology does not replace the classroom and when pupils came back, they were really happy

Gaynor Lowe, physical education teacher for years one to 11 at The British International School Abu Dhabi, said her days had been spent teaching outdoors, but that changed drastically when Covid-19 hit.

Ms Lowe said it was a challenge to move physical education online.

“There is no substitute for face-to-face teaching,” she said.

“As much as we did loads of reflection, it’s great having pupils back in the building.”

She said she had to organise lessons keeping in mind the household items pupils could use to exercise in limited spaces.

So pupils were taught to keep fit using socks – rolling them into balls, throw these up and catching them with a frying pan.

Children also lobbed sock balls into dustbins or washing baskets to practise under-arm throwing.

“I had to be very creative to make my class interactive. We did dance and yoga, and had pupils work in groups," Ms Lowe said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 1, 2021.  Schools look back at one year of distance learning.  British International School Abu Dhabi. --  Ms. Gaynor-  Teacher at BISAD.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anam Rizvi
Gaynor Lowe, physical education teacher at The British International School Abu Dhabi, said it had been a challenge initially to move physical education online. Victor Besa / The National

Parents and teachers learnt to use technology effectively in the past year to help children learn remotely.

“Online learning is a good model for emergencies. Is it better? Of course not. It’s not the same experience,” said Fida El Badawi, head of science and physics teacher for grades 11 and 12 at American Academy for Girls in Dubai.

"Teachers had to do it overnight and it was hard.

“It was a challenge to mimic classroom experience.”

Ms El Badawi said teachers started using Microsoft Teams and breakout rooms, which was new for them.

“We used virtual labs and simulations, rulers, weights and measurements,” she said.

“We were able to do experiments but it was not the same experience.”

Ms El Badawi said the pandemic accelerated the integration of technology into the classroom.

She said prior to 2020, some schools had incorporated technology but others had lagged behind. However, the pandemic forced everyone to become more tech-savvy.

“The pandemic put us on a crash course,” she said.

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
Rashmi Nandkeolyar says the first term of online learning was difficult as teachers and pupils adapted to the changes. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“This past year closed those gaps and brought everyone together.”

Heads of schools said they had limited time not only to adapt but also focus on children's mental well-being, as staff learnt to stay calm during an unprecedented year.

“Technology does not replace the classroom," said Patrick Horne, headmaster at The British International School Abu Dhabi.

“We learnt the importance of being together and when pupils came back, they were really happy.”

Mr Horne said he never worried about pupils falling behind in learning.

He said stay-home restrictions brought many families closer than ever before.

And people learnt to value it more once they were back in offices and schools.

“We had a similar world for a long time which was shaken up,” he said.

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal of Delhi Private School Dubai, said the first term of online learning was difficult to manage.

"It was an absolute sea change from what we were used to," Ms Nandkeolyar said.

“We had to give half-an-hour breaks and the school day had to be reformatted.

“Even today we have to close a class when a pupil tests positive."

Ms Nandkeolyar said the school opted for open book examination, during which pupils could refer to books, notes and other study materials to answer the questions.

Lisa Johnson, principal at the American Academy of Girls in Dubai, said the pandemic redefined the role of the teachers. They learnt how to provide a safe and effective learning environment for the pupils during online lessons.

“Teachers did not miss a beat. They went from zero to 100,” Ms Johnson said.

“The pandemic forced our teachers to make transitions."

So far, only 50 per cent of children have returned to the school, while the other half continue to learn online.

She said teachers worked on strategies to improve participation in virtual classrooms and keep pupils engaged.

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