Private schools are mobilizing to shift learning online amid countrywide covid-19 closure: Egypt’s private schools are rolling out e-learning systems to resume classes online after Saturday’s decision to close all schools and universities for two weeks in a bid to slow the spread of the virus that causes covid-19.
What are they deploying? The tools include suites of products from Microsoft and Google, their own learning management systems, and specially created videos. Many schools have been preparing for at least three weeks, representatives of El Alsson, the American International School of Egypt (AIS) and Schutz American School told Enterprise. Distance learning measures will be fully implemented today or tomorrow for a number of schools, including AIS and schools owned by Cairo for Investment and Real Estate Development (CIRA), while GEMS is ready to implement its e-learning program for its international schools today and for its national schools in a week, according to GEMS CEO Ahmed Wahby.
For many private schools, this means adapting and deploying resources already in use. El Alsson’s e-learning system is centered around Google Classroom, which the school already uses to assign tasks, communicate with students, and track their responses. All teachers and students are already familiar with the system, which makes the transition process smoother, says El Alsson Executive Director Karim Rogers. Use of Google Classroom is often complemented by Zoom, a video-conferencing platform that allows teachers to interact directly with students in situations where visual cues are particularly important. Microsoft learning tools are also among the suite of resources currently being augmented to be used at greater scale, says CIRA CEO Mohamed El Kalla. And online resources, including guided reading program Raz-Kids and education differentiation platform Freckle, are great examples of adaptive learning software that AIS is currently using, says AIS Director Kapono Ciotti. At a global level, Scholastic, Zoom, Cambridge and other learning platforms are opening up to help schools move online as smoothly as possible, notes El Kalla.
Schools are also creating their own new tools. AIS has been creating online lessons in video format as its main way of delivering education to its primary school students, who are not yet ready to work through Google Classroom, says Ciotti. It’s been very positive for teachers to learn how to do this process together, he said, and an interesting chance to accelerate hybrid learning, which is likely to be the future for many schools, even without these closures. CIRA, meanwhile, is employing its own learning management system to communicate with students and teachers and to deliver e-learning. GEMS is using its own platform for remote learning (a virtual learning environment) to post lectures and homework assignments and to communicate with parents and students. The parts of the curriculum posted there won’t be live at the beginning, says Wahby, but the live version may be implemented in the future depending on community readiness.
But just how effective is e-learning? AIS measures two main things to assess whether learning is really taking place: Students need to first demonstrate their mastery of a topic and then defend their understanding of it, says Ciotti. These are important indicators of authentic learning, and are often most effectively measured through video or audio submissions, either live or recorded. The process helps assure teachers that learning is taking place, and also encourages students to reflect on their learning, which he likens to a mini masters or doctoral defense.
The message? It’s not business as usual, but it’s as close as we can manage. Many schools have been preparing for this measure and have the infrastructure and the technical capabilities to put it into place, says Schutz’s Assistant Head of School Massimo Laterza. And with school closures in effect in Hong Kong since early February, AIS and other schools have learned from the experience of schools in Asia and prepare, says AIS chief Tammam Abu Shakra.
And lessons learned from previous crises are being put into action. Teaching staff who experienced school closures and disruptions during the bird flu and swine flu outbreaks are able to reassure and inform new teachers, putting forward a strong case for quick action while helping to create a sense of normalcy around online learning and reduce panic, says Rogers. Creating a sense of calm is especially important for students with SATs and GCSEs coming up, who do need that extra interaction, he adds.
It’s not just the private sector that’s moving to e-learning in a bid to stay on top of the curriculum — the Education Ministry is also rolling out an online remote teaching plan for students enrolled in government schools. Students between grades three and eight will be delivered lessons in all subject areas through the ministry’s website, while high school students will be able to rely on the Egyptian Knowledge Bank — a virtual library — for their lessons. The ministry will also stream video lessons across all grade levels. Students have also been directed to use Designmate, an interactive visual teaching resource accessible through the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, that provides animated videos to explain learning material.
Considering some students in government schools may not have internet access, the ministry will also prepare and distribute removable media, including CDs, with the same content.
Right now, the biggest challenge is in the behavior shift. Today’s students are already tech-literate, so schools can scale up existing models and take rapid action to train teachers and students in preparation for online learning. But e-learning systems will never be a perfect substitute for school — an environment in which students grow emotionally, socially, and psychologically. These are aspects of the learning experience that just can’t easily by replicated online, says Laterza. Schools are mindful of this, stressed everyone who spoke to Enterprise, and they are all taking steps to make sure that students are supported during an unsettling time. Children need the certainty provided by a routine, Ciotti, so it is important to create a structured timetable, as well as ensuring continuity of curriculum and delivering an appropriate workload — especially considering that the students aren’t used to working this way.
Parents have a vital role to play — and extra responsibility on their shoulders. While CIRA is sending a suggested schedule for its students to follow, it’s up to parents to create a structure for their children and keep them engaged and physically active during the quarantine period, says El Kalla. This is an absolutely crucial part of ensuring that the steps being taken by schools have their intended impact. For younger children especially, the onus is on the parents to make sure their children are punctual for their online classes and complete their assignments on time. This does place an additional burden on parents, many of whom are also juggling work and other pressures, says Rogers. Some are trying to mitigate these pressures by pooling their human resources, gathering small groups of roughly six children to study together while the parents take it in turns to supervise.
The rapidly-changing situation is challenging, but schools are trying to roll with the punches. Preparations are being made for longer closures, with a skeleton staff currently in place at El Alsson, working on changing lesson plans from in-person to virtual lessons, says Rogers. This should enable the school to respond quickly in the event that closures extend beyond the initial two week period. Whether externally marked exams such as the international baccalaureate and IGCSE will be able to go ahead remains uncertain, but Abu Shakra stresses that it’s the responsibility of schools to make sure their students are prepared in any case.
On a positive note, these changes will likely transform learning in the long-term. Measures taken during this crisis period may catalyze or accelerate a change to global educational systems. “AIS is hoping that this will be a chance for our teachers to grow as educational professionals and kind of lean into the 21st century in ways we haven’t had to before,” says Ciotti. The measures we are seeing now may represent the future of educational models, says Laterza. Perhaps students will learn online two or three days per week and come to school on the other days to play sport, give a presentation or perform a chemistry lab experiment that you can’t do at home, he speculates. “In my completely personal opinion as an educator, I think that the school closures around the world are going to force us to explore new ways of teaching and delivering. And I think this will change the landscape of teaching.”
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