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Monday, 30 March 2020

Covid-19 is transforming how we think about online learning

Online learning is set to have a transformative long-term impact on educational approaches in both anticipated and unforeseen ways. Rapid action taken by several private schools in Egypt to deploy measures for online learning during the recent school closures is causing a shift towards new educational approaches, sources tell Enterprise. Not only has the situation forced schools to speed up some of their existing plans, such as incorporating blended learning into the normal teaching curriculum, it has also offered valuable new insights into key communication methods and the ways that students learn.

But online education comes with its set of issues that impede it from becoming the norm in the long run. These include younger students being prone to distraction and a lack of broad guidelines for monitoring activities online, in addition to issues with internet infrastructure. It is unlikely that online learning will ever subsume or replace the classroom. Instead, it is likely that we’ll see the pair develop hand-in-hand with an expanded use of online learning tools with the classroom.

Combining online educational materials with traditional classroom methods are here to stay: Today’s school-age children have been responding positively to their learning being taken online, say representatives from some of the schools we’ve spoken with. Students love anything to do with technology and they’re very quick to use it, says Stuart Bryan, education VP at GEMS Egypt. Learning can be tailored to allow students to really engage with the material they’re presented with, and whenever a more typical classroom situation resumes, the transition to a blended learning model will happen very naturally. GEMS Egypt had already been planning to move towards an immersive learning environment using virtual reality learning before the covid-19 school closures. Bryan predicts that the whole sector will follow this trend, and that teachers will continue to use online tools to post material that students can read or view at home, with students doing their research outside of class by watching a video assignment, looking up a PowerPoint presentation or using a VR tool, and then coming in to discuss what they’ve learned in the classroom. This will enrich classroom discussions, he says.

This transforms the role of the teacher from content provider to coach. Making use of online learning material has taken some of the burden of content delivery off teachers, says AIS Director Kapono Ciotti. The teacher’s role has become much more about checking a student’s understanding of a concept and facilitating an interactive conversation that helps students learn from one other than delivering content that students absorb passively, says Bryan.

And students can take learning into their own hands. Enforced online learning is showing everyone that students can play a much more proactive role in content discovery, and assume more responsibility for their own growth as learners. Generally, educators are really good at helping students develop specific academic skills, and so being able to focus on this is a better use of their time than exclusively delivering content, says Ciotti.

Thanks to online learning, data is being deployed in the education process: CIRA has its own data tracking mechanism which provides a wealth of information about how many students log on to its online learning system, which students, teachers and schools are active (and which are not), and the levels of interaction taking place, says CEO Mohamed El Kalla. The percentage of students viewing active content usually remains constant at around 20% at any given time, whereas the percentage of students viewing or using interactive content ranges from 20-70% at any given time, he says. Many more students come back regularly to the interactive content offered, and we can infer that students are telling their peers about it and encouraging them to join, El Kalla adds.

Teachers have had to become more tech savvy to adapt to this new learning environment ― in some cases at very short notice. Since the decision was taken to close schools, GEMS Egypt has trained some 500 teachers on how to use its virtual learning environment, says CEO Ahmed Wahby. This process required staff to learn quickly on the job, moving educational materials online, learning how to confidently use the GEMS online classroom and create pre-recorded videos, and how to run live lessons using Microsoft Teams. It was challenging, says Bryan, because initially many teachers felt reticent about appearing in videos and weren’t confident in using unfamiliar software. But they have adapted quickly to the new status quo, and been spurred on by evidence that the material they are producing has a clear impact on how students absorb new ideas, says GEMS Egypt communication manager Amr Sherif.

And they’re realizing that it’s helping make them better teachers. Teachers currently spend more time than ever talking, planning lesson content, and providing students with references and links, says El Alsson Executive Director Karim Rogers. But being forced to use technology to collaborate has sparked ideas about other ways to be efficient and collaborative, says Ciotti, citing feedback he received directly from an AIS teacher. Tools like Google Docs and Hangouts are being used in a much more dynamic way now that they are the only means of communication for staff members who can’t meet face-to-face ― and this is something that teachers actively want to maintain, he adds.

Will online learning completely replace classroom learning one day? No, says El Kalla. “If this experiment has taught us one thing, it’s that parents in the modern world can’t afford to keep their children at home, and especially when it comes to younger children, there’s a growing appreciation for what teachers do for students in the classroom,” he says.

The attention spans of younger students might make it tough to implement online learning in the long term. Online learning is not an ideal medium for younger children in particular, everyone we spoke to said. The question of how young children can learn effectively without being in front of a screen all day or without parents assuming a disproportionate amount of responsibility remains a challenge common to all schools. It’s also important to remember that the limits of a person’s attention span are real and online space is full of distractions no matter what age you are, says Ciotti. “When we were growing up, our parents didn’t give us our textbooks and tell us to do our homework on the swings or on the Nintendo 64. But we regularly ask our children to do their homework on the computer, which is infinitely more distracting.”

Then there’s the issue of internet infrastructure: Pressure on the internet is immense and this has occasionally led to some challenges since the online programs began. Students have faced difficulties logging into online systems and live lessons have been disturbed, says Rogers. Egypt does sometimes face internet and power outages, and with pressure on the system data is being used up quickly, says Ciotti. And while all recognize that this is a global issue, some, including Ahmed El Khatib, head of El Khatib Private Schools, say that Egypt’s internet infrastructure is finding it tough to sustain online education during peak hours. Schools and universities have had to adapt, including Future University which has had to install its own fiber optic line, university president Ebada Sarhan tells Enterprise. That said, Ciotti, El Kalla, Wahby and others say that the issue of internet infrastructure is not insurmountable.

It’s crucial to put clear safeguarding measures in place, and these take time to roll out. Such measures include mandating appropriate dress for teachers and students and carefully vetting any online content, says Bryan. Educators also have to be mindful that online bullying and interruptions can be disruptive forces for students, says El Kalla. You have to develop more methods of control and be ready to intervene if you see concerning activity like negative comments written in response to questions posed online.

As schools shift their focus towards the medium-long term, questions of how to adapt online learning become more pressing. AIS is already working to adapt some aspects of its short-term plan which include reducing the amount of time teachers spend working online simultaneously with older students, which is currently unsustainable, and giving the students more long-term projects, says Ciotti. “We started with a short-term plan, which we put into action when the school closures were announced. Now we’re looking at what we’ve learned from this experience that we can continue doing, and what we need to change. We’re in a fluid situation, so reviewing and adapting our methods may be a more long-term process than we had initially anticipated,” he said.

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