April 24, 2021
Shilpa Chandran, a Dubai based journalist and content specialist, reflects on how COVID-19 sparked the emergence of online learning and its resultant impact on the education sector in the region
After the initial shock of the pandemic outbreak, people and businesses around the world grappled to find ways to continue with their lives and adopt a ‘new norm’.
While work at home has become part of this norm, online classes and home schooling have inevitably taken front seat.
COVID and the Education Sector
Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, in early 2020, close to 1.5 billion learners were affected by school closures globally. As per the UNESCO Institute of Statistics Database, the learners comprised the sum of national enrollment figures at pre-primary, primary and secondary, tertiary levels.
Pre-COVID, a study conducted by Research and Markets in 2019 had forecast the online education market as $350 billion by 2025. The report further states that the US and China were the leading countries in the global online education market ‘due to growing internet penetration, increasing per capita disposable income and availability of online courses.
Emma Whale, Vice President for Schools, Pearson ME, said: “Online schooling can be a great solution for students for whom traditional brick-and-mortar schools are not a good fit, or more recently during the pandemic where traditional schooling has been disrupted and parents have been required to deliver their children’s education. It can be a good option for many families, granting students and their parents access to certified teachers, professionally developed online school curriculum and lessons, and excellent learning materials.”
The impact of COVID-19 would have further accelerated this growth, with educationdata.org predicting the figures to surpass $370 billion by 2026. Furthermore, the global Edtech sector is also expected to grow exponentially, with tech-centric and digital learning techniques gaining momentum.
‘Hybrid learning’ concepts are being widely adapted to ensure that the conventional face-to-face learning continues with the integration of digital technology.
“A hybrid system that combines online and classroom instruction for sure is the future of education – at least in the UAE,” says Shalaka Paradkar, a parent of two living in Dubai. “I know many more people in the UAE are now homeschooling their children. From being a niche choice, homeschooling has become much more mainstream, which wasn’t the case before March 2020. If online learning is to be the future of education, we definitely need to close the digital gap and ensure everyone has equal access to devices and connectivity.
“For my children, who are 16 and 11, device-based learning is a familiar concept for a while now. They have been actively using technology in their classroom lessons for quite some time. Hence, the shift to remote learning did not pose much of a challenge as far as ease of use was concerned. Thankfully when their schools shifted to 100% distance learning, being older they did not require as much parental involvement to support distance learning. As a parent, I completely understand and support why this was needed, despite the inconveniences it caused. Teachers and students have both been resilient and quite amazing in implementing distance learning all of last year.
“While my son went back to full time school in September, my daughter opted for the fully online option. Weighing the pros and cons, she herself chose to do online school. As she is in Grade 12, first year of IB diploma, with quite a heavy academic load, we are waiting to send her back to school soon.”
Online learning has the flexibility that traditional face-to-face learning does not offer. It provides the ability to manage learning in one’s own pace and time, feels Sarah Sharak, a Learning Coach with iCademy Middle East, a licensed homeschool provider in Dubai. “Another perk is students (at least middle school onwards) learning important skills like task management, prioritising, being self-driven etc, skills needed when they enter university or the workforce.”
As a learning coach, Sarah monitors the student’s progress of lessons and assignments, helps them read or explains concepts as a teacher would, and reports to the advisor about learning and any issues encountered.
Schools have also been tapping into this opportunity by offering more learning resources to their students. “An online learning environment allows children to receive the attention and involvement from parents that is typically found with homeschooling, but it brings more, ready-made resources for learning. With virtual school, families can enjoy a high degree of flexibility without sacrificing the benefits of professional teaching expertise and accountability,” explains Pearson’s Emma.
Brick & Mortar vs Fully Digital
While online learning is a good thing, as it has more known options than mainstream education, parents also feels that most people who have tried online learning due to COVID-19 will return to brick and mortar schools. “This is due to the immense dedication needed from the learning coach, who is usually a parent who manages all other aspects of the students’ life as well. Some students will excel in purely online classes over brick and mortar school but I don’t believe this is the majority,” says Sarah.
For families of younger children, the options of online schooling comes as a boon as they are less stressed over the health of their wards and being less exposed to infection caught at school. “As parents of a kindergartner, we very much appreciate the facility of having online / virtual schooling during these unprecedented times, knowing for a fact that the additional risk of catching the bug is minimised when the kids are fully at home, at least till they further strengthen their immunity,” says Cherian Iype who lives with his family in Abu Dhabi.
Students are seemingly adapting to the new norm as well. Most children in today’s day and age are already well versed with technology. The transition to a complete digital learning system has altered little in their routine.
Anyka Chakravaty, a Grade 12 student says: “In terms of being able to adapt (to online learning), I’d say that it was quite a smooth process as so much of our learning was already digitised – we continued to use the same programmes such as Google Classroom, Google Docs for recording notes, etc. My teachers continued to make lessons as engaging and similar to in-person lessons as possible, which helped make the transition easier as well.”
Challenges of a Hybrid System
As much as online learning offers a wide exposure to deeper learning and resources, there is a void left in the lives of school students and teachers in the absence of face-to-face interactions.
“I do miss being taught by my teachers in-person and interacting with my friends and classmates, and so if real classes were taught like how they were pre-pandemic, I would much prefer in-school learning,” feels Anyka.
This is a constant concern voiced by students, parents and teachers alike. Social interactions and its place in the development of any child’s growing years is limited with homeschooling and/or online learning options.
Deepika Shetty, a mum of two residing in Dubai, feels that there is a looming worry of children lacking motivation through this system of learning. “With classes going fully online I feel the children will not know how to interact with their peers and the more normal everyday interactions are lost.”
Teacher and mum of two, Roshini Alex, also agrees that while online schooling is here to stay, it should only be considered for the higher levels of education and learning. “Schools are essential for our kids. Social interaction, physical collaborations, face to face conversations carry a high degree of importance in educating young minds. This is understood now more than ever. These skills help in building humans that have empathy, kindness, understanding of emotions and love. My younger one, who is 5, has never experienced the school environment in its truest format and it shows in the pace of her development as compared to my elder one at the same age. Children respond more effectively to human stimuli and I want that for them.”
Distance learning fails in building social relationships, feels Shalaka, and not seeing peers for a prolonged period could also have an adverse effect on the child’s mental health. “You can’t really build friendships and nurture relationships through screens. We are human: we need to be able to see other faces and interact in person. I am sure in a classroom, teachers are also inspired to do their best when they see their students in person.”
Malini Dean, a mum of two girls of Grade 9 and Grade 12, resonates with this thought. “When schools went 100% online, some students were feeling lonely and withdrawn. Older students who spoke and interacted with friends were suddenly restrained and this could have a toll on their mental well-being.”
She is in the opinion that schools must assign counsellors to speak with children and tackle the issue of mental health that may appear a threat to students, especially the older students.
Another challenge of fully/hybrid learning is the transition to digital technology from a partial or minimal use of digital learning.
Parents are in the hope that schools can be more flexible with blended learning and time management for classes. Sara explains: “Online learning works well if the family can supplement social life and extracurricular activities, but online learning without the face to face option lacks this. The workload is also a bit heavy and distractions are a problem for many kids. I do wish there were more options and more flexibility for schools in general, with blended learning or ability to manage time throughout the year.”
Anyka agrees, saying, “I think the biggest challenge for me was time management. With the loss of the structure that school provided, it was so easy to fall behind on work or zone out during lessons because of the online format and the excuses like “my Wi-Fi isn’t working” or “my Google Meet is glitching” that came with it.”
Furthermore, a digital transition also means additional cost in their children’s education. Malini says: “The cost factor in the digital transition is yet another issue to be addressed. For some families, especially those with more than one child, this could take a heavy toll on finances with individual devices and gadgets required for each ward, further elevating costs. Schools require their students to be equipped with upgraded devices that can support seamless relay of coaching. “I feel school authorities must bear these in mind and address these issues through support systems which will in turn support the children and their families.”
As well as the technical glitches like bandwidth, connectivity and device issues, children are accumulating more screen time than recommended, which in turn can be harmful in their social skills and development.
A Safe Haven in the GCC
In the GCC, and the UAE in particular these challenges are less significant when compared to other nations around the world thereby helping children continue their education with no hiccups and minimal interruptions. Certain nations face severe consequences of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, completely stunting children in continuing their lessons. For instance, in one of the worst scenarios, children in South America are ending up in gangs after being forced to leave schools and their lessons due to a lack of internet connectivity and power shortages.
“I see the fully online option as one brought on by necessity and unprecedented circumstances. So, I am grateful that my children’s education was not disrupted during a global pandemic, thanks to technology and the teachers and schools’ efforts, as well as the superb digital infrastructure we are lucky to have in the UAE,” says Shalaka. “I am also mindful that millions of children have not been as lucky. The digital gap has grown and so many children have had to drop out of school, as they do not have a device or connectivity. In many places in India (my home country), power cuts can go on for hours. Therefore, even if data is cheap and most places enjoy connectivity, online school can be a disrupted and frustrating experience. Anytime I want to complain about the stress of online education, I remind myself of how privileged we are in the UAE.”
According to a report conducted by Alpen Capital titled ‘GCC Education Industry for 2021’, the pandemic has compelled educational providers in the GCC to realign their business models and seek more investments in digital platforms to drive future growth and improve operational efficiencies.
“Despite intensifying competition, shortage of skilled staff and increasing cost pressures amid a slowdown in economy, the pandemic has opened interesting opportunities for private players, particularly in the areas of EdTech and blended learning models,” says Sameena Ahmad, Managing Director, Alpen Capital (ME) Ltd.
Learning for Adults
As well as students in schools and universities, the pandemic has also brought a wave of opportunities for adult learning. Prior to the transition to fully online classes, institutes and universities offered Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) for those interested to pursue learning.
A study by OECD, says that in Canada, France, Italy, the UK and the US, searches for terms such as online learning, e-learning and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) increased up to fourfold between March-end and early April 2020 as strict lockdown rules came into force in most OECD countries.
Several online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Lynda, were driving the growth in online learning demand offering individuals the opportunity to enhance their learning and skills from the comforts of their homes, or part-time alongside their day jobs.
In conclusion, fully online learning offers a world of learning opportunities to the young and older learners and is a trend to stay. Combining this growth in equal measure with activities to ensure social and communicative engagement could be the future in education for tomorrow’s world.
Very nice Shilpa! Great article.. Nice to see the feedback of parents and teachers and others
A very informative article. Enjoyed reading it!