School must go on: e-learning during the time of COVID-19

Story – Gautam Viswanathan

Although schools, colleges and universities in Oman have been temporarily shut due to COVID-19, students are able to continue their education from wherever they may be, thanks to the availability of online tools.

T Magazine spoke to educators, parents and researchers at institutions in the country to find out how online teaching is helping students learn during the pandemic.

Encourage flexibility

Darren Lyon, Headmaster, A’Soud Global School

Before the pandemic broke out, we were actually using two online platforms very effectively – one is Seesaw, which we’ve been using for students from KG1 to grade four. For the older children – grade five to grade 10 – we’ve always used Google Classroom. One of the things we did before the school closure was to ensure that all the students had the codes for the the different subjects on Google Classroom.

This way, the teachers can put the subject material online to support their learning. You can have the same content online as you do at school. Children obviously cannot work as fast at home or online as they would at school, because some areas do need more explanation, but the quality of work we’ve seen is good. Some of our staff have prepared videos for their subjects.

We’ve asked our staff to prepare an introductory video, before they start their lessons, so that face-to-face connection is still there, and the children feel inclusive and are made part of the learning process. Children are then encouraged to put up their work on Google Classroom, so that teachers can see the work they’ve completed and mark them when needed.

We do try to keep some of our lessons live, such as physical education, because that is a lot more fun when it is live and for better understanding of languages. Though not every student learns the live language lessons at the same rate, we do provided these recorded as well. The idea of a pre-recorded resource is that students can listen them again and again. This is really good for schools with large sections of students from a cross section of nationalities.

We use Zoom if teachers want one-on-one interaction with their students, but we don’t do this across the board, and we also believe that while we have given students enough work for one day, we don’t want to dictate the order in which they do it. If you want to do your maths in the morning, although your lesson might actually normally be in the afternoon, then go ahead, do it. We are trying to encourage this sort of flexibility and so far, it’s gone down really well with the students and parents.

Online education works when students focus

Jassim Al Balushi, Deputy Head of Training and Professional Development, College of Engineering, National University of Science and Technology

We have tried our best to use all online tools available to us. We use Blackboard to create discussions and forums so they can interact with us. We’ve also created sessions for them, so that they can study these and then get back to their teachers. There are forums where they can post any questions they have, and once they finish their schedule, then we also create questions for them … it is a way for them to get involved in learning.

We also have Google Classroom where we can post the content and then wait for their responses to our questions. We’ve also created groups on Google, so that we can email them and tell them of the latest developments on our forums, and we reach out to students through WhatsApp as well. We have created groups on WhatsApp so that we can ask them questions.

However, the result is not as effective as we have expected. If, for example, I have 20 students in a group, only four or five will get back to me. On Gmail, maybe two or three students will send me things to check, and on Google Classroom, everyone is enrolled, but only three or four actively participate. I feel that while online teaching is a great tool, it is maybe not as effective during times of crisis.

This is because, right now, mentally, students cannot focus. They will definitely think about how the current situation will affect their families. In addition, not all families might have fast internet connections and other facilities required to learn online. Some of our international students have already gone home, so they have made safety as their primary concern, and they feel they can resume academics when they return. When you interact with only three or four students out of 20, we need to then re-teach them when they return, because if we don’t, this will really impact their grades.

E-learning is on the rise

Dr Basil John Thomas, Assistant Professor in Business Administration, Sur University College

The key point to be considered is the quality of education and the in-depth knowledge and skill one is likely to possess after switching from the conventional system of teaching to e-learning. Moreover, there are comparatively drastic variations in student retention ratios, between the two modes of learning.  

The rising popularity of the e-learning system vindicates the seamless benefits to working professionals and adults. But on the contrary does it help newer generations build creativity and innovation? We have to seriously consider putting a limit on online-only programmes and promote more hybrid learning ones, in which face-to-face instructing and learner-centric activity are involved in equal proportions

The future of modern-day education without any doubt will be an era of hybrid learning, but to what extent? With the outbreak of novel coronavirus, all of us are facing uncertainty across almost all sectors of the economy. Universities, schools and institutions have been forced to stop their classroom modes of teaching, and have begun to deliver lessons through various other e-learning modes.

At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to think about the future prospect of education, the different modes of course delivery and the effect these will have over developing a creative mind set, and how this is impacted by various learning and teaching platforms. Some institutions have already embraced and successfully implemented hybrid mode programmes, courses and learning management systems that have aided the student community a lot during these turbulent times.

Hybrid learning modes provide blended learning experiences without losing much time and effort. Some universities and educational institutions have come up with their own teaching-learning platforms while others have utilised the valuable services offered by software such as GoogleClassroom, Canvas, Zoom, Moodle and many more. Moreover, many renowned universities now offer massive open online courses (MOOCs), where personalised learning is enhanced through gamification of AI-enabled chat bots.

There are even short courses run by the world’s best western universities on AI, lean manufacturing, machine learning, business analytics, blockchain and so on in association with Coursera, Udemy, Edx, and others.

Online learning is effective

Maimunah Shebani, Founder, The Retail Centre

Our younger one is in pre-school, so we sing with him the alphabets and the nursery rhymes so that he continues to learn. The older one goes to Al Injaz, it is a bilingual school in Al Ansab.   

The school has a portal that we use, and at the same time, people who don’t have access to the portal can also receive it through WhatsApp. We spend about an hour in the morning and an hour in the late afternoon, going through their units, memorising the lessons and learning new things.

Their schoolteachers also send voice notes to their students, so when our son hears his voice, he gets excited, because he’s happy to hear the voice of his teacher. Truth be told, the older one is taking very well to online learning, because he is comfortable with anything to do with an iPad or a laptop…this is after all the technology of his generation.

I get to help the children with their learning, because I don’t remember ever being this free in my adult life…I have never ever had so much free time since I became an adult. It also helps that I don’t have to remind them to wash their hands, because they have a special sink, which is kept quite low, so they can reach it and wash their hands.