How the change from classroom to virtual education was made in Oman

Story – Gautam Viswanathan

Before schools were temporarily shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, getting the children ready to go to school was a process that involved the whole family.

It meant that while children woke up as early as 6 am – before the sun sometimes rose over the horizon – their parents were awake far earlier. Dad would probably be ironing his child’s uniform, while mum would be busy getting breakfast ready in the kitchen.

Both of them would take momentary breaks to perform another very important job: waking up their children on time to ensure they didn’t miss the bus. Doing so meant adding another hour or so to dad’s schedule: he now had to drop you to school because of your incessant requests of wanting to sleep for ‘just five more minutes’.

These experiences add much to the flavour of school life, which was built around both developing and nourishing a thirst for learning. To ensure children continued to learn during the pandemic, schools in Oman quickly moved to an online education system. But this has not been without its own challenges.

“When you are talking about the challenges observed, we all know that children are best served in a classroom with well-trained teachers, so many of the lessons we have at school, are of a play-to-learn and a learn-to-play nature,” said Dr Susan Groesbeck, Head of School at ABA International School. “Those are among the most important aspects of a school, particularly in the younger grades.

“I know so many of our young parents are frustrated by their younger children using these online platforms, because no little child was ever designed to be on an online platform,” she added. “The joy of children coming to school is something we are so well trained to do, we have listened to parents wondering how a teacher controls 15 or 20 children in a classroom, when I can’t even get my little one to do these lessons online.”

“So one of the challenges we faced is that the younger children were never designed to sit in front of an online platform, yet our teachers did an extraordinary job designing very interesting lessons with Seesaw…that is the platform we are using,” explained Groesbeck. “Seesaw was able to have creativity – I recently received a call from a first-grade parent who told me this had been an extraordinarily positive experience for his first-grader.”

Lessons, however, are but one of many ways of learning that children gain access to at school. Interacting with their friends, learning to behave with and socialise with one another, their experiences on the playground, in group activities, while doing arts and crafts, in the science labs…all of these have a very strong emphasis of ‘learning by doing’: a concept Dr Groesbeck seems to agree with.

Shortly after the closure of schools in Oman was announced to attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the country, ABA staff held meetings to design an online curriculum for their students, and took about a couple of days once the announcement regarding school closures was made, to roll out their online syllabus to their students.

“We know that coming to school, coming to learn to play, the negotiation that goes on in school, is so much better than being isolated, but the pandemic caused that to happen,” she explained. “We were able to have counselling and playing and drawing and exercises that are not limited to just a couple of hours a day. There are baking lessons, and things they are doing with their parents. Nonetheless, negotiation skills, skill sharing, negotiations done on the playground, leadership lessons, they are done best at school.

“The primary concern for parents has been at the younger grades, and we appreciate those concerns. The challenges have primarily been at the younger grades,” added Groesbeck. “For grades three, four, five and six, it got more creative for them, the kids were doing longer-term lessons. We even found, that at the ninth-grade level, parents were contacting us to tell us that the children were getting too much homework, so we tamped that down a little bit, and we had children in the 9th, 10th and 11th grades, so we made sure that they were getting prepared to their diplomas for next year.”

Given the large expatriate population in the Sultanate, Oman is also home to many community schools, which provide education mainly to children of foreign workers, based on the curricula they would follow in their home countries. Some adjustments are made to ensure children also learn about the history, language and culture of the Sultanate, but for the most part, the syllabus in these community schools is quite similar to what they would learn back home.

The Pakistan School System, which has branches across the country, including Muscat, Musannah, Nizwa, Salalah and Sohar, was initially set up to provide education to the children of Pakistani foreign workers who’d come to the Sultanate to make a living. According to data from the National Centre for Statistics and Information, as of April 2020, there were 200,683 Pakistani workers in the country.

“There is a problem for younger children when it comes to sitting for three or four hours in front of a screen,” said Nasir Nawaz, the principal and secretary of the school system’s steering committee. “What we have therefore done is ask the teachers to record the lessons in their own voice, and we then sent our students these lessons through Google Classroom, WhatsApp and our YouTube channel. This way, parents can replay it whenever they want to.”

“At the moment, we are off: we are going to reopen after our summer holidays, on July 13. Following that, we will have some plans to have some tools for online examinations. We are already working on it, and will finalise it in a week or two.”

Pakistanis are among Oman’s biggest expat community, alongside their fellow south Asians from India and Bangladesh. A good number of foreign nationals also come from countries such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Nepal and Tanzania to seek a living. Following the announcement to close schools for the short term on March 15, educators in the Pakistan School System began devising an online education plan so their students could continue their education.

Nawaz went on to say, “When we began receiving these complaints from parents, what we did is begin segregating the different sections of the school into different levels. The junior school was given time to learn from 1pm to 7pm. Senior section classes began at 10am, and middle school classes at 11am. We offer four classes a day, each with a duration of 45 minutes.

“When it comes, however, to the challenges we have faced, we are community school, so the most prominent challenge we found related to the number of gadgets with internet connectivity that are available at home. Therefore, if there is a family with three or four children across three or four classes, it is not possible for a parent with one mobile or one laptop to engage all the students,” he added.

Much like the Pakistan school system was set up as an option for Pakistanis who wished to learn under their own curriculum in Oman, the Indian school system was similarly set up for Indian expatriates in the country. Today, its 21 schools across the country, making it the largest network of community schools in the Sultanate.

From Musandam in the north to Salalah in the south, the Indian school system caters to the children of about 600,000 Indian workers in the country. NCSI data shows that there were 590,539 Indian workers in the country as of last April. With such a large spread of schools, it was important that students who attended Indian schools were able to quickly transition to online learning.

“Our biggest challenge is that most of our teachers in our schools were not familiar with remote tutoring,” admitted Dr Baby Sam Saamuel, chairman of the Board of Directors of Indian Schools in the Sultanate of Oman. “Although most of our schools have some versions of smart classrooms and these were being incorporated into schools as part of our curriculum, the technologies being used for remote learning are new, and the process is new.

“Despite having limited expertise in these areas, however, our teachers were able to gain the skills required,” he added. “Hats off to our school administration for rising to the occasion and meeting the challenges. We had to ensure that there was no overlap of classes for siblings, given the lack of devices that they had access to, and that parents and students were comfortable using these applications.”

Like many in the country, parents, teachers and students who were part of the Indian school set up in Oman also faced many teething troubles when it came to understanding the challenges thrown up by the e-learning framework in place.

“There were a lot of tutorials, awareness and troubleshooting sessions done, as well as security issues initially, due to concerns over hacking and such. Initially, there were a few issues, but support from parents and constructive feedback from them enabled the schools to get better over time,” said Saamuel, who also provided a silver lining for people to look at, in the face of the concerns many have right now.

“I would also like to mention some major advantages of remote learning,” he added. “For example, students have become a lot more resilient and take a more active role in their learning process. Over the years, learning has become more teacher-led, but now we see it becoming student-led. They have become aware that they need to take charge of their learning.”