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18th-Nov-2020

Remote Learning A Challenge For All Involved

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Shortly after the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic caused schools in the UAE to shift their activities to the virtual sphere, my employer announced that the mothers of younger children were free to work from home to support their families with home learning. I was elated. I could finally work with my children in the next room after years of being racked by dreadful working mum guilt. While doing homework every afternoon with a young boy was not exactly a walk in the park, it was manageable. How different could distance learning be, I asked myself.
Two months in, I think I am in a position to answer that question. Teaching a child this age is one of the biggest struggles we face as parents during this crisis, and that applies to both working and non-working parents. My Instagram feed has been filled with posts of parents telling of their daily battles to get a child to sit through their virtual lessons; therapists and life coaches giving parents tips on how to build a solid routine to get children in the right state of mind to study; and the occasional hilarious yet frustrating video of teachers giving virtual lessons to children who had long ago left their desks.
Though I have taught at executive degree and undergraduate levels, I am not a teacher. Educating younger children requires a unique skill set that our incredible teachers have spent years honing. A mother of seven-year-old twins wrote to me about the struggle of helping two boys who are the same age, but have entirely different interests and attention spans, to learn. For some children, watching a five-minute video on fractions is not sufficient to get them adequately acquainted with the subject. As parents, we try our best, but we will always be less able to transfer that kind of knowledge to children, simply because we are not trained teachers. It is also difficult to simulate the same learning environment children have at school. To younger children, being at home means being free (for the most part) from lessons and schoolwork, and able to play. Many parents, including one friend who is the mother of triplets, have tried to enforce a screen-free environment. With online learning, it has been near-impossible to keep up with our daily routines and house rules.
Parents and students are not the only ones finding it challenging to switch to virtual learning. Teachers have also been facing their own set of challenges. They are struggling with the rapid transition to online learning, even in countries with reliable infrastructure and household connectivity. A high-school teacher I spoke to stated that, though the pandemic has forced them to take advantage of technology in their teaching methods, some subjects, such as biology, still require practical knowledge. This has been quite difficult to achieve without the use of actual physical labs. Teaching has become more like lecturing, she states, which is not appealing for students. Online teaching also requires that they be trained to deliver distance and online education, something many around the world have not had the opportunity to do.
One particular segment this Emirati teacher mentioned, which I believe has not been getting its fair share of attention in conversations about homeschooling, is children with special needs. Certain students (such as those with autism) require more focused attention and tailored classes, sometimes in a different language. Teachers have had to schedule separate classes for such students. And, while that may be manageable for teachers who have one student with special needs, it is quite difficult for those who have multiple students who require tailored approaches.
Despite the efforts of many governments to level the playing field in education, forced remote learning has also brought to light how inequitable the conditions and resources are in students' homes. Many teachers and workers in the not-for-profit sector have voiced concerns about students coming from less fortunate households, who lack the necessary devices and stable internet connection to access their virtual learning material. Globally, nearly 830 million children do not have access to a computer, while more than 40 percent have no internet access at home. While the UAE's Ministry of Education has made commendable efforts to provide all students with laptops and tablets, that is not necessarily the case elsewhere. In addition, many of these students have parents or guardians who had no formal education or are even illiterate, and therefore unable to help with their children's learning. Such cases present a challenge that is difficult to address.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced school closures in more than 190 countries, affecting at least 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers. While parents, teachers and students are happy to do their part (and then some) during such extraordinary times, forced remote learning has shown us that we are not ready for it to be the permanent mode of study just yet. We take comfort, however, in the fact that many governments in the Gulf states are closely monitoring the experience and drawing up plans and options for the coming academic year.

(Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif)