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E-learning: boosted by the pandemic, where is the teaching method headed?
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 24 - 10 - 2020

E-learning or electronic learning is the delivery of education and training through digital resources. While it's not a brand new method, its inclusion across various sectors has been hugely accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Dubai's GEMS International School, most of the children returned to classes at the start of the new term, but the institution is actually delivering a mix of distance and in-person teaching.
Mike Kraher, the school's Head of Mathematics, says it was a learning curve —including for him, personally: "I faced social challenges, to be honest. I missed my students. I missed teaching, I missed the classrooms.
"I think the lessons itself were still great. What I definitely brought into the classroom is the technology. When I teach with the iPad, I try to embed all these technical things in the classroom. There are good things and there are big advantages."
In many schools, the decision to continue with e-learning was made by students and their parents. According to the UAE Ministry of Education, for the Academic Year 2020 to 2021, 17% returned to classroom teaching, while 83% chose to continue distance learning.
Simon Herbert, head of school at GEMS, believes there is a role for e-learning, but sounds a note of caution: "It's not a panacea. In education quite often, (people claim) 'This is the next best thing, this will solve it all!'
"And of course, it won't. It's just (a question of) taking the best from it, the best platforms, the best teaching and realizing that there is best practice, even (within) the GEMS group — to take from each other and to share around the world.
The familiar classroom setting is how most of us experienced school. But with the outbreak of the pandemic, teaching switched from the traditional face-to-face model to online with students at home to accommodate social distancing.
But going forward, will we see e-learning form a greater part of how education is delivered? Or will we eventually see a return to classrooms where we can have that face-to-face experience?
In some fields, delivering blended learning — a combination of the two approaches — is already being used effectively. This approach aims to equip learners and educators with the new competencies and skills for the future.
Raya Bidshahri, founder and CEO of Awecademy, says it can't just be a question of taking the same content as before and moving it some of it online: "You also have to be innovative with the curriculum, with pedagogy, with teaching methods, even the way you structure a lesson and activities.
"And so that's something we try to do at Awecademy. We don't just innovate at a technological level. We also innovate at designing alternative curriculum and assessment methods."
While e-learning went mainstream for safety reasons during the pandemic, many have had ongoing concerns over the impact that being out of school has had on children.
The experience certainly got a mixed reaction from the students I spoke to, some commenting that they enjoyed being at home, while others said that they missed the interaction with friends and the motivation that could come from this.
Yet with huge advancements in the technology and the considerable push the pandemic has given the methodology, e-learning is now also a commercially viable business idea.
David North from Dubai-based employment agency North Start says that, in the current situation, e-learning has obvious advantages: "Of course, it's about the only educational solution right now that's pandemic proof, it's scalable, it has a geographical reach, it's very cost effective."
Universities have historically offered distance learning, but many have reported an increase in demand since COVID-19 arrived.
Monique Belle, CEO at Those Guys Events is one of those people who has recently turned to e-learning, studying the science of well-being online at Yale University: "I know a lot of people who have done courses during lockdown.
"The science of well-being was something that spoke to me, because during these last few months of lockdown, understanding what well-being is to me — and what happiness is to me — has been really important."
The blended approach, at least in mainstream education, will continue to dominate here in Dubai for the foreseeable future.
Tariq Qureishy, a futurist and the Founder and CEO of Xponential, thinks that the combination works well: "What used to take decades to do is now happening in a matter of weeks.
"Over 500 million people have come online in terms of learning. E-learning is amazing. Technology is great, but it does not replace the human connection. And that human connection is what it's about.
"As we learn more, we also need to connect at a human level in terms of relationships, empathy, love, compassion and trust." — Euronews

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