Muscat: ABQ Education Group has responded to the COVID-19 situation with a very comprehensive live online education offering. Humayun Kabir, Chief Executive Officer ABQ Education Group says rigorous planning enabled the group to pool its talent base from across its three schools to pioneer a strategic and responsive online educational experience for the student body.
Asserting that education delivery will never be the same again, the CEO says students, teachers and parents have adapted to the online comfortably. Here is an excerpt from a wide-ranging interview with CEO of ABQ Education Group, the largest international school operator in Oman.
The education sector is responding to the COVID-19 situation with a sudden shift to online and e-learning. How has the ABQ Education Group responded to the situation?
We have responded with a very comprehensive live online education offering. One of the reasons, we were well prepared was that we started our COVID 19 health and safety monitoring and response in early February. These COVID planning and tracking sessions enabled us to anticipate the potential closing of schools and prepare for continued online education. For us, continuing the education was critical because there was too much of the school year still left and our students would suffer immensely if we were to stop or slow down. We were also encouraged by the views of the Supreme Committee and the Ministry of Education who were supporting online learning for the students.
One of the key decisions, our team collectively made was to take the difficult road to offer live online education. The easy way is to put all the work/assignments for students on the many available technology platforms and then let the students and parents do all the work. In such cases, the school provides some online support by chat or similar tools. However, for us, this was just not enough.
We challenged ourselves and decided to offer live online classes, where the teachers teach like a regular school with a daily timetable from 8am to 2pm. At the time, this idea was highly ambitious for reasons including We had no technology platform like Webex for live classes; our 300 educators had never taught live classes and that too from home with little technology support; teachers had never used Webex and did not know how to manage and control a class with students joining from home.
Additionally, our parents and students had no experience in live online classes. They had their technology and communication challenges. Besides, we did not have the special apps and resources designed for online education and did not have guides and videos to educate teachers, parents and students on using these new tools. We also had to safeguard considerations to ensure the safety and security of our students and teachers.
Undeterred, our multi-functional teams took up the challenge to develop a market-leading live online education platform. People worked 18-hour days weekdays and weekends to make it happen. Our brilliant IT team trained and supported teachers and students and parents who were at home. With all this incredible level of innovation and activity, we now have a very stable and functioning live online education offering. We are still improving and enhancing the programme based on feedback from parents, students and teachers. We are very pleased that the students, parents and teachers have settled into a nice rhythm. Looking back now, March 23 seems like a very distant memory.
COVID-19 forced schools and universities around the world to adopt online learning. Was the ABQ Education Group ready with the knowledge and resources needed to go for e-learning? When did the group first enter the e-learning or online learning space?
We started our project around March 10 and launched it on March 23, immediately after the schools were closed. So we selected, purchased and implemented technology platforms, trained teachers, purchased apps and resources, set up timetables, loaded material and worksheets on the online system, prepared and sent instructions manuals to teachers, students and parents, held training for staff, held an online launch event et al - all in a 2-week window. Our teams also produced short videos to show parents and students how to access the tools.
How have the three schools belonging to ABQ Education Group facilitated student learning and interaction using e-learning tools since schools had to remain shut because of the situation? Could you briefly explain how the three schools managed the shift to online learning?
As a responsible education provider, we observed the developing global situation and anticipated the closure of schools. Our rigorous planning enabled us to pool our talent base from across the three schools to pioneer a strategic and responsive online educational experience for our student body.
ABQ Education Group rightly prides itself on high standards, carefully crafted learning, experienced faculty, and measured consideration of factors like curriculum, resources, and learning space. How have the students, teachers and parents responded to the shift to online learning?
I must say that the response of all stakeholders has been simply fantastic. Students are happy because they have a routine and a defined structure to the day. They have their teachers running the live classes and can see and interact with their friends. Their work is all loaded on our Moodle platform and their assignments are marked and returned by the teachers on the same system.
Parents have been very supportive and appreciative because they can see their children’s education is not interrupted at all. They also appreciate that the children have structure and discipline during school hours. Primary parents have been incredible in supporting the young ones to get online and then help them with uploading the assignments and projects. Parents have also appreciated the support of our Parent Care Officers and the IT Support team in helping them navigate with the systems and technologies. We feel this experience has strengthened the bond with our parent community and we cherish their patience and support.
Our teachers have been simply outstanding. Their passion for education and care for our students has shone through this experience. They sacrificed vacation time, weekends and personal time to get everything ready, learn new tools, and even practice with peers to improve their live class skills. In this enriching journey, a lot of our teachers have experienced amazing personal growth and they have developed skills which will hold them in good stead, long after this is all over. We are incredibly grateful to have such passionate and committed educators in our schools.
How are you helping students cope with the psychological challenges of in-person to online learning? How have the transitions from one type of learning to another affected them?
Great question. The psychological challenge in many ways goes beyond online learning. Kids take a lot of cues from their parents and close social relationships. With the amount of fear and uncertainty that has been in the air for some time now, one is not sure how they are absorbing and interpreting all this information. Many cannot or do not know how to express these feelings and it takes a toll on their well-being.
With our live online classes, we believe that we have brought to them a sense of normalcy and structure in their daily routines. Being able to see and hear familiar faces and voices brings a much-needed level of comfort and familiarity with them. With regards to adopting online learning, it has been a pleasant surprise. They took to it like a fish in the water. And we are happy to see them build new skills of focus and discipline in a very different environment.
What have been the challenges of ensuring that knowledge sharing and education continues amidst these unprecedented times?
All remote workers face challenges, the main one being is the technology robust enough to cope with the demands. Again, we are fortunate to have been able to heavily invest in this area both in manpower expertise and technology.
An online learning strategy covers teaching plans, communication rules, devices, solutions, and policies. What were the steps ABQ Education Group took to keep the expectations clear for learners, teachers and parents as to how to learn and teach online?
In much the same way as schools do in a face-to-face environment, we set high expectations and clear parameters. That is not to say that it all goes smoothly as students like to ‘test’ the system. However, our parents have been wonderfully supportive in ensuring that their children follow the guidelines.
The coronavirus outbreak forced schools and universities around the world to experiment with distance learning overnight. Do you think the education system may never be the same again?
Yes, we certainly believe the genie is out of the bottle. Education delivery will never be the same again. In the past, apart from technology, the one concern always mentioned in moving to online teaching was how to upgrade the skills of the educators who have only worked in traditional classroom settings all their lives. Well, how wrong was everyone? The teachers learnt and adapted so quickly. It’s only been five weeks, but we already see that as the teachers have become comfortable with the technologies, their creativity is beginning to shine and they are coming up with novel ways to make the education process more interesting and effective.
Where does ABQ Education Group plan to take things from here on? What trends and technologies do you see taking over e-learning in the near future?
To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes – “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its original dimensions.” So, we believe that after this intense learning experience, we will never be the same. Live online education will be part and parcel of our educational offering. We feel we can engage some of the best talents in the world to interact and share their knowledge with our students and educators.
Not only that, but we will also use the same technologies to strengthen our communication and interactions with our student and parent bodies. In addition, we have also learnt to work and collaborate effectively with our distant teams and, this newfound capability will enhance our creativity and best practice sharing.