A new competition has encouraged students to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their education experiences, so that more can be done to make blended learning better in future.
David’s* day normally begins at 4:30 am, when he gets up from bed to prepare for school. He needs to be out of the house and on the bus a half hour later, so that he turns up to class on time.
As the clock moves towards 7 am, the time at which school begins, David is joined on board by a number of his classmates, their bus halting outside their homes for a few minutes at a time, making slow but steady progress towards their destination.
Before the pandemic began, this was what David’s morning looked like every day. David attends Indian School Sohar, which is located some 250km northwest of the capital, Muscat, but lives in Liwa, a further 30 km away.
With the arrival of COVID-19, however, following the decision to shut school campuses and take classes online, as part of the efforts to curb the spread of the disease, David and hundreds of children like him who normally spend hours commuting to and from school every day, were saved those time-consuming and exhausting journeys, leaving them free to pursue other activities or dedicate more time to study.
It is, perhaps, one of the few silver linings in the rather bleak-looking clouds that pandemic has cast over all of our immediate hopes, and one of many opinions shared by students during the Let’s Talk Contest, a recently-held online discussion on how the pandemic has affected their education.
Organised by the Life Institute, which offers career guidance and education services to students in Oman, the event was held in collaboration with the Board of Directors of Indian Schools in the Sultanate of Oman, which encouraged the approximately 30,000 students from grades V to XII across 21 schools in the country to send in video messages explaining how their access to learning has changed in the last 12 months.
“The students are those who have been truly affected by the decision to temporarily close physical classes,” said Heena Shaikh, the founder of the organisation, which is running it along with Digitelence, a company that provides digital platforms similar to the ones that many of us have come to rely on to carry on our duties as close to normal during the pandemic.
“We have sorted through some 250 submissions so far, and are yet to go through another 150: the response has been really positive,” she added. “The impact of the pandemic has been really felt by children and their education, and we want to measure exactly how. We actually extended our submission deadline because we were getting so many calls from students asking to submit their entries. We will sift through and evaluate all the submissions soon, and expect to have a report out by the end of the first week of March.”
David’s experience is just one of many witnessed by students, who have faced many teething troubles with the online education platforms in use. Seema, another student, was among several to be locked out of her own exam, because the electronic proctor service used by schools shut out students who didn’t look at the screen while attempting their tests.
“The proctor service did warn the students to look at the screen, because the software reads whether your eyes are looking at your computer camera,” recalled Heena. “There were a lot of students who did rectify their behaviour once they were warned, but others maybe did not keep that in mind. Because it was a school exam, the students were given a warning by the proctor service, but professional courses that use this model do not provide such a warning.”
She added: “The service believes that if you are looking away from the screen, then you might be copying from a book and feeding those answers into your exam, so that is an issue some students did face. We will of course be mentioning this in our report as well.”
While Seema might study in the capital, siblings Amina and Khalid attend school in Thumrait, a town close to Salalah in the south of the country, some 1,000km from the capital. While teachers in the capital and surrounding areas are more versed in online educational platforms, students in more far-flung schools say their teachers do need more experience with newer approaches to education.
“This is something we saw from a lot of students, particularly those who study far away from Muscat,” said Heena. “Maybe they need better training to use the technology associated with education, because blended education is going to be the way forward for a while, and with the increased technological presence in our lives.”
“Ideally, we would have wanted to do this physically or in person, and that includes our prize distribution ceremony: we will give prizes to the students with the best submissions,” she explained. “It won’t depend on the quality of the videos they send…they after all cannot change the quality of their cameras, but rather their content.”
The next time, Heena and the Life Institute want to expand this to other schools and higher education institutions in Oman, to get a broader perspective on how different education systems evolve to developments in learning.
“We did get a lot of calls from people asking us to include other students, and we will definitely do that the next time,” she said. “We did it on a more modest scale this time because it was our first event of this nature.”
The Let’s Talk event has received the vote of Mukund Manohar, the president of the Indian School Muscat Alumni Association (ISMA), who feels that the pandemic has brought greater appreciation of online learning to help schools continue to provide education during these uncertain times.
“Online learning has emerged as a necessary resource for students and schools, schools have recognised this well ahead of time and ensured that education never stops, even during the pandemic,” he said. “The online dissemination of education to all the students in Oman has provided a safe and effective alternative to the classroom, extending to extra-curricular activities as well.
“Our teachers have quickly adapted and stepped up to the plate by quickly embracing digital learning and they deserve our sincere appreciation and whole hearted thanks,” he went on to say – [email protected]
*Some names in this article have been changed