Rising to the Challenge of Remote Learning

Dr Saima Rana, outgoing Principal of Westminster Academy in the UK and incoming Principal of GEMS World Academy in Dubai, explains how embracing technology has allowed schools to continue to provide quality education during testing times

I am a techno-enthusiast. I love the new digital technologies and for ten years have ensured that we have invested the time and money in giving my students and staff access to high-quality digital technology. I have done so because of my enthusiasm for what these technologies can do and this has been embedded in a vision that extends far beyond merely having and using gadgets. Addressing inequality and the depleted environment have been two enormous concerns driving the educational provision of my school, Westminster Academy, and have fed into my attitude towards how our digital technologies should be introduced. And the sheer power of what these technologies can do and promise to do in the future to make our lives better is also driving my enthusiasm.

These technologies are part of everyone’s lives now, both directly and indirectly. The largest and most powerful business voices in the world are all connected to them – Google and Facebook and Apple are familiar global organisations that embody the rich and exciting worlds that digital technologies bring. We’re living through a technological revolution as important as the industrial revolution. To not embrace, understand and seek to channel its developments for the good of our children’s learning would be as remiss as to ignore the invention of industrialisation at the time of the industrial revolution. And I think there are very important lessons we can draw about all this from the crisis brought about by this horrible global pandemic.

An overtly green agenda aimed at a paperless school was part of my rationale for investing in these technologies. Once that decision was made it was clear that inequalities reflected in a digital divide – by which I mean the situation where less wealthy students and families don’t have access to the technologies at home – had to be addressed. The result has been a school where all students and their families are provided with technology, enabling them to access the internet and online learning, and a massively reduced carbon footprint due to the reduction of paper being used by the school.

When the pandemic crisis struck and home schooling became the only option, we were able to switch seamlessly to online teaching immediately. All lessons were taught according to the existing timetables, as were other features of school life such as our staff briefings and assemblies. We were even able to give the few students who misbehaved online detentions! This has meant that parents didn’t have to home school their children. It gave the students and staff a familiar routine and purpose five days a week, just as any embodied school can. For good mental health, this routine and purpose has been essential and the feedback from parents, staff and students has been overwhelmingly positive.

Is this the case with all schools? Unfortunately, not. Everything has depended on whether a school has the technological infrastructures and the right culture in place to support distance learning over such a prolonged period. The digital divide is just one aspect of the social inequalities that have become glaringly obvious throughout the pandemic. The less well-off families are suffering much more than the affluent. The pandemic has shown that digital technology isn’t a boutique add-on; it is as non-negotiable and important as decent education, sanitation, housing or food.

Schools in future need to invest wisely in ensuring everyone in the school community has access to technologies and they need to induct everyone into a culture whereby the technologies enhance the learning experiences of everyone. Online schooling can’t compete with embodied learning – this pandemic has made it clear that even when the online schooling is excellent, as it is in my current school, everyone – students, teachers and parent/carers – agrees that they prefer the live embodied experience of being in a physical school meeting their friends and staff face to face. The pandemic has shown just what schools are. It has shown that the embodied experiences it provides are essential components of a well-rounded education. Online is necessary when we’re locked down and can be done with enormous benefits. But we now know that no matter how good such virtual schooling can be, doing the same in an embodied school brings extra value that can’t be replicated.