BY RIAZ NAQVI, STAFF WRITER
Tablets, smartphones and virtual reality headsets are now a part of UAE classrooms as much as notepads, rulers and pencils were in the school lives of the parents’ and grandparents’ of today’s students.
“We’re using iPads across our two primary schools as the main device for students, and we’re using Microsoft Surface Pro 4s in key stage 3 with secondary students,” says Steve Bambury, Head of Digital Learning and Innovation at Jumeirah English Speaking School (Jess).
Mark Anderson, an educational technology (EdTech) influencer and consultant, first started experimenting with the iPad as a learning tool in 2010 when he was still a teacher. “We started doing some research into mobile learning because we could see that having access to technology in the classroom all the time would help learning,” he tells Education Now.
Soon after, Anderson oversaw the Apple tablet being rolled out to more than 1,300 children at his institution, Clevedon School, one of the UK’s first to do so. In 2014, he penned Perfect ICT Every Lesson, a guidebook for teachers to practically implement technology in the classroom. Since then, things have picked up speed.
“We’ve been using VR at Jess for about three-and-a-half years, and what we’re doing now is trialling more advanced VR concepts using the HTC Vive,” Bambury tells Education Now from the Bett Middle East education summit in Abu Dhabi. “We’re starting to see more schools over here adopting or looking into VR as an integral part of education, especially given its ability to transport students to other places and to allow for experiential learning opportunity.”
While the Vive is a powerful piece of kit, it retails in the UAE for about Dh5,000 — not including the high-spec PC required to run it. But more cost-effective alternatives do exist. Google Expeditions lets schoolchildren embark on virtual tours of faraway places using just a smartphone, app and Google Cardboard kit. The Expeditions homepage shows a video of Iowa schoolgirls exploring the Burj Khalifa. One company heavily involved in bringing Expeditions to classrooms in the region is Manama-based Munfarid Consulting. In partnership with VRXOne, a global VR brand, the start-up is working with Gulf governmental initiatives including UAE Vision 2021. “Yes, we are rolling out the VRXOne plans with schools in the UAE, Google Education programmes and part of Future School engagements,” says Dr Sana Farid, Co-founder and CEO of Munfarid. “The Expeditions app provides virtual field trips, with a teacher’s device controlling [and] conducting VR lessons. There are post trip puzzles to improve knowledge retention and results.”
While Anderson appreciates the potential of VR, a technology that excites him more is artificial intelligence (AI). This is due to AI’s ability to aid teachers in delivering what he considers to be the most important part of their job: personalised support and feedback for students. “Research shows that children learn best when feedback and their assessments are just in time, just for them, just what they need to learn to move forward in their learning. Teachers can do that, but we are limited by our resources — there’s only one of us for a class of 20 or 30.”
Bambury says, “We need young adults who understand the concepts involved in STEM so that they can be building robots and we need software programmers who can code their AI.”
According to the AI Market in the US Education Sector 2017-2021 report, a trend expected to make waves is AI-powered educational games, which improvise adaptive learning features while deploying machine learning. They not only generate curiosity but also motivate students via gamified incentives such as badges and reward points.
One game that has been lauded for its educational properties is the physics based first-person creative sandbox title Minecraft. Speaking to Education Now at the Emirates Literature Festival in March, Keith Stuart, Games Editor at The Guardian, said, “I’ve spoken to lots of teachers who use Minecraft in their classroom to teach subjects like ecology, physics and architecture.”
Bambury is one of 60 global education ambassadors for Minecraft: Education Edition. He describes a year six history class covering the Second World War. Within a prebuilt street with WW2-style houses, provided by the MC educator community, the students were challenged to build a bomb shelter in their back garden. “After they built the shelters, we sounded an air raid siren and made them hide under their desks in the real-life room. A colleague and I then ran down the street — in the Minecraft world — and blew it up. We simulated the Blitz. When the students came out, they had to rally together — just like the people of Britain — to try and rebuild their destroyed community. They were shouting wartime slogans and propaganda, while we started playing music from that era to inspire them.”
The prevalence of information, facts and data online has forced educators to change the way they assign homework. “The biggest change is in the economy of information, where information is free now,” explains Bambury. “It’s changed the nature of tasks both in school and at home. In some cases, schools have gone for the flip learning approach, where the lecture element of a lesson is sent home, as a homework task, to free up class time for creative activities. The other side is to give a task to a student that includes the use of online research. It’s now important for students to be able to evaluate digital content and understand where it’s coming from, who it’s coming from, how reliable it is, whether it is a fact or opinion.”
Anderson agrees flip learning is making massive inroads in schools across the world, but warns that children need a certain level of visual, digital, oral and numerical literacy to be able to engage with this learning format. “My youngest child is six. He’s just started to be able to read and write properly and can’t easily engage with a lot of flip learning material because he hasn’t got the requisite skills.”
CHALLENGES FOR TEACHERS
One of the problems with making the most of tech lies with how teachers are made. “There’s a popular model called TPACK — technological, pedagogical and content knowledge,” explains Anderson. “If you imagine a three-way Venn diagram, it asks teachers to think about how they can successfully combine their content knowledge, which they have from their content-specialised degree; pedagogical knowledge, which is their teaching and learning knowledge they get as part of a postgrad qualification; and technological knowledge. At no point in that route do we see that teachers have specific training in how to effectively use technology.”