As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts everyday life around the world, schools have increasingly switched to distance learning. While this is pragmatic, there has been little time to reflect on the implementation or how binding students to screens for an unhealthy number of hours a day may affect them. This is further compounded by logistical challenges as many families around the world do not have a computer for every child, nor the internet access, to facilitate online learning. But there are many ways children can learn remotely, and it doesn’t have to be with numerous hours of screen time.
Implementing a distance learning approach seems straight forward, after all, one may assume you only need to upload the course materials to on an online platform like Google classroom. However, the reality is far more challenging. Not only are schools struggling with the digital literacy of their staff and students, there are also immense logistical challenges in ensuring equity and access. Unfortunately, many schools are ill prepared to face the challenges of distance learning and little room or time is given to reflect on the pedagogy that has been developed for decades. At many schools, especially at the secondary level, it is as if everyone has forgotten the importance of using a variety of teaching methods to accommodate different learning styles and abilities. Instead, distance learning is being defined as ensuring that every student can sit in front of a screen during the time that they would otherwise have been in school, not if the needs of the students are being met.
Every education professional has a slightly different vision of how children should be taught in the classroom, but they usually center around a few key ideas: First, reduce the talk time of the teacher; second, get the students engaged in the material; third, use a variety of activities to facilitate the various stages of learning; and fourth, differentiate for students’ learning styles and their abilities. Yet when it comes to distance learning, much —if not all— of these good practices in teaching have been thrown out the window and replaced with an endless list of tasks for both students and teachers. Admittedly, schools are under immense pressure to show parents that the school is still teaching their child —and even more so for private schools that need to justify collecting school fees. However, providing evidence to collect fees often gets in the way of good teaching and learning, with potentially detrimental effects that so much screen time has on the brain development of a child.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Distance learning has been around for over half a century in rural areas around the world. Examples include Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada or the Northern territory in Australia where the Alice Springs School of the Air was established over 60 years ago to provide an education to children living in remote areas —long before the invention of the internet. Looking at these well-established distance learning schools, we see a different distance learning environment, one that upholds the strong pedagogy and curriculum that been developed over decades, where children do not spend endless hours in front of a screen. Instead, these students are given tasks by their teacher using materials they can access, make, or print at home, or are sent materials by mail. For example, students can practice fractions using food (even a glass of water) or engage in creative writing using pen and paper. This allows students to learn using a variety of learning styles (auditory, kinesthetic, visual), and use the internet and its many services as tools to overcome the barriers and challenges of distance learning, rather than serving as the centerpiece of their learning.
In a recent podcast, Kerrie Russell, the principle of the Alice Springs School of the Air, explains that primary students only have two 30-minute sessions with their teachers per day, the rest of the time is spent engaging in learning offline. To facilitate offline learning, students are given instructions by their teacher and even mailed physical materials to use. Students then complete these activities and either share feedback with their teacher when they meet online or upload their work with a picture. Reducing screen time also addresses the logistical burden that these families in rural Australia would face by having to make sure that every child is online and in front of a screen for the school day. Even though the students at the Alice Springs School of the Air do much of their work offline, they are still able to complete all of the requirements of the standard Australian curriculum as any other traditional school in Australia.
This is an unprecedented time and schools are devoting countless hours and resources to making the best of a situation that many had little time to prepare for. Schools, their staff, and especially parents, should be applauded for their efforts. Nonetheless, we need to continue to improve the quality of the distance learning being delivered to children around the world. We need to encourage learning that engages students offline, with their environment, and on their feet away from the screen. Above all, we must continue to work towards ensuring that every child, regardless of their ability and learning style, is able to get the quality education they deserve.
 Based on our recent survey looking at distance learning in the GCC, more than 65% of teachers are spending more than 3 hours per day online with their classes at this time, 47% more than 4 hours, and 24% more than 6 hours. Students reported spending even more time online for their classes, on average, with 92% of students reporting more than 3 hours, 64% more than 4 hours, and 20% more than 6 hours per day.
In our Education in Uncertain Times blog series, the Al Qasimi Foundation explores how COVID-19 is impacting students, teachers, administrators and education in the UAE. It presents insights into the current state of education, but also intopolicy and funding. Moreover, it offers suggestions fordecision-makers and the general public on how to sustain quality education for all students in these uncertain times. If you enjoyed this blog, we encourage you to read the other blogs in our Education in Uncertain Times series.