Are online schools the future of education?

The Covid-19 pandemic saw many schools shifting the site of classrooms to the virtual space. But a number of online schools, specialising in e-learning, have already begun to hold their own

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By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Thu 23 Jun 2022, 4:50 PM

Seventeen-year-old Dante Bonet Espinosa doesn’t take the school bus or car to go to school. In fact, he doesn’t ‘go’ to school at all — instead, he switches on his laptop and logs into his classroom. His classes begin at around 11:30am and depending on the timetable, end either at 4:30pm or a little later. The Dubai teen spends the rest of his day pursuing other interests like karate, learning Japanese, hanging out with friends and giving piano lessons to children.

The Year 12 student has been studying at the UK-headquartered online school King’s InterHigh since 2017. “We are huge fans of online education, which I believe is the future,” says his mother Sabrina, who works as a business adviser. “It is affordable, adapts to parents’ and students’ various needs and provides quality education.”

Students and parents became more familiar with the concept of online schooling and discovered its joys (and horrors, depending on whom you ask) during the ongoing Covid-19-pandemic. But to parents who were on the lookout for an alternative method to teach their children, enrolling them in an online school for the long term seemed like the logical thing to do. It also seemed like the right step for children facing bullying, mental health issues and so on.

Tahoora Khalil, head of Middle East, King’s InterHigh, explains that many parents opted to remain in their online school even as schools across the world resumed classes offline. “For many families across the Middle East, online schooling is a pathway to top international universities and they pursue an international education at secondary school age to increase their chances of gaining admission,” she says. The school has 400 students in the Middle East.

Closer home, the Dubai-based online school iCademy Middle East has 1,500 registered students across the Middle East and IT Manager Fazal Rehman says the pandemic drove the number of student enrollments up. “We provide a high quality American education with flexibility, for students from K to Grade 12,” he says, adding that most teachers are based in the US and Canada.

Logging into digital classrooms

In an online school, all classes, activities and school events — like exhibitions, festivals and workshops — and internal assessments are held online. Classrooms feel cosmopolitan and futuristic, with students logging in and attending classes from all over the world using virtual reality technology and artificial intelligence. Classrooms are also smaller in size, with a better teacher-student ratio — for instance, UK-based online school Sophia High School has one teacher for every six children. The schools also come equipped with online student portals and learning management systems to record students’ grades.

Apart from the core academic subjects, schools also focus on unconventional topics. “Wellbeing, mindfulness and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education are at the heart of our school,” says David McCarthy, director of education, Sophia High School. “Year 5 and 6 students practise chime meditation at the beginning of each lesson, to encourage focus and calm. We also practise a gratitude exercise roughly twice a week. More recently, we spoke about laughter therapy and we have a very open dialogue about mental wellbeing, anxiety, stress. And finally, we try to squeeze it in chi gong too.”

The school has students aged 3 to 15, from across the GCC region. “Online schools are growing in popularity, in particular within the GCC region, due to the high standards on offer, matching British independent school academic standards and provision. They provide exceptional value for money, which is particularly important during a time of hyper school inflation and global teaching crisis,” points out Melissa McBride, CEO and co-founder. “At our school, we offer the full British private school experience, delivered in a fully online environment for one-third of the cost of an independent school.”

Khalil describes online schooling as a ‘more accessible, affordable and modern alternative’ to international schools in the Middle East or boarding schools in the UK. At the school, which has primary, secondary, IGCSE, A Level and, starting this year, IB Diploma Programme students, tuition for the 2022-23 academic year begins at £2,900 (Dh13,095) for Key Stage 2 (meaning, ages 7 to 11), and goes up to £5,200 (Dh23,481) for Key Stage 5 students (that is, age 16+) taking 3 A Levels — however, all this varies depending on the subjects chosen by the student.

Flexibility is key

One of its biggest perks is flexibility. “Every lesson is recorded to allow students to revisit content at any time, ensuring no topic or subject is left without being fully understood. It also allows them to catch up on missed lessons,” says Khalil. Sophia High School, too, provides ‘access to resources and recorded lessons’ via Google Classroom. This makes the format popular among future actors, sportsmen and travelling enthusiasts as it allows them to stay in school while also leading busy lives. Sabrina, for instance, says it has allowed her son to compete internationally in MTG (or, Magic: The Gathering) games.

Abu Dhabi-based real estate consultant Abdul Kasim Qureshi says his son, who is now in Grade 6, always wanted to be a professional soccer player. “He needs to train for 6-8 hours every day at the academy. Since traditional schools don’t provide so much time and freedom to children, we chose an online school because of its flexibility, and the individual attention given to our son,” he explains. Qureshi enrolled his son in the India-based online school K8 School, where he follows an American curriculum.

Parents brush aside concerns about the lack of face-to-face, peer interactions. Qureshi explains that his son has about 40-50 friends from around the world as he’s a part of several student groups in school. “He has many friends at the soccer academy as well,” he says.

King’s InterHigh, meanwhile, does offer students the chance to mingle in person through summer camps and exchange programmes at ‘over 80 international schools across five continents’.

Accreditations and affiliations

In our email interview, Fazal Rehman says that iCademy Middle East is accredited by NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges). “We are also KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority) licensed,” he adds. The UK government’s website, while acknowledging the increase in the number of online schools in England, calls them ‘currently unregulated’. “We are one of four online schools in the UK chosen to work with the UK Department of Education and The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skill on the pilot Online Education Accreditation Scheme for UK online education providers, and we are working towards accreditation as part of it,” says McBride, adding that the school is a member of the Council of International Schools. King’s InterHigh is affiliated to Pearson Edexcel, Cambridge and AQA. “Our school is on the UK register of learning providers as well,” says Khalil.

Rema Menon Vellat, director, Counselling Point Training and Development, says that students are accepted in most institutions as long as their diploma is granted by an authentic, accredited body. However, she strikes a cautionary note. “Peer interactions are very important, especially during adolescence. Both students and parents must actively participate in support groups where students congregate… Collaboration, communication, problem-solving are all twenty-first century skills, which can get impacted unless we take adequate measures to address these needs.”

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