Smart learning: Aiming for the stars

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Smart learning: Aiming for the stars

Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Program has enabled UAE’s schools to be ahead of world-class standards. Mohammed Gheyath who is at the helm of the programme speaks of the journey so far and how it will be taken forward.

by Dhanusha Gokulan

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Published: Thu 17 Jul 2014, 11:48 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:49 PM

In 2012, when His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched the Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Program (MBRSLP), he said: “I want youth leaders to be lions leading lions.” And perhaps two years later, officials spearheading the program are one step closer to achieving that goal. The MBRSLP is an advanced and integrated learning system in the UAE’s schools that is ahead of world-class standards, to help bring the UAE’s academic standards to the highest levels.

Mohammed Gheyath

On June 10, MBRSLP won a top level international award for the use of Internet and Communications Technology (ICT) to advance society at the World Summit on Information Society WSIS+10 High Level Event. Under the aegis of the United Nations, this year, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva, Switzerland from June 10 to 13. The MBRSLP was awarded the ‘Capacity Building’ category of the WSIS Project Prize for its role in promoting the use of ICT in public schools and in building a communication and information infrastructure in the UAE. Furthermore, the prize highlighted the achievements of the MBRSLP in training teachers, curriculum development, improving access to information and knowledge and raising the level of ICT literacy amongst students to encourage innovation and lifelong learning.

“We started as a pilot project of eight classrooms in the first phase and then went on to test the program in 14 classrooms. As of now the program has been extended to 123 Grade 7 and Grade 8 classrooms across five Emirates,” said Mohammed Gheyath, Director-General of MBRSLP. The program, according to Gheyath, touches the lives of 25,000 students and 3,000 odd teachers. In an interview with Khaleej Times, Gheyath spoke about the journey so far and how the government plans to take the learning program forward.

The significance of WSIS

WSIS is carried out with the aim of implementing the development goals set by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/252 and the United Nations Group on the Information Society (UNGIS). The aim of WSIS is to act as a platform for multiple stakeholders including government, private and civil society actors, to collaborate and carry out development efforts in their respective countries. The 2014 WSIS Project Prize selected only 18 winning projects, the MBRSLP being one of those winners, from over 150 projects from more than 40 countries. The extensive four-phase selection process includes a nomination process as well as a public voting phase. “We had competition from countries like Brazil, India and several other European countries and those countries are much larger in terms of population and involvement. In each category, there were about eight to nine countries that were shortlisted for the award. The beauty of this award is that firstly, it is under the capacity of the United Nations and it is in the field of using technology to build the capacity of the individual lives you are impacting. For us it was very important because we are impacting the lives of students and teachers,” said Gheyath.

“Participating in the WSIS+10 High Level Event has given the MBRSLP a permanent seat in global discussions on promoting smart learning and raising the quality of education, while building valuable partnerships that will help us achieve our overall mission of offering a world-class education in the UAE,” added Mohammed Gheyath. Empowering vulnerable groups and girls in particular is another mandate of this award that the MBRSLP has embodied, while it implements its program in female and male public schools alike and to students of all levels of excellence including those dealing with various disabilities.

Branching out

According to Gheyath, for the academic year 2014-15, the program will branch out to cover all students and teachers belonging to Grade 8 and teacher training will be given to teachers teaching in Grade 9. “We plan to equip Grades 7 and 8 classrooms and students, whereas, teacher training will be provided to Grade 9 teachers. However, a few pilot tests will also be conducted for Grade 9 students,” said Gheyath.

Speaking as to why the program was not extended to the primary classes, Gheyath said the strategy of the program works in a way that is better suited for middle school children. “Studies have not shown a positive response of younger students interacting with devices. The impact of individualising students and not working as a group did not benefit smaller students. We want younger children to work in groups and partake in more hand-written exercises so that their motor skills develop. We are planning to conduct pilot programs, where we do not necessarily use devices, but might use technology in terms of enriching curriculum and give students and teachers access to educational resources. The students won’t necessarily have devices like tablets in their hands not tablets, they will probably use screens. The students of Grade 7, 8, and 9 benefit from a more one-to-one approach, but we would like to encourage younger children to work in groups.”

Success of the programme

“Success can be measured by figures, numbers, feedbacks, surveys, and analysis and it could also be measured by the way students and teachers interact with each other using technology,” said Gheyath. “Based on what we measured from student’s contributions to our platform, that is the amount of data that they’ve sent to us, it is proof of how much they are embracing the new system and the kind of impact it has on them,” he added. “We have different measurement tools and we keep achievable targets. Also, we conduct large number of surveys and so far we’ve conducted 6-7 surveys. But education output needs time to be reflected, they are lengthy programs and it would require a generation of students who’ve used the program to gauge its true success. However, from some of the positive feedback from award ceremony in April, we received a lot of videos from students and teachers, where it shows that the program has been used by students on a daily basis and how it has changed their lives. We got a video from one of our special needs student who used the program to overcome her handicap.”

Teacher training

“We were under the perception that the older generation of teachers would be more resistant to the program, but that was not the case, to be honest. We did face some difficulties and challenges. It is about personal perception of how you embrace change and what you do about it. We had certain cases of denial of the change, but overall a majority of the teachers embraced change. We did not impose the change on the teachers, we made them part of it. We invited them to awareness lectures before they went through extensive training for full five weeks. We heard out their fears and worries and their concerns were issues like trust and control especially control over devices. Teachers were concerned that they don’t lose control over the classes, especially the devices,” said Gheyath.

The teachers from across the five emirates that the program is implemented in were given two types of training. “One is the technology aspect and the other is the education aspect. They were given mock lessons and asked to use interactive objects while teaching, they were told on how to send quizzes and so on,” added Gheyath. He stressed that no changes were made to the syllabus, but it was enhanced with the support of digital content.

Creation of tech addicts

According to Gheyath, when devices are used for educational purposes, they do not become as addictive as games. “There were initial concerns, but we’ve trained students to use the devices for purely production devices and not gaming, or at an addictive level,” he said. “If you think about it, engagement with devices is inevitable, it is becoming a lifestyle. But it is about educating students to use in a beneficial way,” he added.

Dhanusha Gokulan
Dhanusha Gokulan

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