Ritesh Dhanak, the Chief Innovation and Digital Officer at GEMS Modern Academy, speaks about education and learning during and beyond a pandemic
How has the pandemic affected the education sector in the region?
If you look at the pandemic time, countries with connectivity provision have done better as compared to the ones that did not have this. The schools have been out and the biggest impact in my opinion has been on teachers who had to adapt to the ‘new way’ of teaching and learning.
Being part of GEMS Education means we already had a complete digital ecosystem in place and were up and running in no time. But the social and emotional impact probably will be evident after some time, students who have gone into lockdown have learned on the go also, but may have missed one of the most important aspects of human life, a personal connection.
What sort of opportunities do you see in the regional education sector?
As per emerging trends, I think the system that brings everything together in one place for staff, students, and parents will play a huge role in facilitating the teaching and learning on an ongoing basis. Schools have embraced the hybrid model of learning and elements of learning from this model will continue.
Automation will play a huge role in ‘creating’ time for teachers with the use of artificial intelligence-based marking, lesson planning systems that can lead to hyper-personalization. Yes, another opportunity I see growing in leaps and bounds is the use of extended reality (AR/VR/XR) to facilitate hands-on sessions.
Is there a digital disconnect despite tech tools being available for distance education?
I feel the engagement piece needs to be looked at here, while distance education has been existent for a long time, it was mostly used in higher and professional education. With distance learning coming into K-12, there is definitely a lacuna especially in the early years where a personal connection is more suited as compared to ‘over-the-webcam’ mode. A digital disconnect exists for sure, but I am sure schools, parents and students are working together to minimize the effect of this.
How can this digital disconnect be bridged?
We need to create an environment of equity, provide online education systems that are device-agnostic, Where possible integrate immersive and emerging technologies such as AR/VR/XR/AI, and so on.
STEM has risen as the go-to stream of education during the pandemic. What importance does STEM have in developing the skillsets of a student?
STEM which now is popularly and rightly know as STEAM is definitely a mode of learning rather than a stream. STEAM holds considerable importance when it comes to accelerating the development of a range of skills in students. Interdisciplinary projects that are STEAM-based will build a skill set for students in terms of critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical, leadership, technology, presentation skills, and many more. We have seen students develop this at a rapid pace when they are in an environment where collaborative STEAM-based projects are done by them.
To give you an example, while doing a unit on habitats, students were given projects to create insects that could survive in different types of habitats. Students visited various habitats using VR, used robotics and AI to come up with insects that probably none of us would have thought about.
Do you use solutions today to make STEM learning a seamless experience?
Yes, we do, we have AR/VR-based STEAM solutions being used by our teachers, we have online simulations that are giving students opportunities to experiment in a virtual scenario. Online arts, which is the ‘A’ in STEAM is now possible because of various online tools such as co-spaces, mergeedu, and so on.
But it probably is not about the tools alone, it is also about pedagogy design that impacts the seamless experiences. My advice would be to look for what tools can seamlessly transform learning for students rather than trying to fit a tool that exists and does not fit the context.
What about the security aspects of online learning. How can that be addressed?
Security is paramount. Child safeguarding is most important, especially in the online learning environment, we have systems in place for this at school, each child is provided with a secure online learning system id to access learning material and interact with their teachers using their devices.
In my opinion, the best possible way to address this is to have policies in place with the involvement of parents, students, and staff along with a regular cycle of talks with all stakeholders. Have systems in place for the consent of parent/child in case you are going to enable recording of events that are happening online.
Have guidance available for every stakeholder level to manage their own password. Have systems in place for monitoring and investigate issues that may arise while using online learning systems. Try an inculcate a culture where free software is thoroughly scrutinised before use as more often than not free means the user is a product, not the product itself.