Fayaz Mawani, who teaches junior and senior sciences in North Burnaby, Canada, had to use creative techniques to quickly prepare effective online learning modules when schools in British Columbia were closed earlier this year. Providing students with the experiential learning gained through laboratory experiments and dissections was not possible through an online platform. Therefore, Fayaz adapted to remote learning by utilising online science laboratories, dissection videos, and other resources. Though these lessons could not provide the tactile and experiential learning that comes with performing experiments, his students responded enthusiastically and were motivated to think critically and ask thoughtful questions.
The Aga Khan Education Board for Tanzania addressed the challenges of remote learning by finding new ways to make further use of an online learning tool called IXL that they had already been using prior to the pandemic. IXL provides students with an opportunity to learn and increase their knowledge outside of school. The platform includes online competitions that keep students engaged and motivated. Two additional competitions were introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic to encourage students to utilise the time being spent at home.
IXL is used by over 350 students in Tanzania and Zambia and has positively impacted their learning experience and academic performance. One sixth-grade student and IXL award-winner, praised the platform’s contribution to her learning experience during the pandemic, saying: “My experience with IXL has encouraged me to strive for the best and has given me an opportunity to practice independent learning, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Teachers have also been searching for ways to replace the element of human interaction found in classrooms by giving students feedback and answering questions remotely. Zohra Samji, a high school Algebra teacher based in Dallas, had already introduced her students to a blended learning model before the onset of Covid-19, teaching both in-person and virtually by using online videos and Google Classroom. While this eased the transition to remote learning, Zohra still had to make some adjustments to bridge the gap left by moving fully online.
“To provide feedback and my support to the students, I maintain daily office hours through Zoom, and provide constant feedback and communication,” she explained.
Students frequently contact Zohra outside office hours and she has made herself available for long hours to accommodate them.
Yaseena Khalfan, a teacher at the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, has faced similar challenges. Transitioning to remote learning required her to be creative and learn new skills to design lessons that would be engaging online. She has been putting long hours into planning lessons and grading assignments since classes shifted online.
“I have had to really dive deep into those creative juices to make teaching as interactive as I would have done in class by using different tools such as Padlet, Kahoot, and Mentimeter,” she said. Yaseena also holds a Zoom session every week during which her students can talk to their classmates and listen to music, which helps keep them connected with their peers now that they are unable to meet at school.
Students have also faced challenges in adjusting to the dynamics of remote learning during a pandemic. For example, some students are struggling with the transition to remote learning due to socio-economic problems. Many students lack access to laptops and Internet connectivity. Also, as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, many students have taken up jobs and are working eight-hour shifts to help their families. Others are responsible for taking care of their younger siblings while their parents work full-time jobs as essential workers. Balancing such responsibilities and education can strain students physically, mentally, and emotionally.
With the suspension of religious classes, Bait-ul-Ilm (BUI) and STEP have also transitioned to remote learning in many countries around the world. With the closure of religious education centres, teachers have had to set up a system for remote learning and engage students without being physically present.
“We had to make many changes during the transition to teaching online,” said Alysha Rahim from Burnaby. “We had to completely adjust our teaching style, but luckily the students were very adaptable and forgiving as we settled into the new format.”
Sanya Tejani from Chicago highlighted that teachers worked cooperatively and assisted each other to smooth the transition, saying, “STEP teachers shared best practices, teaching and learning strategies and tips, as well as reflections with one another throughout the entire virtual learning process.”
Keeping students engaged and attentive during online sessions can be a challenge. STEP and BUI teachers have tried to solve this problem by keeping sessions interactive with questions, discussions, and small group activities to keep their attention. Alysha praised these efforts, saying, “The BUI team did a fantastic job of adapting the lessons to match the platform. Instead of modifying lessons, the team used online tools to create lessons that were designed to be taught online.”
These lessons included videos depicting Islamic history and the contributions of Muslim scholars, inventors, scientists, and mathematicians. Google Earth was used to virtually take students from one destination to the next as students explored civilisations through online videos and discussion.
“Overall, students were able to grasp the key learning objectives that we would expect whether online or in person,” Alysha said.
The shift to remote learning has been challenging for students and teachers. However, it has also revealed the opportunities that remote learning and online tools hold. Online learning can be a much more personalised experience than learning in classrooms. Students can learn at a pace that feels comfortable to them as they can work ahead when they feel comfortable with the subject matter, and spend more time on parts that they find challenging. In addition, online tools can help teachers engage students and communicate ideas more effectively.
During her experience with remote learning, Sanya observed that “some individuals shine brighter on the virtual platform.” She said that she would like to retain some aspects of teaching online after the pandemic is over.
“Now that we understand how to navigate the virtual learning environment better, we can integrate online components to keep students engaged.”