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Matt Knowles, the Group Head of Technology at International Schools Partnership; and Abigail Fishbourne, the School Improvement Partner at International Schools Partnership Middle East, speak about education during and beyond a pandemic

How has the pandemic affected the education sector in the region?
Like many sectors, the pandemic has had a significant effect on education and the delivery of teaching and learning. Technology has played a crucial role in supporting the rapid changes required in the learning environment during the first stages of the pandemic, however, this was only one part of the challenge.

There has been a huge expectation for teaching methods to become digitized and our teachers to become familiar and comfortable with that. Likewise, parents suddenly became educators at home more so than ever before, juggling this around their own work commitments and priorities. Finally, and most importantly, students have been asked to adapt more than anyone else.

The delivery of crucial learning has become more digital and at some stages during the pandemic, in a full distance learning model. They have had to adapt to being away from their teachers and friends for long periods of time whilst still receiving vital education.

At International Schools Partnership we were well prepared to meet the challenges that affected us globally and we learned from one another. Prior to the pandemic, we were already very technology and digitally focused, so we had the technology tools available to us. Any knowledge gaps were closed through training and support to ensure our teams felt comfortable in this new era.

We are extremely proud of the achievements of our students, teachers, schools, and everyone supporting us. The pandemic has accelerated our move to digital platforms in our schools by maybe 1 to 2 years, and as we move back to more traditional or hybrid ways of learning we are excited that our new skills will massively enhance our offerings to students and teachers.

Abigail Fishbourne, the School Improvement Partner at International Schools Partnership Middle East

What sort of opportunities do you see in the regional education sector?
I can see more Middle East schools now continue to accelerate the use of digital platforms. I believe schools will be looking to showcase this, so we will begin to see more schools working towards official accreditations, such as Microsoft Showcase School or Google Reference School. This will be a major benefit to both students and teachers.

At International Schools Partnership, one thing that has really taken off during 2020 and into 2021 has been our International Learning Opportunities initiatives. Under this umbrella, we have many different programs that cover topics including Maths Challenges, Chess competitions, STEM Scientist programmes, Film creation/editing, Model United Nations simulations, and exchange opportunities.

Aspects of these learning opportunities were traditionally in person, but technology has allowed us to continue in new and exciting ways, ensuring our students have access to global opportunities to interact with their peers, regardless of the constraint put on travel.

Is there a digital disconnect despite tech tools being available for distance education?
There is a disconnect that technology tools cannot fully replicate, unfortunately, and this is the hardest thing for students and even teachers to deal with. Working with your class, friends, or work colleagues is a crucial part of day-to-day life. This aspect is a big concern for mental wellbeing.

How can this digital disconnect be bridged?
Keep topics interesting and not always work/study-related. We have gone from using digital tools for keeping in touch with friends or family across the world, to it being all about study and work. Making a point every now and then allows the chat to become relaxed and more like playtime or a coffee break. Taking this approach helps with mental fatigue and reluctance.

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 is crucial to the development of students across all ages, and it’s one aspect that can really keep learning during the pandemic interesting. Many topics can be explored at home or online and our schools have been very creative with this.

Do you provide solutions today to make STEM learning a seamless experience?
Yes, many of our online platforms support an interactive way of learning and sharing STEM-related activities. Using tools provided both at home and in the school, students can create, capture and share their STEM experiences and learnings easily.

What about the security aspects of online learning. How can that be addressed?
Clear Protocols: One of the single biggest concerns as we moved to full-distance learning was digital safety. Our technology and safeguarding leaders worked closely together to define a very simple but crucial set of protocols for all our schools to follow.

Access, Security, and Monitoring: In 2020 we launched a global single sign-on initiative. This has allowed us to centralize access, security, and monitoring of our core platforms and with many more applications being added.
In addition, we constantly check and monitor our platforms for any unusual activities, report, and escalate where needed. As we operate on a global scale, we often know about threats before they reach other regions.

Support: We only used platforms and tools that were pre-approved by our technology experts. Access was provided to teachers, parents, and students with all guidance and support available by dedicated internal support teams.

Education: It does not matter how good your technology platforms are and the security around them, user education is vital to the security technology systems, data, and those using them. We have recently implemented a cybersecurity framework following guidance from the National Cyber Security Agency in the UK. To support user education, we will be soon launching Cyber Security Awareness Training for all employees and this could be extended to parents and students in the future also.

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