By: Brian Kerr
Few would argue that this year has been a severe test for us all.
Who would have imagined as 2020 dawned that just a few short weeks later, we would be struggling to cope with the devastating fall-out of the first major global pandemic in more than a century?
It was in late January that the first hints of anxiety began to surface here at Doha College. Like the rest of the world, we watched as coronavirus cases were confirmed in Japan, the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, France, Singapore, Vietnam…every day, the list of countries affected grew longer.
Then, on January 29, as the US and Japan began evacuating their citizens from Wuhan in China, the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the UAE.
As worldwide infection rates and deaths began to soar and states of emergency were declared, we knew it would only be a matter of time before lockdown restrictions were imposed in Qatar.
The news we had all been dreading came on March 9 when the Ministry of Education announced that all nurseries, schools and universities were to close with immediate effect.
We assumed – naively as it turned out – that we’d be shut for a month at the most. In reality, it was to be September before we eventually reopened and were able to resume face-to-face teaching with reduced class sizes.
This year is Doha College’s 40th anniversary. Many events had been planned to mark the occasion, culminating in the opening, in September, of our new school here at Al Waajba, just a few miles from the old campus at Al Waab that had served us so well for many years.
But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to have a catastrophic impact on countries across the globe and we all learn to live with the ‘new normal,’ our anniversary celebrations have had to be put on the backburner.
Of greater concern has been ensuring we continue to offer the outstanding education we have become renowned for to our 2,500 students drawn from 65 nationalities.
With so many groups represented in our school, we have a truly international perspective. And it is perhaps thanks to this global-facing, outward-looking stance that we have always been open to fresh ideas, issues and solutions.
Technology has long been central to our success as we strive to open new horizons for our children.
It was in 2013 that the college took the decision to issue iPads to all our students in Years 3-13 to enhance their learning – this at a time when tablets were still something of a novelty.
When I took over as Head of Digital Learning in 2016, we had had three years of assimilating traditional and technological teaching.
We had successfully introduced and integrated online platforms, like GCSEPod, Firefly Learning and Class Dojo for our younger students.
We have a previous secondary school head to thank, for our open-mindedness. He had the vision to see the vital role technology would play going forward. He understood that the jobs our students will be doing in 10 years’ time don’t exist yet, but he wanted our children to be well-versed in everything technology has to offer, for when they head to university or into the workplace.
As such, we have developed our own eight-point digital learning model through which we aim to engender the use of technology in the classroom. It requires us to create responsible users, innovative leaders, organised scholars, engaged learners, collaborative participants, independent enquirers, creative explorers and to ensure everyone is digitally literate.
Our willingness to explore and create new learning opportunities was instrumental in helping us to very rapidly adapt to remote learning when we had to abandon face-to-face teaching quite literally overnight.
We immediately set about solving how we could best deliver schooling, and by March 12 were setting and marking work, planning lessons and sharing content via Firefly Learning and GCSEPod, quickly rolling out the latter beyond our core Year 10 and 11 users to KS3 students.
We didn’t initially run live lessons, with teachers instead recording Podcasts and videos. But within days, we were utilising Zoom and running a normal school timetable.
I am proud of the flexible and focused way everyone adopted and adapted to our new way of working. I would be lying if I said it was easy, but on the whole, we are a very tech-savvy school.
Working remotely (we have deliberately avoided using the term digital learning as whilst we have all been utilising the technology, we also wanted our students to be doing off-line tasks) didn’t stop us from launching our latest teaching innovation: an artificial intelligence platform for Maths, English and the Sciences.
Trialled with our Year 5 students, it allows our teachers to set a diagnostic assessment and create individual learning pathways.
On a personal level, as the Head of Digital, I have had to do a lot of thinking on my feet. The roll-out of Century Tech’s AI tool is a case in point. We were only halfway through introducing it when lockdown came. I had two choices: leave employing it until we were back to classroom teaching or continue the implementation. Given how well-informed, flexible and proficient both our teachers and students are in using technology, I decided we should run with it.
At the beginning of the year, if anyone had said we would be rolling out something like that within three months, during a pandemic and subsequent lockdown, I would have thought it impossible. But I think we underestimate our adaptability sometimes. We are more agile than we give ourselves credit for.
Another great success has been GCSEPod. We usually introduce it at the beginning of Year 10, and the students who were already using it continued to dip into it to progress their learning and knowledge retention.
But it turned out to be ideal for consolidating knowledge amongst our KS3 cohort. It has always been well utilised away from the classroom by our top learners. One of our top boys a couple of years ago over the course of three months used GCSEPod more than 500 times and went on to achieve A*s across the board. It’s a good example of how using effective technology can lead to success.
All this, of course, was happening as we were also preparing to move into our new college campus in September. Thanks to a lot of hard work behind the scenes, we were able to open as normal for the start of what has so far been a very different academic year.
As class sizes have been capped at 15, we have introduced a rotation system with students spending one day in school and one day working from home in a two-week cycle. On the day children are in class, they are benefitting from face-to-face learning and contact with their peers but are then able to seamlessly carry on with their timetabled lessons at home via Zoom live streams and the likes of Firefly and GCSEPod.
The students are very comfortable with this blended approach, and throughout lockdown and the new way of working that has been forced on us, they have shown great maturity and dedication.
As a school, we have learnt much too. We’re less fearful about embracing all types of learning, more likely to engage, less nervous about having difficult discussions, and more confident about where technology is going to be taking us in the coming years.
We have seen that a blended approach is valid. Whilst in an ideal world, it isn’t something we would want to do all the time, we have come to realise it is a viable option and that we can still successfully connect with our students.
As a history teacher, I know that past disasters have often been a catalyst for improving lives and for innovation and change. For us, putting our belief in technology and each other has been the shining light in what could have been a very bleak situation.
I am a highly experienced, passionate teacher of geography and history, and a strong advocate of delivering quality enrichment opportunities for the young people that I teach. I have advanced my leadership and management skills through the delivery of numerous whole school initiatives and accreditations. I am a firm believer in the growth mindset, lifelong learning and continuing professional development.