The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many schools to relocate classrooms to virtual space. But a number of online schools specializing in e-learning have already begun to make their mark
17-year-old Dante Bonet Espinosa doesn’t take the school bus or drive to school. In fact, he doesn’t “go” to school at all – instead, he turns on his laptop and logs into his classroom. His classes start around 11:30 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. or a little later, depending on the timetable. The teenager from Dubai spends the rest of the day pursuing other interests such as karate, learning Japanese, spending time with friends and giving piano lessons to children.
The 12th grader has been studying at UK-based online school King’s InterHigh since 2017. “We’re big fans of online education, which I believe is the future,” says his mother, Sabrina, who works as a business consultant. “It’s affordable, adapts to the diverse needs of parents and students, and provides quality education.”
Students and parents became better acquainted with the concept of online education and discovered its joys (and horrors, depending on who you ask) during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But for parents looking for an alternative way to educate their children, it seemed logical to enroll them in an online school long-term. It also seemed like the right move for kids facing bullying, mental health issues and so on.
Tahoora Khalil, Middle East Director, King’s InterHigh, explains that even as schools around the world have resumed offline classes, many parents have chosen to remain in their online school. “For many families in the Middle East, online education is a pathway to top international universities, and they seek international education at secondary school age to increase their chances of admission,” she says. The school has 400 students in the Middle East.
Closer to home, Dubai-based online school iCademy Middle East has 1,500 enrolled students across the Middle East, and IT manager Fazal Rehman says the pandemic has boosted student enrollments. “We offer a quality American education with flexibility for students from K through 12th grade,” he says, adding that most of the teachers are based in the US and Canada.
Login to digital classrooms
In an online school, all classes, activities and school events – such as exhibitions, festivals and workshops – as well as internal assessments take place online. The classrooms feel cosmopolitan and futuristic as students from all over the world log in and take part in classes using virtual reality technology and artificial intelligence. Classrooms are also smaller, with better teacher-student ratios – for example, UK online school Sophia High School has one teacher for every six children. Schools are also equipped with online student portals and learning management systems to record student grades.
In addition to core academic subjects, schools also focus on unconventional subjects. “Wellbeing, mindfulness and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) are at the heart of our school,” said David McCarthy, Sophia High School’s Director of Education. “Grades 5 and 6 students practice chime meditation at the beginning of each class to promote focus and calm. We also do a gratitude exercise about twice a week. Recently we talked about laughter therapy and we have a very open dialogue about mental wellbeing, anxiety, stress. And finally we try to squeeze it into Chi Gong as well.”
The school has students aged 3 to 15 from all over the GCC region. “Online schools are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the GCC region, due to the high standards on offer, which match the academic standards and offerings of UK independent schools. They offer exceptional value for money, which is especially important at a time of hyper school inflation and the global education crisis,” said Melissa McBride, CEO and Co-Founder. “At our school we offer the full UK private school experience, delivered in a fully online environment at a third of the cost of an independent school.”
Khalil describes online education as a “more accessible, affordable and modern alternative” to international schools in the Middle East or boarding schools in the UK. At the school, which has primary, secondary, IGCSE, A-level and from this year IB Diploma program students, tuition for the 2022-23 school year starts at £2,900 (Dh13,095) for Key Stage 2 (ie ages 7 to 11) and ranges up to £5,200 (Dh 23,481) for Key Stage 5 students (ie aged 16+) taking 3 A levels – but all this varies depending on the subjects chosen by the student .
Flexibility is key
One of the biggest advantages is flexibility. “Each lesson is recorded so students can revisit the content at any time to ensure no subject or topic is left without full understanding. They can also catch up on missed lessons,” says Khalil. Sophia High School also offers “access to resources and recorded lessons” through Google Classroom. This makes the format popular with future actors, athletes, and travel enthusiasts as it allows them to stay in school while maintaining busy lives. For example, Sabrina says it has allowed her son to compete internationally in MTG (or Magic: The Gathering) games.
Abu Dhabi-based real estate consultant Abdul Kasim Qureshi says his son, who is now in 6th grade, always wanted to be a professional footballer. “He has to train 6-8 hours every day at the academy. Since traditional schools don’t give the children as much time and freedom, we chose an online school for its flexibility and the individual attention we gave to our son,” he explains. Qureshi enrolled his son in India-based online school K8 School, where he follows an American curriculum.
Parents brush aside concerns about the lack of face-to-face interactions among their peers. Qureshi explains that his son has around 40-50 friends from all over the world as he is a member of several student groups at school. “He also has a lot of friends at the football academy,” he says.
King’s InterHigh, on the other hand, offers students the opportunity to connect personally through summer camps and exchange programs at “over 80 international schools on five continents.”
Accreditations and Affiliations
In our email interview, Fazal Rehman says that iCademy Middle East is NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) accredited. “We are also licensed by the KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority),” he adds. The UK government website, while acknowledging the growth in the number of online schools in England, describes them as “currently unregulated”. “We are one of four online schools in the UK selected to work with the UK Department of Education and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills on the online education accreditation pilot scheme for UK online education providers and we are working on it accreditation as part of that,” says McBride, adding that the school is a member of the Council of International Schools. King’s InterHigh is affiliated with Pearson Edexcel, Cambridge and AQA. “Our school is also registered on the UK Register of Learning Providers,” says Khalil.
Rema Menon Vellat, director of Counseling Point Training and Development, says most institutions will accept students as long as their diploma is awarded by an authentic, accredited body. However, she suggests a cautionary tale. “Peer interactions are very important, especially during puberty. Both students and parents need to actively participate in support groups where students gather…Collaboration, communication, and problem-solving are all 21st-century skills that can be impaired if we don’t take appropriate steps to meet those needs.”