How did UAE's students of determination, teachers cope with online learning during COVID-19?

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Dubai: A new study seeks to reveal how Dubai teachers coped with teaching students of determination as schools moved online during the COVID-19 movement restrictions in 2020.

The study, led by two Dubai-based university researchers, will analyse how teachers tried to stay inclusive towards the learning needs of students of determination as the pandemic forced the suspension of face-to-face classes.

‘Thrown into chaos’

Researcher Dr Sarah Benson, Programme Director and Lecturer, Inclusion and Special Educational Needs, University of Birmingham Dubai, said: “Incredibly, it was one year ago that the world was thrown into chaos as COVID-19 spread across the globe. “

Dr Sarah Benson

“The pandemic forced school systems across the world to shut down and education professionals scrambled to recreate school online. Through this, my research partner and I – both lecturers in inclusion and special education needs – were concerned about students with disabilities being left out of online schooling.”

Dr Benson and research partner Dr Nadera Alborno, Associate Professor, Education, American University of Dubai, began collecting survey responses last spring and conducted follow-up interviews through the past autumn. They received survey responses from over 100 teachers from various private schools in Dubai, mainly from British and American curricula.

Inclusion framework

Within Dubai, inclusion has been a driving force over the past three years since the Knowledge and Human Development Authority released the Inclusion Framework (2017), Dr Benson said. This framework provides the regulations private schools in the emirate must abide by to ensure students with disabilities are included in schools. As school inspections continued virtually during the pandemic, schools were encouraged to continue making inclusion a foundational principle in their movement to online learning.

Dr Nadera Alborno

The researchers wanted to understand how teachers in Dubai had adapted to online inclusive practices and if they felt supported.

Technology has increased inclusive efforts even prior to the pandemic, with tools such as audiobooks, closed-captioning, screen readers and predictive text.

What were the main challenges?

“While the majority of our teachers responded positively to the amount of access students of determination had to online learning, they also expressed difficulties in reaching their individualised education plan goals, especially those that required special services. There was wide variability in how teachers viewed their ability to provide feedback and individual support to students of determination, which through our ongoing data analysis, we hope to understand more,” she added.

Most respondents were teachers with considerable teaching experience, almost half (47 per cent) had more than 10 years’ experience.

The surveyed teachers reported an average of three and a half hours of synchronous teaching a day, in both large and small groups. Also “encouraging” was the participation of students with disabilities in these classes. Most teachers reported that they were included in full class activities as well as receiving small group opportunities.

More support needed

“Unfortunately, the research found little to no support for teachers in how to create inclusive environments online. The average was less than four hours and teachers have emphasised that no training was directly focused on inclusive pedagogy. Many of the teachers relied on colleagues to help them fill gaps in their knowledge or provide practical digital solutions,” Dr Benson said.

Despite “the lack of formal training opportunities”, many of the teachers responded positively that their practices were supporting inclusion. However, others presented “a slightly less positive outlook”, and “there is more doubt over their ability to provide adequate supports or accommodations, as well as the potential for students with disabilities to make adequate progress”.

Awaiting final results

The research duo has been able to conduct some follow up interviews that are providing more information. “This data is still being analysed but it appears that many teachers have used professional WhatsApp groups, social media and external support to find solutions when they were struggling with the above issues… We are currently analysing our data and hope to have final results published by late spring or early summer this year,” Dr Benson said.

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