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Thursday , October 28 2021

Life must go on…line

Dana Winner,
Msc. Cybersecurity Policy,
CISSP, Certified Knowledge Manager

On February 28th we received the notification that Kuwait schools must close March 1-11. We immediately made plans to shift the Jahra After School & Summer Program (JASSpr) to online classes. JASSPr students are mostly stateless residents of Jahra governorate or nearby and are receiving scholarships from the U.S. Embassy, Kuwait. Coordinating with Dr Abdullah al-Enezi, Director of Atlas Training Institute, which is responsible for conducting the program, I was able to retrieve the digital learning materials from The English Center in Saad Al Abdullah.

I then set-up my home office computer (Intel NUC8i7BEH) with the Oxford University Press Headway digital edition teaching materials. I already had a Zoom Pro subscription for the month of February for another related project. I had been considering whether to cancel the subscription, unsure if I needed it. The Kuwait Ministry of Education made the decision for me. Yes, I needed it. The final step was to check with the funder of the program – the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. With the approval of the U.S. Cultural Attache, we were ready to take our English learning lessons online.

Our English language teacher, Mr Khalid, has decades of experience teaching English in the classroom. However, he had never taught lessons online, nor had he ever engaged in any online group meetings. I coached him for a few minutes regarding the use of Zoom, but he preferred to learn by using. On the first day of use, he could activate and deactivate his microphone and video. He could choose from several display options to see the students. He could manage the participants and use the test “chat” function. He could call on the students to “raise hand” and “lower hand”. He could mute and unmute the students. The only function that he needed help to discover was “share” – to share the learning materials. The only challenging aspect of sharing that needed a bit of discovery was to check the box for sharing computer sound, to ensure that the sounds available in the learning materials could be heard by the students. In other words, with very little tutelage and some on-the-job learning, a Kuwaiti teacher who had never conducted an online class in his life became an online teacher of Kuwaiti students.

From February 29th until now, we have conducted six two-hour lessons each week. Most of the students adapted easily. Only a few have personal computers at home so most of them use their mobile phones to connect. They downloaded and installed the Zoom client for their devices and they connected to the Zoom meeting link. The only problem we have had is the Internet connection. At the beginning of this shift to eLearning, a few students did not have sufficient online connection resources at home.

As we were considering how to provide those students with better at home connection resources, the Kuwait government mandated free online access, solving that problem. However, in every lesson there are students who have to make significant efforts to connect and reconnect when their Internet Service Provider (ISP) is not providing sufficient resources. As everyone in Kuwait has probably realized, free use of the Internet does not mean that the Internet infrastructure in Kuwait is adequate to meet the current need.  

Despite these connection problems, the overall result has been very good, especially considering the circumstances. Some degree of attrition is normal even when classroom delivery is being conducted, because the program is voluntary and commitment of students is not 100%. Overall, the attendance has been slightly lower than the average over the previous 5 months of the program. Most important, the  students who want to learn have been allowed to continue learning.

The primary goal of JASSPr is English language learning, thereby opening education opportunities for the students, both in Kuwait and outside.  However, we also have a mandate for intercultural and computer skills learning. Clearly the learning of computer skills is supported by the experience of online learning. For intercultural skills we often have visitors from various cultures who speak about their home culture. One of the benefits of online learning is that  we can easily have visitors from anywhere in Kuwait or from anywhere in the world for that matter. By contrast, when we are in the classroom, most people in Kuwait find the trip to Jahra to be “far”. Now the visitors don’t even have to leave home to visit our class. The visitors are mostly from the US, but some are from other countries. Since we are meeting online we can have guests from anywhere in the world.

The first JASSPr intercultural learning objective is for the students to practice listening to various forms of English, both native English speakers and non-native English speakers, and to understand the role that English has played in their life. The second learning objective is to learn about other cultures. Third, the students are learning about the amazing diversity of people living and working in Kuwait. During March and April, we have had visitors from New York State, Ohio, California and Scotland. The students not only listen well, they have the confidence to ask questions of the visitors, thereby demonstrating that their intercultural communication skills are developing.  

Of course, we are not the only teachers in Kuwait who have conducted eLearning during March and April. I checked in with a number of schools and colleges in Kuwait, especially those where I have conducted cybersecurity lessons and assemblies. I was aware that several Kuwait private schools use digital classrooms as a normal aspect of the curriculum. They assured me that they had not skipped a beat in being able to shift to 100% online learning as of March 1st.  However, though our classes are not the only ones, they are a useful demonstration that even the less privileged students in Kuwait are able elearn online. We have also demonstrated that a Kuwaiti teacher who has never taught online was able to do so immediately. 

People in Kuwait have extensive online skills. They order home delivery of food in large amounts. They order cinema tickets before going to the cinema. They read and share information that they find on social media, as well as on journalism sources like the Arab Times.  Many civic organizations have taken their meetings online. For example, public speaking education (Toastmasters Clubs ) in Kuwait have shifted rapidly to meeting online. In fact, Toastmasters speech contests have been successfully conducted online in recent weeks. Another example is the American Business Council, Kuwait which is conducting almost weekly online seminars instead of face-to-face meetings.

It is difficult to understand why Kuwait Ministry of Education has not allowed all who are able to learn online to do so. While the world is continuously shifting towards the new paradigm of eLearning, Kuwait appears to resist eLearning.

In fact, eLearning is not restricted to the Internet. Television has been a means of eLearning for decades. I understand that at one time in the past Kuwait TV broadcast formal lessons on many subjects. Why not do that now? Why not use every means available to support students in their education journey?

New Kuwait 2035 vision calls for the development of a knowledge-based economy. We cannot allow students to fall further behind. We do not have a moment to lose, especially in the current circumstances of an oil price recession.

We must build the new Kuwait knowledge-based economy as soon as possible. Let’s renew our commitment to that vision by embracing every possible means of learning. And right now, social distancing to save lives means that we all must be eLearning and eWorking right now. Life must go on…line.

Dana Winner,

Msc. Cybersecurity Policy,

CISSP, Certified Knowledge Manager

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