DR. KENNETH VEDRA

Abu Dhabi 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Kenneth Vedra, Director General of Emirates National Schools (ENS), about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, working with the government, and predictions for the coming years in the sector.

What were the immediate steps taken by ENS in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have been working on an e-learning program for a number of years. At the end of February 2020, people were talking about getting ready for distance learning. Fortunately, we already had pieces in place that were working for us. One of the most important pieces, which we implemented two years ago, was Microsoft Office 365 accounts for all of our staff and K-12 students. They all have the complete set of tools necessary to go forward, including Teams, PowerPoint, Excel, and Word. We also worked with international computer driving licenses (ICDLs), which became a requirement in 2020. In January 2020, a little over 50% of our staff had licenses, and by the end of the next school year, all of our teaching staff need to have ICDL authorizations. We went a step further to get e-learning coordinators who could work with our teachers who teach K-12 on all campuses. Despite being rather ahead of the curve, the pandemic still changed our landscape considerably. We had been working on a customized learning management system (LMS). Without sufficient time to implement the highly customized solution before the onset of the pandemic, we found workarounds through Seesaw, Edmodo, and other programs that could fit within our powerful student information system. However, technology's toll on younger students is also a critical issue. This is compounded by the limited social interaction and opportunities for social development students, particularly younger ones, are missing. To mitigate this problem, there is support necessary for their emotional wellbeing. We have a full team available, whether it is a counselor, a special education teacher, a regular teacher, or an assistant in the classroom. A second challenging area has been student assessment. We ran our own evaluation of all our programs on all five campuses that included a quality assessment on 78 different indicators available internationally, and within three weeks the Ministry of Education did the same. We found that our processes are working well, but assessment and feedback are significant challenges.

How did you end up assessing students, and what lessons were learned from that experience?

We learned that assessment is always a difficult part of any program. Using the backwards-by-design approach, we were able to design for the remainder of 2020, including the grade 12 that is testing now, specific targets that we had picked out. We built assessments geared toward that target. The summative assessment is the final target, but the formative ones are smaller that lead up to accomplishing the bigger goal. We had a common format, and lessons were built on the basis of “here is the target, here is the instructional strategy, and here is the formative assessment as we move forward.” We wrote many papers on this, and our leadership teams on each campus including principals and central office people were meeting with us twice a week. Overall, everyone is picking up the slack and doing the best they can. This experience has been good for us. Because we are an IB school, we have formed alliances with other IB schools in other parts of the world who had started distance learning in January. Having this network has been a great support system as they have been right there with us helping us and talking to us. The same goes for the software companies we use; Seesaw has been extremely helpful. We have provided a great deal of insights for it as well, and it made changes for us. We created collaborative and symbiotic relationships that have been positive. We also went through a virtual IB diploma program audit. They authorized us to provide the diploma program on one of our campuses in Ras Al Khaimah for the diploma program using their own program, one of the first in the world. At the same time, I served on a virtual authorization team for IB in the US, and that was a career program. Those experiences would not have happened otherwise, but we had the opportunity to participate and everyone learned from each other.

How has your collaboration with the government been over the past few months?

It has been great. One of our deputy superintendents works directly with the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi Investment Council (ADIC). The University of Maine's Schools of Policy and International Affairs has been forthright in working with the ministry, as has ADIC. We received a great deal of good advice from these organizations on how to organize our work. The ministry came out with a three-step program to assess how effective we have been and what we need to do differently. They are thinking to the future and about making e-learning and distance learning viable for parents. When students miss school or when parents pull their children out, how do we keep kids up to speed in their education? We have come up with a number of different ways to make sure they are not left behind and have been working with the Ministry of Education in this regard.

What is your prediction for the education sector as we all adapt to a new reality and new world?

The use of electronic tools, an electronic curriculum, and virtual labs for the sciences needs to be enhanced and made more widely available. We will learn how to use these tools to assist kids in learning when they are ill or unable to attend school for whatever reason. We will be creating podcasts or lessons available to them on the cloud so they can have access. Another piece we will learn is that as adults, we will understand better how to cope with change. A positive effect from this whole situation is realizing how fully patient and understanding my staff has been. They have been following the guidelines to make sure people stay safe and are great role models. We have had challenges, but people have been organized and willing to do what needs to be done to provide a solid program for children and meet their needs. We have also become better at communicating and are trying new things. In the future, if we do get back to some semblance of what education used to be, there will still be opportunities for us to use these skills and things we have learned to move into a different realm and help people.