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Head of PE at Hartland International School in Dubai, Niall Statham, shares his thoughts on what it is that online education - indeed all education - has at its heart.

Every morning at 10.50, I pace around my kitchen, generally experiencing a bit of a stage fright.

Why?

At 11.00 on the dot, Hartland International School in Dubai beams out a live stream PE lesson to the entire primary school and I am the host.

Although I once played international rugby (a few years and kilos ago), I’m a far cry from Mr Motivator. The exercises I’m about to demonstrate are neither new nor fancy, indeed, anyone could find them online. The location? My two-bedroom apartment in downtown (and locked down) Dubai.

Let’s face it, this is hardly a Joe Wicks set up.

I’d forgive you at this point if you’re thinking, this hardly sounds like compelling viewing. In fact. I'd agree with you. See for yourself:

However, at its peak, over 160 families tuned into the live feed which we streamed into their homes using Microsoft Teams. The three-week average holds firm at more than 100 households. Some simple maths will tell you that upwards of 200 people in our school community are accessing synchronous (ie doing things at the same time as the teacher) PE.

Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised as the viewer counter continued to rise, despite my decidedly average burpees. There are so many YouTube channels, fitness resources and celebrity Instagram accounts out there, not to mention the fact we had already produced asynchronous content (work students can do in their own time, away from the teacher). The question I found myself asking was, at a time of heavy workload, high stress and grave uncertainty, why are so many parents and children downing tools in the middle of the day to exercise with me? The content is even available on demand, you can access the stream link at any time, anywhere!

The answer, I suggest, is connectivity.

They see me live. They can respond to my efforts, my feelings and emotions. They witness my struggles in real time and they feel them too. The teacher-student relationship that exists far supersedes the alternatives. They are there for me, because like at school, they know I’m there for them. They tune in because they’re part of a school community that goes beyond the classroom.

The experience has been a timely reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate how important a role we play in the lives of students.

I watched my daughter take part in a live Teams Teddy Bear’s Picnic as part of her learning about special occasions. Complete with party dress, special snack and brown bear. The ability to communicate with her teacher was important, but not as important as the opportunity to listen and laugh with her friends. Her passion for online learning was absolutely ignited, why?

The answer is connectivity.

I’d be willing to bet that if you’re reading this, your fondest school memories aren’t of lessons, they are of friends, experiences, inspirational teachers and those impromptu moments where you just had to be there. We can’t replace that during the current homeschooling situation, but we can go a long way towards creating an opportunity for them to experience at least some of it.

As adults, we’ve probably all taken the opportunity to video call or message home, whether we're in a different continent like I am or just down the road but unable to be there with them. The thought of not being able to do so is unbearable. For some students, we are now their only source of human connectivity outside their home environment. We need to explore as many avenues as we can to give them the opportunity to connect safely as part of their learning.

The groundwork for implementing live lessons must be laid firmly and securely, there’s no doubting that. It takes confidence, it takes technical skill and it takes planning.

So, is it worth it?

Every day at 11.01am I start running on the spot and I can see that 100 other families are running on the spot too and I know the answer to that question.

Absolutely! [ITL]

Niall Statham is head of PE at Hartland International School in Dubai. He can be found, sweating slightly, on Twitter at @NiallStatham. 

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