Exploring education technology in the Middle East with Neal Oates

Education technology continues to work its way into classrooms large and small across the Middle East.

Recently, we sat down with Neal Oates, Vice Principle at Star International School Mirdif and Bett Leadership Award winner, to discuss how he’s taking up the technology challenge at his school – and where Bett MEA fits in.

Using education technology in Middle East Schools with Neal Oates

In 2019, Neal was the worthy recipient of Bett Asia’s leadership award. His tireless approach to improving outcomes for his pupils and staff alike makes Neal one of the key voices in Middle Eastern education.

Neal Oates shares his thoughts on how education technology can be implemented in Middle East schools.

“A particular highlight for me last year was winning the BETT Leadership Award against a very strong field, which I was very appreciative of given how hard my school had worked towards the STEAM curriculum we have embedded recently,” Neal says.

Previously working at an Outstanding British School in Dubai, Neal has subsequently moved to Star International School Mirdif as Vice Principal. 

Here’s what Neal told us about his approach to integrating new technologies into the classroom, how tech literate students are, and what he would like to see from education solutions in the future.

Hi Neal. You’re Vice Principal at Star International School Mirdif. What does your day to day role involve? 

I still teach a limited timetable each week in Secondary and occasionally Primary. 

My primary role as Vice Principal is a lover of education and to promote excellent teaching throughout the school. 

My role involves budgeting for technological investment and integrating the technology which we invest in.

Aside from this managing the three phases of school (EYFS/Primary/Secondary) and supporting the rest of SLT and middle leaders with integrating the school’s vision and pillar of learning. 

I have held the current role since September 2019 at Star International School Mirdif. Prior to this I spent 7 years at an Outstanding British curriculum school elsewhere in Dubai.

How important is Education Technology to Star International School Mirdif? How does your school typically deploy it?

Essential given our desire to prepare students for the realities of the world. One of our three pillars of learning is “Learning for Change” which resonates strongly with the role of technology.

We have a BYODD program across Year 6 up Secondary phase. This will expand to include Years 4 & 5 next academic year: standard Projectors in many classrooms with a movement towards Clevertouch screens in upper KS2 and Secondary moving forward.
We have a recently upgraded Wi-Fi infrastructure which will continue to be expanded upon. We also have introduced iPads for EYFS and KS1 for their tech use along with a computer suite. We are also investing in STEAM based robotics equipment to enhance the curriculum.

Above all, we deploy technology based upon greatest need with a view for being efficient with our use of capital looking for impact when we do so.

Could you please quickly guide us through some of the specific education technologies you use at Star International School Mirdif?

We are looking to refine our use of hardware so as to standardise and lower impact on the IT support. 

Hence, we moved to G-Suite this year and have started to provide Chromebooks for teachers as well as the BYODD program. Clevertouch screens have been a great success in these classrooms using chromebooks. 

We also use Aruba access points and Fujitsu for laptops where they are required. 

STEAM robotics-wise, we use Sam Labs and will soon use various Lego education tools. We are also using the highly innovative Kalebr Krisps kits along with working with them on developing an AI Golf Curriculum. 

Next, we are looking at visualisers and further iPads to support early years and KS1 more.

What about teacher training? How do you go about upskilling staff to keep up with your solutions?

We have weekly CPD for whole school and these often have Ed-Tech related sessions, alongside short, sharp drop-in sessions offered by various teachers with a passion in the field.

We also insist that the retailers locally offer initial training on kit and curriculum to our teachers as part of the decision-making process. Retailers unwilling to offer initial training inclusive of the initial investment are not as well received as those who are. 

Atlab is an excellent example of a great UAE based reseller who works with the school to implement training as part of the initial offering.

Honestly, how tech savvy are your pupils?

I would say below expectations currently. And I would argue the case that most students currently are a lot less tech-savvy than they need to be. Just because someone knows how to use an iPad and post a photo to Snapchat etc does not make them tech savvy. 

They are digital natives but many if not all lack the life experience and awareness of the impact of what they do online can have into their futures. 

I hear a lot from teaching professionals’ comments such as “Well the kids know how to use it better than we do…” and so on. 

This is a false understanding of what students need from educators in today's curriculum. 

They might pick up the physical requirements for tech quicker, but they still need to understand the deeper learning needed to use effectively. 

PowerPoint/Slides is a great example, do they know how to capture an audience's attention? Are they familiar with concepts like white space and what fonts have the best impact? How many teachers set students off on a presentation task without making clear a criterion for the design of the slides? Do we discuss copyright laws with them? How about whether they understand what they are pasting onto the slides before them then presenting it to an informed audience who will ask high level questions about the content?

We are working with students on a Digital Leadership program and utilising Googles self-made curriculum on various topics. It will take us much more time to perfect this and students like with all subjects will need a great deal of input from the school before I can argue the case for them being tech-savvy.

What would you like to see from Education Technology in the Future?

 A heavy focus on two key things:

● Affordability
● Curriculum Impact

Far too few STEAM ed-tech providers invest enough time into ensuring their offerings fit into the various international curriculums. 

From my area, the British curriculum, I want to know what national curriculum standards will be met by your ed-tech offerings. 

I don’t need to hear about how cool it is or listen to promotional messages. 

How will it impact T&L and what evidence do you have for this? Companies like Lego Education get this right with huge investment in the platforms and curriculums behind the ed-tech offerings. 

Likewise, new companies like Kalebr are getting into schools and actively asking how they can impact curriculum. 

Far too few companies do this and the current trend in education is moving away from Ed-Tech solutions where there is little evidence of impact. We have become more sceptical having been promised a teaching revolution through AI/VR/Robotics over the past decade and we are all still waiting for this.

Affordability is also key.
We need the price of Ed-Tech solutions to come down as it is all well and good in the UAE market and other developed nations having access to their technological revolution. 

But what about those nations without these resources? The BBC micro-bit is a great example of this where we have a low-cost piece of tech able to impact widely. Plus, a full curriculum and focus on the UN SDG’s as part of their annual competitions. 

Aside from this the rise of AI if I was to ask for one major shift from ed-tech is to see an affordable AI solution which can remove workload from teaching professionals. We already have a global teacher shortage so AI could possibly help to plug the gap if it is harnessed properly and with ethics in mind.

Do you consider attending Bett important for you and your school?

Very, it’s important to see what is happening in the market, and also gather tips and so on from colleagues in the education field.

BETT MEA/UK are both integral to my ability to evaluate and decide upon the best solutions and ed-tech providers.

I use the BETT events to meet the actual CEO’s/Leaders within the various providers. BETT especially brings many of the key players together, which means you can forge more personal relationships and negotiate for further collaboration. 

As a small price conscious school this is essential for Star International School Mirdif as, again, we need to be sure of our investments. And if we can get some discounts and negotiate for favourable terms this can best be done in person.

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