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“Digital technology is non-negotiable & important,” says Dr. Saima Rana

GEMS Education has recently welcomed Dr. Saima Rana to GEMS World Academy as Principal and CEO, who will be joining the team at the start of the next academic year! In our exclusive interview with Dr. Rana, we discussed the differences in distance learning methods in Londonhg0088手机版登录 and Dubai, her vision for GEMS World Academy and we dive into the ethics of artificial intelligence.

How have schools in Dubai and London handled challenges that rose from Distance Learning?

I am a techno-enthusiast. I love the new digital technologies and for ten years have ensured that we have invested the time and money in giving my students and staff access to high-quality digital technology. I have done so because of my enthusiasm for what these technologies can do and this has been embedded in a vision that extends far beyond merely having and using gadgets. Addressing inequality and the depleted environment have been two enormous concerns driving the educational provision of my school, Westminster Academy, and have fed into my attitude towards how our digital technologies should be introduced. And the sheer power of what these technologies can do and promise to do in the future to make our lives better is also driving my enthusiasm.

These technologies are part of everyone’s lives now, both directly and indirectly. The largest and most powerful business voices in the world are all connected to them – Google, Facebook and Apple are familiar global organisations that embody the rich and exciting worlds that digital technologies bring. We’re living through a technological revolution as important as the industrial revolution. To not embrace, understand and seek to channel its developments for the good of our children’s learning would be as remiss as to ignore the invention of industrialisation at the time of the industrial revolution. And I think there are very important lessons we can draw about all this from the crisis brought about by this horrible global pandemic.

hg0088手机版登录An overtly green agenda aimed at a paperless school was part of my rationale for investing in these technologies. Once that decision was made, it was clear that inequalities reflected in a digital divide – by which I mean the situation where less wealthy students and families don’t have access to the technologies at home – had to be addressed. The result has been a school where all students and their families are provided with technology, enabling them to access the internet and online learning, and a massively reduced carbon footprint due to the reduction of paper being used by the school.

When the pandemic crisis struck and homeschooling became the only option, we were able to switch seamlessly to online teaching immediately. All lessons were taught according to the existing timetables, as were other features of school life such as our staff briefings and assemblies. We were even able to give the few students who misbehaved online detentions! This has meant that parents didn’t have to homeschool their children. It gave the students and staff a familiar routine and purpose five days a week, just as any embodied school can. For good mental health, routine and purpose have been essential and the feedback from parents, staff and students has been overwhelmingly positive.

Is this the case with all schools? Unfortunately, not. Everything has depended on whether a school has the technological infrastructures and the right culture in place to support distance learning over such a prolonged period. The digital divide is just one aspect of the social inequalities that have become glaringly obvious throughout the pandemic. The less well-off families are suffering much more than the affluent. The pandemic has shown that digital technology isn’t a boutique add-on; it is as non-negotiable and important as decent education, sanitation, housing, or food.

Schools in the future need to invest wisely in ensuring everyone in the school community has access to technologies and they need to induct everyone into a culture whereby the technologies enhance the learning experiences of everyone. Online schooling can’t compete with embodied learning – this pandemic has made it clear that even when the online schooling is excellent, as it is in my current school, everyone – students, teachers and parent/carers – agrees that they prefer the live embodied experience of being in a physical school meeting their friends and staff face to face. The pandemic has shown just what schools are. It has shown that the embodied experiences it provides are essential components of a well-rounded education. Online is necessary when we’re locked down and can be done with enormous benefits. But we now know that no matter how good such virtual schooling can be, doing the same in an embodied school brings extra value that can’t be replicated.

Can you tell us more about the programs you’ve started for women and girls across the world? Are these focused on education for women?

hg0088手机版登录It’s clear that education is incredibly important for everyone no matter what their gender. It’s also a sad fact that many places deny education to girls and this is a catastrophe for them and their countries. We know that education extends lives, creates opportunities and horizons for life that otherwise are lost forever, and ensures that societies are fairer, kinder, wealthier, smarter and more imaginative than they would be without. Women’s voices are important. They need to be heard and they need to be nurtured.

I’ve been struck by the way some world leaders have dealt with the current pandemic. The contrast between the women world leaders and the men has been very noticeable. Whereas the men have tended to behave rather like belligerent (and, in some cases, incompetent) generals in a war, the women leaders, such as the Prime Minister of New Zealand, have been able to communicate compassion, empathy and competence that has reassured and soothed societies that are facing extraordinary difficulties. These women leaders have been so much more impressive than their male counterparts and I think this reinforces the need to empower women.

hg0088手机版登录We know that women who are educated live longer than those who aren’t. They have fewer children because they are able to take control of their lives and choose their own destinies rather than accept those given to them by others. Education allows people to think for themselves, to ask questions and look for answers, to remain curious, compassionate, imaginative and solve problems that otherwise look unsolvable. That’s why we need all women to be well educated and why I have worked to support schools where both boys and girls are taught in places where traditionally girls would not be given an education. The schools I have helped set up are all about making sure their voices are not lost and their lives are not lost.

hg0088手机版登录But of course, it’s not just women and girls. As I said above, everyone is better off if educated and far too many disadvantaged people are not given access to education. So, my work has focused on people living in places where education is denied to poor people of either gender, too. It’s a challenging, difficult business but too important not to do. Schools I have helped set up in remote parts of Pakistan, Kashmir, Sudan and Afghanistan, where beforehand there was no school, are flourishing. I have delivered online training to hundreds of teachers in these places over many months to ensure that the teachers have access to high-quality and cutting-edge teaching resources that they otherwise wouldn’t receive. You could never doubt the benefits of remote learning after seeing the enthusiasm for these sessions from these wonderful teachers working in very challenging contexts to ensure that their students receive the very best. The world needs education. It is a human right as important as health provision, housing, justice and money, and it speaks to core values of decency, love and well-being.

Can you share some of the success stories of the Mosaic Community Trust?

hg0088手机版登录I started supporting Mosaic with several fundraising opportunities which enabled the organisation to launch its prestigious project to produce paper bags using recycled and used newspapers. The project became a huge success and attracted the active engagement of several corporate bodies, including Marks and Spencer, British Land, Barclays Homes. The project became popularly known as “the Bags of Empowerment” since the project empowered local disadvantaged BME women to develop new skills and engage in activities contributing towards environment conservation and reduction in plastic pollution.

hg0088手机版登录I initiated and developed a meaningful collaboration between my school Westminster Academy, the IB programme and the Mosaic community programme, which facilitated the development of intergenerational dialogue between mothers and students to create stronger communities and families. I believe everyone has the potential to be smart, imaginative, tough-minded, just and kind, and yet they don’t thrive as they should because they haven’t yet found the opportunity to do so. This is why I got involved with these mothers and the Mosaic Community Trust’s work.

In identifying groups of marginalised people who, with encouragement and some extra resourcing, can make contact with their own potential, I was convinced this work could make a huge difference to the local communities I served. I’ve helped mothers of children in the school who hadn’t had a chance to learn English to come into the school and be given lessons so that they could begin to better understand what was happening in the school and in their neighbourhoods. I have run computer classes as part of our enthusiasm for digital technology so that they could begin to access the huge resources available online. All of these interventions have been enormously important. The isolation of people who through no fault of their own find it difficult to get the help that would give them access to a wider social and information network is a terrible thing. It can bring about all the anxieties and depressive feelings that loneliness can bring and diminish a person’s sense of self-worth.

Bringing in these brilliant women into a new social environment that provides them with routes to autonomy and self-direction has made a huge difference to their sense of validity and boosted their self-image. They have enjoyed the opportunities to meet others like them and share their experiences in a context that is both fun and educational. The sessions have brought about a sense of empowerment and belonging that wasn’t there before. Self-confidence and a sense of achievement are two of the great benefits of any education, and the work with Mosaic has been all about opening doors for women who have been overlooked and needed to be given the encouragement and self-belief to deepen and further enrich their lives. It has been a great privilege to be involved in this work.

What is your vision for GEMS World Academy for the next 3-5 years?

My vision is for GEMS World Academy – Dubai (GWA) to become the school of choice for the community and the most successful IB school in the world, delivering high-quality education where excellent school standards result in all children achieving the best they can achieve in a safe, secure environment that gives them access to the best possible futures. All teaching will be outstanding. The curriculum will be world-class provision driven by the IB and will be proactively engaged with new developments especially with regard to global IB development. The school will see itself in terms of global as well as national and local educational excellence and, as such, will constantly seek to provide the very best provision measured in these terms. It will instil a driven sense of ambition, love of learning, justice, creativity, honesty and entrepreneurial purpose in everyone in the school.

This all means that we will have an innovative approach to education and academic excellence, while at the same time providing a strong pastoral and co-curricular provision. We will approach learning, teaching and living in the spirit of the IB and aim to continue to be a world-class IB leader in education, technology and innovation. The educational philosophy will continue to be based on the IB Learner Profile and the GEMS core values of Care, One Team, Always Learning and Excellence to ensure that GWA students have an understanding of their place in society as global citizens and make a positive impact upon it. I want students to be resilient, tenacious, well-rounded and confident global citizens. I want them to discover genuine interests that extend beyond the classroom, have a broad understanding of the world, a social conscience and a considerate approach to others, to have a passion for learning, a capacity for independent thinking, outstanding academic success, and excel in outdoor adventure, sports and creative arts.

True to the aims of GEMS Education’s Founder and Chairman, Mr. Sunny Varkey, we will be an organisation of intellectual curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit, fostering a real sense of communal endeavour in an inclusive, positive, stimulating, demanding and open-minded community. We will experiment, demand and persevere. GWA will be a place of high expectations, huge ambition and scholarship; a place where courtesy, kindness and manners matter, a place where hard work and a genuine commitment to achieving will drive GEMS’ mission ‘to put a quality education within the reach of every learner’ while placing students at the heart of all decisions so that all our students feel safe, secure and successful.

Are schools in Dubai embracing Artificial Intelligence?

AI is fast becoming an essential part of all organisational infrastructures. Modern organisations cannot afford to lag behind, as AI systems become more and more effective at solving administrative and data-led work. Schools are enormously data-rich and increasingly dependent on having information and data that can be processed and understood quickly and effectively. Ensuring that the appropriate resources and teaching reach the targeted student is hugely enabled by good AI.

GEMS Education schools, like all schools in an advanced educational setting, are embracing AI. Schools always need to be adaptive, creative, innovative and forward-looking so that they can serve their students as well as possible. AI is another powerful technological innovation that helps schools to solve problems and organise their teaching and learning systems more effectively and systematically. It’s important that schools stay out in front of the curve, seeking out new solutions and the cutting edge of developments so that they understand the landscape and can invest in state-of-the-art, best-value-for-money solutions. Schools have to be learning organisations, constantly researching and testing new developments in the world so that they remain competitive and informed enough to make wise investment decisions.

hg0088手机版登录Of course, as with everything we do in schools, we must be alert to ethical challenges raised by the technologies. More than 70 per cent of business leaders are taking steps to ensure the ethical use and deployment of AI within their business operations. Some business leaders even establish ethics committees to review the use of AI to ensure that everything is above board prior to the implementation of the technology. From this, it is clear that business leaders are starting to take ethical concerns of AI seriously and are taking the necessary steps to ensure that the technology does not harm the organisation or its stakeholders. Of course, GEMS schools are also doing so.

hg0088手机版登录My own approach to the issue of ethical principles regarding AI application is to apply as many of the already existing ethical principles and protocols of a school towards AI rather than invent new ones. I applied five. Issues of privacy, bias, nudging and black box scenarios are already features of any school prior to AI applications. Just as online bullying is just a species of bullying, AI merely extends the application of equality and privacy standards of a school. Schools already have ethical principles regulating all practices. These same standards should be applied to AI. Bias is an issue of inequality. Privacy is about safety. Nudging is about transparency and trust.

But we can’t blame an AI system for bias, inappropriate nudging, sharing private data. Responsibility and blame require agents. So an important ethical issue is creating agents who can be fairly held accountable for unethical AI behaviours. If AI use is to be held to ethical standards, then agents need to be clearly identified as liable. I see this as being the main issue for AI in schools.

hg0088手机版登录So, my first ethical principle is a parenting principle. The school organisation using AI should take ethical responsibility for AI behaviour, just as a parent takes legal responsibility for a child. No school should embark on using AI without identifying who is ethically responsible if algorithms misbehave. Thus no algorithm is given a free pass. For example, if a school-based AI system shows bias, then the school must take responsibility and be held liable, as well as the producers of such a system. This will put the onus on both developers and buyers of AI to ensure safety-first measures are in place and erode wriggle room for liability-free, badly behaving AI systems. Just as law corporations can be treated as agents in some cases, so in these cases companies and individuals should have to take responsibility. This would be a generalised ethical principle for all AI users: no AI use without an identified responsible agent. Just as we hold parents/carers responsible for a toddler’s behaviour, AI should be treated as a particularly powerful and potentially dangerous child who shouldn’t be unleashed unless responsible agents are identified.

Another problem here, distinct from bias, privacy violation and nudging is replicability – if we can’t know why an AI system has made the decision it has – maybe it was working with an unrepresentative sample, or data hadn’t been updated or bad data or making bad calculations or whatever – then we face issues of risk probability calculation and the issue of the ethics of unknowability and this requires an ethical principle to deal with it.

So, my second ethical principle has to do with the weighting of risk, and as a principal making my school commit, when embarking on using AI, to do all it can be reasonably expected to do to minimise the risks that come with unknowability. No use of AI without transparent risk calculation probability is the rule of thumb here.

hg0088手机版登录The third ethical principle I apply is about making sure that all AI decisions are continually scrutinised and tested for evidence of bias. In a school, it is particularly important that a school commits to ethical principles around equality and it is the explicit application of these ethical principles (perhaps under an overriding Principle of Equality) towards the use of AI that will need to be strictly adhered to in order to counter unforeseen bias. This is an example of how a school needs to ensure that its general ethical values have the breadth and depth to be applicable to every part of its organisation. Values drive schools.

The fourth principle links to the third one. Schoolshg0088手机版登录 have already in place bullying and other principles and procedures designed to prevent and mitigate unfairness and bullying of all its stakeholders. These need to be so constructed that AI bias and other misbehaviours of AI can be captured by these principles and procedures. In this way they can be easily and seamlessly dealt with by extending already existing features of the school.

The fifth principle is honesty and openness about what AI is being used in an organisation and what data is being harvested and to what intended end, and this is particularly important with respect to privacy protection in schools. A school should be very clear about the scope of all AI systems it is using and the responsibilities of all who use them.

You ask whether schools in Dubai are embracing AI. As you can see, I think that the question of schools and AI raises deep and important questions about the kind of values we want our schools to uphold and live by. New technologies are vital, but to fully embrace them we need to constantly review our ethical values so that their benefits are worth the risks.

About the Speaker

Dr. Saima Rana will join GEMS Education in September 2020 as Principal / CEO of GEMS World Academy – Dubai. She has extensive experience in international education, having devoted her entire career to improving the educational standards of inner-city schools. Prior to joining GEMS Education, she was Principal of Westminster Academy in London.

Dr. Rana has a strong background in school improvement, combining traditional school improvement techniques with a commitment to collaboration between the local community and businesses in order to accelerate regeneration and standards. She has worked as a senior educational consultant for Cambridge Education Islington and as a leading schools improvement consultant with focus on teaching and learning, raising standards, ICT, assessment for learning, curriculum, change management and building schools for the future.

Dr. Rana specialises in Secondary School Educational Policy, ICT, Globalisation, The Knowledge and Digital Economy. She was an ICT Mark Assessor and examiner for NAACE and was part of the working party developing the original Becta/Ofstead ICT Mark and Assessment for Learning Reform group. She has presented numerous academic papers on policy, ICT, globalisation and secondary education at the Institute of Education and The Knowledge Lab in London, Trinity College in Dublin, and international conferences in Europe, USA and China.

In addition, Dr. Rana is a member of the following boards: International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association (ISBCA), The Duke of York Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA), Paddington Development Trust (PDT), Mosaic Community Trust (MCT), University College School (UCS), the Institute for Ethical AI in Education (IEAIED) and the BCS School Curriculum and Assessment Committee. She is also Founder and Trustee of Nagar Fort (NFS) in Pakistan.

Dr. Rana has a PhD in Education from London University – UCL Institute of Education, School of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

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