Allure cover: Bolanle Adewole – Digitalising education with finesse
Word By- Josephine Agbonkhese
She is a Lawyer turned educationist. Bolanle Adewole is the Founder/Executive Director, The Learning Place Montessori School, Lagos.
The Certified Autism Specialist and Applied Behaviour Analyst is also Executive Director, TLPCentre; the first full day school for children with Autism and other related developmental disorders on the Lagos Island axis of Lagos.
Adewole, who has extensively practiced in Europe, North America and Africa, was certified in the theory and practice of the primary Montessori methods at St. Nicholas Montessori Centre, London in 1995, and in the Elementary Montessori methods at North American Montessori Centre, Canada.
She belongs to several national and international professional bodies, and currently serves as Vice President of Autism Parents Association International (APAi).
With digitalisation of learning suddenly forced on the world due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Allure sought to know how e-learning is working for children, especially those with special needs and the challenges faced teaching them.
You run both a regular and a special needs school; what challenge has this pandemic brought to your work?
The pandemic propelled us to look inwards and recreate our strategy as a school. We redesigned our students’ curriculum, enhanced our offerings and increased our value added. Our schools migrated unto online platforms, with blended curricular and active ongoing synchronous and asynchronous classes. We also had the immediate task of engaging parents to justify why online classes were necessary, and had to have the difficult discussions with staff on the uncertainty of the times and how it might affect them.
The challenges we still face now include; optimally teaching children with short attention span on a digital platform and monitoring students’ screen time. Not to talk of the ongoing expenditure on us to maintain operational costs, taxes and teachers‘ salaries, even while the school premises are closed. Others, relate to the inconsistency of data, power, and technology. I could go on!
How did you cope with the sudden need to digitalise learning?
We fully latched on and have digitalized all our learning systems and school administration. We realised early enough, the need for differentiated learning for each student on the digital platform. Some of the accommodations we made are towards assistive technology, vocational teachings, life skills as well as practical hands-on activities. We empowered our teachers and equipped parents who required technological assistance by training them for the online platform.
Were children with special needs included in these plans?
We simultaneously introduced tele-therapy for our students with additional (special) needs and this has progressed fairly well. The truism at our schools is ‘No child is left behind’. This makes us strive to give all children equal opportunities. Like their counterparts, the special need students also immediately began online classes, and are fast becoming fluent at following instructions on digital platforms.
What strategies did you put in place to make this sort of learning work?
We developed varied online content which singly and jointly, serve both the typical and atypical communities. Peer learning and collaboration are encouraged within a small sized online classroom and all students are prompted to participate. The children with additional needs attend with their typically developing peers, and freely participate without restrictions. All students in the inclusive class benefit and all are roused to contribute to their full potential.
What difficulties did you face with regards to children with special needs?
Students with special needs are unique and learn differently. Each one’s educational program is individualized and contingent upon his needs. Some of the personal challenges faced range from short attention span, to over dependence, untrained parents, and the need for specialized skill set to manage the students. There is also the issue of newness of tele-therapy and their adaptation to it, as well as the need for multiple therapies for some students with multiple disorders.
Have you found one e-learning solution that truly supports their different needs?
Unfortunately, it is not likely that there would be any one e-learning option that would wholly support the diverse multitude of needs. Every child’s needs are different. If you have seen one child with special needs, you have only seen one child with special needs. Needs range from deficits in speech and language to social interaction; behaviour modification; physical needs; and mental health dysfunction amongst others. It suffices to say that diverse e-learning options with modified content, are needed to truly support the varied needs.
While the e-learning platform meets some needs and keeps education flowing, it proves less supportive for others, especially children from less-privileged backgrounds who do not have access to it and for children who require physical intervention and sensory integration including touch, deep pressure and massage.
What categories of special needs children do you work with?
They are mostly children with Autism and other related developmental disorders including; Attention Deficits, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders, and Learning Difficulty. We also have some children with co-morbidity. These are children who present with simultaneous disorders; have been diagnosed with more than one disorder. Such a child can have Autism as well as Down syndrome concurrently.
What has been your experience in the past few weeks of remotely keeping children in class?
It was initially difficult turning the table but, it has now progressively improved. Most of our students, including those with additional needs, had prior exposure to technology pre-Covid19. So, they were able to transition and cope as long as their classes are short and engaging. That said, I still worry about the indigent child without the privilege.
How would you measure the effectiveness compared to physical classroom learning?
Frankly, they are not the same by any measure. Online classes do not replace physical school. They are designed to keep the children engaged and mitigate learning gaps. While they include academic content, they also address life skills and vocational skills. When physical school resumes, we will fill in the gaps.
How are your teachers adjusting to this new normal?
They have selflessly worked very hard, burning the midnight oil. The teacher plays a very important role in the life of the student but this is often overlooked. Our teachers genuinely love their students, and strive to give them the best always. They have been very instrumental in the research for appropriate resources, and in the recreation of our strategies. This is amid the threat to their salaries and welfare. I work with good people with hearts of gold.
…and how are parents coping with having to be fully present and involved during e-lessons?
I commend parents wholeheartedly. It puts a lot of pressure on them. Most are in full time jobs working from home. The high dependency of their children during online classes, makes it difficult for them to be optimally productive at their own jobs. We had to make our online platform user- friendly, and set up an ICT Support team specifically for parents’ support.
Are they comfortable with being required to pay for these lessons since they still have to contribute heavily to its success?
No doubt, online schooling has put parents to a lot of work and expense. They provide the devices, the power, the materials needed amongst others. Most are in full time jobs working from home and struggle to joggle both. It is therefore understandable when parents react adversely to paying for online school.
What we did that made a difference was to dialogue with our parents. We engaged in ongoing conversations, sent surveys, held town hall meetings and listened to them. The decisions we eventually took around fees and online school content were mindful of all. Dialogue and communication matter.
A lot of families are cash trapped; are there ways to help parents who cannot afford the fees cope?
The main focus of any school should be the child. If the child comes first, then there would be place for empathy when the chips are down and parents cannot meet up with payments. Some of the options we took was to give a rebate on school fees, give optional packages to parents and establish a payment by installment plan where needed. This has gone a long way towards keeping our parents with us and giving our students the education they require without interruption. When the dust settles, we will all still be a community; a stronger one at that.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have to be deliberate about getting ‘spare time’. Activities that keep me grounded include prayer, time with friends and family, sleep and regular exercise. I alternate between walking, cycling, swimming and running at least three times a week.
Your preferred destination for a 30-day getaway?
Da Nang in South Vietnam. The beaches, their food and the rich culture including the Non la (Vietnamese Hat) make it a place to relax and let my hair down.
Your most priced fashion accessory?
I like pearls a lot. I believe they are suitable for every occasion.
What fashion item won’t you ever be caught without?
I am proudly Nigerian and delight in buying Ankara outfits and accessories. My fashion statement is incomplete without my Ankara pieces most times.