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The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the higher education sector worldwide. Almost overnight, universities shifted face-to-face education to remote learning. After the first phase of implementation, it seems that UAE universities are now expanding into new educational territory.

As the 2019/2020 academic year draws to a close, teachers and students alike are becoming accustomed to this new approach to education. While many professors and instructors have managed to leverage online learning technologies successfully, others are still trying to determine how to create a meaningful learning environment for their students.

It is not only staff who have had to adjust, however, but also students. Some have struggled to learn and engage with classmates and instructors to create an atmosphere conducive to productive learning.

With the semester almost over, educational institutions have an opportunity to pave the way for excellence in online education. Embedding a culture of remote learning may lead to a more productive start to the next academic year, whether remote learning continues, or universities go back to in-person learning. If the latter is the case, universities may still choose to expand their online learning delivery methods in order to be prepared for future events.

The first five steps to deliver online education excellence

1. Internet access and technological equipment

Find out if students and staff have a good internet connection and a suitable laptop or computer at home. Immediate help is required for those who need to bridge such gaps. In the US, for example, responses varied from helping financially to borrowing laptops and offering hot spots. The success of online learning pivots on every stakeholder having a stable internet connection.

 

2. Learning technologies

Worldwide, learning technology options can be overwhelming. One way for universities to tackle this challenge is to pick two to three which are most suitable for their educational goals, staff and students. This should be supported with clear communications, upskilling staff, students and IT support.

 

3. Communication

Communications should be accessible and easily understood by all stakeholders – staff, students and parents. Clear communication is key to supporting the acceptance process and greatly influences learning outcomes.

 

4. Staff support

Staff have been working to support students’ learning in many ways, while their own lives have been disrupted. Universities can support by:

  • Introducing 24/7 IT support
  • Setting up an online learning excellence center. Employees of the center can establish standards, continuously check the quality of online learning sessions and student feedback, and upskill staff
  • Implementing an agile staff learning platform and promoting a culture of sharing and improving
  • Deploying new tools to gather student feedback on a weekly basis, for example, a combination of short surveys and engagement data reports produced by the learning platform in place. Instant feedback will support instructors and professors to drive educational excellence
  • Running well-being programs and campaigns

 

5. Student support

Many students in the UAE enjoy a vibrant campus life as much as classroom learning. If remote learning continues after the summer break, universities may consider tools to move social gatherings online and open virtual spaces for students. This may include project teams, discussions, events and other critical areas and interests. Universities can also offer support to students by:

  • Introducing 24/7 IT support
  • Setting daily fixed online office hours for all staff using a smart booking system for students to request virtual one-on-one time with university staff
  • Upskilling students on the use of learning technologies
  • Running well-being programs and campaigns

Education excellence post Covid-19

There has been a great deal of chatter around whether universities should completely transform into online campuses, post Covid-19. The answer is an emphatic no. Students grow when surrounded by like-minded people, actively communicating in-person with their fellow students, for example once they have understood how to solve a subject matter challenge. The benefits of face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced with distance learning.

It is, however, vital for universities to understand that their educational structure must now include online learning, accessible both inside and outside of dedicated university learning areas. Such a transformation will not only include increasing the number of online modules, but also shifting from traditional classroom and lecture halls to subject-specific campus learning spaces. This may theoretically lead to improved resources and reduced workloads for all participants.

Students can arrive, choose the subject or challenge they want to work on, engage and learn — all at their own pace and in a collaborative environment. Professors and instructors will remain subject matter experts while becoming coaches to students, rather than facilitators. For many subjects we are likely to still see professors and assistants setting up engaging live learning sessions. We also foresee highly interactive virtual reality (VR) offerings being added to the mix.

A well-designed e-learning module would ideally be inclusive, taking into consideration possible accessibility needs such as vision and hearing impairment, dyslexia and color blindness. Once the user has entered the online session, they can, for example, set up background color, font style, size and color, to fulfil their individual learning needs.

Further, a high-quality module may be capable of catering to all students, no matter what their current level is. Modules can be designed using adaptive learning solutions. Depending on the student’s e-learning footprint, the module will change the learning path based on need. If the student shows less knowledge in a specific area, they will receive more support and less advanced knowledge checks than students that show advanced subject matter expertise. Hence, e-learning may finally solve the difficulty of catering to a heterogenic class. From the faculty’s perspective, e-learning tools may provide precise and clear feedback on how a student is engaging with certain learning materials.

In this blended learning approach professors and instructors experience a reduced workload, allowing them to use their skills to support students more than before. Less hours spent on administrative tasks and lesson design means more time spent engaging with each student at an individual level. It is this combination of customized online content and resource management that will allow staff to drive universities into the future.

This brings us back to the basic goal of education – to create the best learning environment for students. When institutions have established online learning platforms, it will be easier and more cost efficient to invite guest lecturers to conduct classes remotely, including live discussions. Universities may have the ability to invite prominent scholars from anywhere in the world.

Investing in such capabilities over the coming months seems to be a timely investment – for universities, staff and students. Over the summer months, staff could be trained for such an online format. In addition, universities could also explore and test new technologies to meet their needs, such as simulation software to mimic a lab experience or accessibility options to better serve students with disabilities, and make decisions as to which learning platforms they want to leverage in the future.