The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on higher education in the GCC, with many institutions making radical and potentially permanent changes to both teaching methods and business models.
The initial wave of lockdowns in the early part of this year prompted education entities to rapidly move teaching online.
While this broad-based shift towards digital approaches has largely been reactive, in many cases it accelerated an existing transition towards a more blended and technologically oriented approach.
“The pandemic has underscored the important role that technology can play in higher education,” Michael Trick, dean of the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, told OBG.
However, various challenges related to digitalisation have only partially been surmounted in the region. These include insufficient digital preparedness among some teachers and students, as well as connectivity issues in certain markets.
“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures adopted to fight it, virtual learning has proven to be a powerful tool. However, providing such learning requires substantial and sustained investment over time,” Tara Waudby, head of school at Riffa Views International School in Bahrain, told OBG in April.
As such, while the shift to virtual learning has on the whole been well managed and well received, further investment and policy initiatives are required – including digital literacy training for both students and educators, and the establishment of national guidelines and standards.
In parallel to this, access can be improved – for example, through the provision of laptops and tablets, and the establishment of Wi-Fi hotspots.
Leading the change
As OBG has outlined, a regional pacesetter in the GCC has been Bahrain, which saw a widespread uptake of e-learning solutions early in the pandemic period. The bulk of this was carried out through a dedicated electronic education portal, set up by the Ministry of Education and the Bahrain Information and eGovernment Authority, in conjunction with cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services.
Elsewhere, the telcos Bahrain Telecommunications Company and Zain Bahrain announced that eligible customers would be able to browse designated educational websites without being charged for data use.
Some further education institutions in the region actively collaborated with authorities to facilitate the shift online.
For example, the UAE’s Ministry of Education worked with the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University on a series of distance learning programmes to equip academic professionals with the skills to teach online.
Similarly, the Qatar Computing Research Institute, part of Hamad bin Khalifa University, worked with the Ministry of Public Health in developing a series of new digital platforms.
Indeed, Qatar was well placed to innovate in its higher education sector, which features prominently in the Qatar National Vision 2030 as a critical driver of the country’s transition to a knowledge-based economy.
The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is a non-profit organisation dedicated to spearheading Qatar’s move to establish itself as a regional leader in the education space, a key element of which has been a shift to digital learning. The foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to coordinate the higher education sector’s response to Covid-19.
One of its partners is the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, which was an early adopter of full digitalisation in the face of the pandemic: within two days of the suspension of in-person teaching, the university had shifted all its courses online.
This process was facilitated by a course aimed at training staff in remote teaching. It consisted of a series of instructional videos and learning modules, and was made freely available online.
In Kuwait, the Australian College of Kuwait was well prepared for the sudden shift online, having already invested in infrastructure and digital resources for e-learning. The college is also at the forefront of the digital shift among the region’s further education institutions: for instance, last year it co-organised a conference with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences on the importance of e-learning in the Arab world.
In Sharjah, meanwhile, one interesting development was the establishment of the Sharjah Education Academy, an e-platform designed to train teachers on the digital transition. It was set up by the Sharjah Private Education Authority (SPEA), which uploaded training sessions and some 130 guidelines.
The SPEA was also responsible for forming the Covid-19 Monitoring and Evaluation Committee for Private Education, which met on a daily basis to assess efforts to deal with the sectoral challenges of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia won praise from UNESCO in October for the transition to distance learning across the educational spectrum. In terms of further education, 27 public universities have hosted 2m virtual classes and more than 6m panel discussions in the kingdom since the start of the pandemic.
A return to normality?
The new academic year recently started with a range of restrictions in place, obliging many universities to build on their recent experience of e-learning and apply hybrid or blended educational approaches, combining online study with limited in-person interaction.
“While many courses can be taught remotely, those with practical elements, for example requiring laboratory work, will inevitably require a return to in-person learning when the conditions are right,” Trick told OBG.
There are a range of benefits associated with a blended approach, including expanded learning options. In this light, it seems likely that such approaches will continue to be applied even after Covid-19 begins to wane.