Covid-19 and Gulf higher education: are e-learning solutions here to stay?

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– Many educational institutions turned to remote learning during the pandemic

– Digital solutions have in many cases become permanent features

– Institutions are adopting hybrid models that blend remote and in-person learning

– Significant investment and ICT infrastructure is essential for the digital transition

After rising to the challenge of the pandemic early last year, educational institutions in the Gulf have continued to develop their digital strategies as part of broader plans for the future.

Following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, many universities, schools and technical colleges – who were midway through the academic year – quickly adapted to the new situation by adopting digital learning platforms and making learning materials available online.

One of those leading the transition was the UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the country’s largest applied higher education institution.

Over March 4 and 5, just days after all in-person classes and events were cancelled on March 1, HCT launched a two-day virtual learning pilot programme, which saw 20,000 students take part in 272 online training sessions and 3000 online lectures.

To ensure that tasks could be adequately completed, HCT worked with companies such as Blackboard and Zoom to set up online platforms for students and academics alike.

Elsewhere, Bahrain was a regional leader in terms of adapting to online learning. The Ministry of Education and the Bahrain Information and eGovernment Authority, in conjunction with international cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services, quickly established a dedicated electronic learning portal to allow students to continue their studies remotely.

This was complemented by an additional online service that allowed teachers to connect with students online. Using the Microsoft Teams and Office 365 programmes, the initiative enabled teachers to give lessons while specialised support staff were available to answer students’ specific questions.

In a sign of the success of these initiatives, within one month around 150,000 students had been able to continue their studies through remote methods.

Temporary solutions become permanent

Beyond the initial attempts to keep classes running during the early stages of the pandemic, many institutions have since made these digital solutions permanent features of their educational offerings.

“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 in November.

Just as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, HCT has been a leader in terms of adopting digital innovations.

In moving away from a strictly bricks-and-mortar model, the institution has sought to establish what it calls an “Uber-like”, service-on-demand virtual classroom model, shifting key educational pillars – including classes, lectures, tests and exams – online.

However, as well as offering learning materials, HCT has aimed to create a virtual campus experience through its DIGI Campus platform, offering online e-counselling and life skills support; e-health, nutrition and fitness programmes; e-reading spaces that attempt to recreate the library environment with book review sessions via Blackboard; and e-competitions and e-student clubs.

Hybrid models

Although digital solutions will have a permanent impact on education delivery, it is clear that not all aspects of all courses are suited to a remote model. While a range of restrictions still remain in place, many universities have built on their recent experience of e-learning and adopted a hybrid or blended educational approach, combining online study with limited in-person interaction.

To this end, HCT has introduced a model whereby courses that require hands-on learning – such as lab work, applied research and some entrepreneurship activities – can be done on campus, while other theoretical courses are completed remotely.

This has also allowed the college to focus on in-demand sectors and subsequently expand the in-person offerings for health sciences, food security, computer science and applied research.

Hybrid approaches have also been used elsewhere for various practical and health purposes.

For instance, in July last year Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities announced that a hybrid education model would be implemented, with a view to minimising the density of students on campuses. Meanwhile, in October educational authorities in Abu Dhabi launched a pilot project for its Virtual Charter School, a hybrid learning option for expatriate students whose families were affected by the economic fallout of Covid-19.

Need for infrastructure and investment

While a number of educational institutions across the region have successfully transitioned to a remote-learning model, this has only been possible where robust ICT infrastructure was already in place.

“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, told OBG in April last year.

“In Bahrain, the rapid deployment of adequate tools for virtual learning in many private schools is actually the result of extensive efforts over time by schools investing in ICT infrastructure, innovative learning pedagogies and crisis management planning.”

Indeed, HCT’s benchmark transition to digital learning was only possible on the back of significant investment in ICT infrastructure. Since 2018 the college had been planning to develop more digital or hybrid solutions to help meet the needs of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, but then accelerated this in response to the pandemic.

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