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16 Aug 2020

E-learning at UAE universities – what are your options?

Gulf News
E-learning at UAE universities – what are your options?
Universities in the UAE offered online courses during the COVID-19 related restrictions

Dubai: Schools and universities across the world found themselves in a difficult situation as COVID-19 swept across the globe in 2020. As with the rest of the world, UAE’s educational institutes were the first to close campuses as a precautionary measure against the pandemic. However, even though e-learning was adopted en masse out of this necessity, it looks like even after the world finds a cure for the coronavirus, online learning will continue to be a big part of the education system.

Universities Gulf News spoke with commented on how the UAE’s educational institutions already had the IT infrastructure in place to make the quick and complete transition to online learning, which happened in March this year. But even as campuses look to welcome students later this year, e-learning is not going anywhere.

Can I study completely online?

Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University is the only UAE university accredited by the Ministry of Education to offer a completely online and distance learning experience. Courses offered by the university include bachelors, masters and PhD degrees in business, finance, healthcare management, human resource management, project management and more. Students have to attend live online classes – where they are able to interact with fellow students and their faculty, referred to as ‘virtual synchronous sessions’.

They also have ‘asynchronous sessions’ – where learners are provided with a variety of learning materials to learn at their own pace.

What are your e-learning options in the UAE?

The summer semester intake of 2020 was unique for UAE universities as all higher education institutions offered courses completely online, with the restrictions still in place for COVID-19.

However, with campuses expected to open in September of 2020, universities Gulf News spoke with said that they would continue to offer parts of their education online.

These are the UAE higher education institutions accredited by the Ministry of Education’s Commission for Academic Accreditation:

1. Abu Dhabi Polytechnic

2. Abu Dhabi School Of Management

3. Abu Dhabi University

4. Abu Dhabi Vocational Education And Training Institute

5. Ajman University

6. Al Ain University

7. Al Dar University College

8. Al Falah University

9. Al Ghurair University

10. Al Khawarizmi International College

11. Al Qasimiya University

12. Al Wasl University

13. American College Of Dubai

14. American University In Dubai

15. American University In The Emirates

16. American University Of Ras Al Khaimah

17. American University Of Sharjah

18. Arab Academy For Science, Technology And Maritime Transport

19. British University In Dubai

20. Canadian University Dubai

21. City University College Of Ajman

22. Dubai Institute Of Design And Innovation

23. Dubai Medical College For Girls

24. Dubai Pharmacy College For Girls

25. Dubai Police Academy

26. Emirates Academy For Identity & Citizenship

27. Emirates Academy Of Hospitality Management

28. Emirates Aviation University

29. Emirates College For Advanced Education

30. Emirates College Of Technology

31. Emirates Diplomatic Academy

32. Emirates Institute For Banking And Financial Studies

33. European International College

34. European University College

35. Fatima College Of Health Sciences

36. Gulf Medical University

37. Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University

38. Higher Colleges Of Technology

39. Imam Malik College For Islamic Sharia And Law

40. Insead- The Business School For The World, Abu Dhabi

41. Institute Of Management Technology-Dubai

42. Joint Command And Staff College - Abu Dhabi

43. Jumeira University

44. Khalifa Bin Zayed Air College

45. Khalifa University

46. Mena College Of Management

47. Mohamed Bin Zayed University Of Artificial Intelligence

48. Mohammed Bin Rashid School Of Government

49. Mohammed Bin Rashid University Of Medicine And Health Sciences

50. Mohammed V University- Abu Dhabi

51. National Defense College

52. New York Institute Of Technology

53. New York University, Abu Dhabi

54. Police College, Abu Dhabi

55. Police Sciences Academy- Sharjah

56. Rabdan Academy

57. Ras Al Khaimah Medical And Health Sciences University

58. Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum Naval College ‎

59. Rochester Institute Of Technology- Dubai

60. Royal College Of Surgeons In Ireland- Dubai

61. Saint Joseph University

62. Sharjah Performing Arts Academy

63. Skyline University College

64. Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi

65. Syscoms College

66. Umm Al Quwain University

67. United Arab Emirates University

68. University College Of Mother And Family Sciences

69. University Of Balamand In Dubai

70. University Of Birmingham Dubai

71. University Of Dubai

72. University Of Fujairah

73. University Of Science And Technology Of Fujairah

74. University Of Sharjah

75. University Of South Wales Dubai

76. University Of Strathclyde Business School- UAE

77. University Of Wollongong In Dubai

78. Zayed II Military College

79. Zayed University

Dubai’s Knoweldge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) also issues a Higher Education Classification (HEC), which is aimed at giving students and their parents the information and data they need to make more confident decisions regarding enrolling in Dubai’s universities.

The following universities have been permitted by KHDA to operate in Dubai’s Free Zones:

1. Amity University Dubai

2. Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani (BITS Pilani) Dubai Campus

3. City, University of London

4. ESMOD French Fashion Institute

5. Heriot-Watt University

6. Hult International Business School

7. Islamic Azad University

8. London Business School

9. Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai Campus

10. Middlesex University Dubai

11. Murdoch University, Dubai

12. S P Jain School of Global Management

13. SAE Institute

14. Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology

15. The University of Manchester Worldwide

16. University of Bradford

17. University of Exeter

An online, offline hybrid

As mentioned earlier, almost all UAE universities offered courses from March 2020 through online learning models, but are expected to partially shift back to on-campus classes later this year. The courses offered by UAE’s universities are available to Emirati and expatriate students living in the UAE, as well as open to international students.

Dr Addel Al Ameri, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Strategy and Future at Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), spoke about how the institute’s infrastructure and staff switched to online education in March this year, when the campuses were closed due to the pandemic.

“We had started moving towards the digital transformation way before COVID-19. The university has an agreement with Blackboard to provide training development for our faculty, so that they become certified as e-faculty. One of our strategic goals for the year 2020-2021 was, in fact, education technology, which looks at infrastructure and providing platforms to ensure the technology has been aligned to the needs of online and blended learning. However, COVID-19 took us into a different dimension,” Dr Al Ameri said.

A two-day pilot programme that HCT ran right before the campuses were closed, saw a satisfaction level of over 90 per cent with online learning, according to Dr Al Ameri.

Andy Phillips, Chief Operating Officer at University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), explained how an international student could enroll with a UAE-based university and start his or her education online. However, with the movement restrictions expected to ease over the coming months, students could then expect to travel to the UAE for on-campus lessons.

Most students in the UAE can expect a similar ‘blended learning’ approach.

“Distance learning solutions will enable students to begin the next phase of their education journey remotely, complete it on campus and achieve the same Australian accredited degree as if they had been in the UAE the entire time,” Philips said of the courses offered by UOWD.

What is the online learning experience like?

As UAE universities moved most of their operations online, temporarily, administrators tried to provide not just classes through their digital platforms, but also to allow students to have regular campus experiences online.

Dr Al Amiri spoke about how HCT built a complete ‘digi-campus’, where students were given a platform where they could receive online academic counselling, participate in reading, sport or volunteering activities or visit career centres for the job opportunities, all online.

“We have an eco-system that virtually provides the whole experience that the student physically goes through when they are on campus, to support well-rounded development,” Dr Al Amiri.

Phillips also spoke about how universities pushed the boundaries to overcome any challenges that the online environment may have presented.

“At UOWD we are privileged that we had the IT, internet infrastructure and backbone in place when the pandemic hit, so students and teachers alike were able to use our online resources to continue as normal,” Phillips told Gulf News.

“Currently, all information, assignments and tutorials are shared via Moodle (an open-source learning management system) and online interaction takes place through digital online platforms. Several UOWD students have already provided valuable feedback stating that the online platforms are easy to use and very interactive,” he added.

The university added new tools to its infrastructure as well, enabling online mentoring, live videos, chats and messaging as well as platforms that create and cast video tutorials.

Training educators

However, there were many educational institutions that needed to upskill their faculty to allow them to switch to online academics quickly.

Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, which has established in 2002 as the first e-University in the United Arab Emirates, played a crucial role in providing the necessary skills to teachers in the UAE, and globally, to become e-faculty.

Dr Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, spoke about how the university sprung into a ‘rescue mission’ soon after the pandemic led to closure of campuses, and in some way disadvantages teachers who were not equipped to switch to online education.

“We are all responsible for each other, we are all in this together,” Dr Al Awar told Gulf News.

“We have offered two crash courses on ‘How to become an online teacher in 24 hours’ and ‘How to design an online course in 24 hours’. When the demand started, we launched the course in Arabic and English and then added three other languages – Russian, Spanish and French, as we are offering these courses to teachers around the world. The response was huge, with over 225,000 people who have taken course,” he added.

Blended learning

With the education sector going completely digital during the health crisis, many universities, administrators and students seem to be assessing the benefits of continuing online learning – if not shifting all courses online, then at least offering a hybrid model of ‘blended learning’.

UOWD, for example, has adopted the blended learning model as an alternative method of education.

“While university students face uncertain times ahead, the infrastructure is in place for blended learning to enable students to work together, engage in discussions, and provide useful feedback to one another, which undoubtedly leads to improvement and higher engagement,” Phillips said.

HCT, too, is focused on utilising the advantages of online learning to provide greater flexibility and options to students.

“We have gone through an exercise of future foresight and we believe that post COVID-19 blended learning will not go away. So, we are already registering students into courses where part of the course will be supported through online platforms and in other cases students need to come into the campus,” Dr Al Amiri said.

While theoretical and knowledge based subjects are easier to shift to a purely online method of teaching, the problem occurs when there are application-based elements to the learning process.

“However, we are investing in platforms with immersive technology, with virtual or augmented reality, so students can even practice that applied part through the different digital technologies in place today,” Dr Al Amiri added.

He spoke about how the university was assessing each course and looking at the applied and theoretical aspects. While some courses may be provided purely online, others would have a part of the curriculum that needs to be completed on campus.

No limits

Dr Al Awar, on the other hand, felt that if the pedagogical approach was shifted towards ‘smart learning’ instead of ‘e-learning’ alone, there was truly no limit to which courses could be taught completely online.

“Back in 2009 at our annual conference in Al Mamzar’s cultural centre, we had a moderate IT infrastructure platform. We brought a physician – a cardiologist – conduct a bypass surgery virtually, while the patient was in Athens, Greece and the physician’s assistant was on the other end. The surgeon was directing the surgery in front of the audience at the centre. This was done back in 2009. If something as critical as a bypass surgery can be done online, with a very basic IT infrastructure in place, so imagine what we can do today with artificial intelligence,” Dr Al Awar said.

Spike in registrations

Both HCT and UOWD said that they had experienced a 20 per cent increase in the summer enrolments, the first cycle of enrolment after the pandemic hit universities mid-semester.

“UOWD has experienced its highest intake in seven years, however, this rise is attributed to a number of factors such as our approach in curating programmes that are relevant to today’s economy and job market both regionally and internationally as well as a change in our marketing strategies which aim to attract students across our different programmes and degrees,” Phillips said.

Taking up e-learning? What you need to know

The two big advantages to e-learning for the current generation of college-goers is their ability to adapt to technology more easily and the space online learning gives to a student to learn at his or her own pace. Most educators felt that online learning had helped students with a more reclusive personality enjoy their learning experience.

“Through different methods of teaching, such as the flip live class approach or more active learning assignments, students are given the role to be presenters during live lectures, which helped to increase engagement levels as well as student-teacher interaction,” Phillips said.

Dr Al Awar went a step ahead to say that smart learning could fix the social, behavioural problems that the current generation may be facing.

“I have had learners and their families come to me and tell me how they have seen a change in the learner’s personality. It is because firstly, smart learning is all about edutainment, which draws the student in, and it allows the learner to learn at their own pace, not having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up,” he said.

Looking at the advantages of online learning, Dr Al Amiri commented on how many more students could enroll in a class because of the economy of scale and the flexibility it offers.

HCT, which has 16 campuses around the country, has seen an increase in students enrolling in courses offered by campuses in other cities, according to Dr Al Amiri.

However, he urged students to always conduct their due diligence, with the increase in demand for online learning.

“Find out about the accreditation of the university in which you enroll, as well as if it is recognised,” he said.

He added that universities also needed to focus on the social development of students, which is essential, as well as the needs of people of determination, who may need customised solutions with an online learning model.

Smart education – a look at the future

In a Global Learner Survey conducted by Pearson Education this year, 88 per cent of learners globally said that online learning would be a permanent part of primary, secondary and higher education moving forward and expected educational institutions to maximise the learning experience through technology.

Dr Al Awar, however, who has been at the forefront of the UAE’s smart learning initiative, spoke about online learning was distinctly different from smart learning.

“Creating a change in the pedagogy is the most difficult and challenging part for all faculties across universities and schools. Because every smart learning is e-learning. However, not every e-learning is smart learning,” he said.

With a smart learning approach, Dr Al Awar said, the administrators and policy makers would need to re-engineer the four pillars of education across schools of universities:

1. Redefine the role of a learner or student. “In traditional universities and schools the student is the recipient of the knowledge. However, learning is what you do for yourself,” Dr Al Awar said.

2. Redefine the role of the faculty/teacher. “Traditionally, if you wanted to learn something, you would go to the teacher and they would give you the knowledge. But today, the knowledge is easily available online. So, the role of a teacher needs to become that of a facilitator, coach and mentor, who guides the learner in the right direction and looks at the learner as a co-creator of the knowledge base,” Dr Al Awar said.

3. Re-engineering the curriculum. Dr Al Awar spoke about how in a smart learning environment, the pedagogical approach was to create a ‘pull system’ rather than a ‘push system’, drawing in the learner’s interest and efforts. “The real challenge is how to enrich the curriculum, which is already available, in order to intrigue the mind of the learner,” he added.

4. Re-thinking the learning environment. “Today, traditional universities and schools are spending time for resource management, building management and financial management. With all the time spent on these aspects, when do you focus on learning management? Smart learning contributes to the overall well-being of the students by focusing everyone’s efforts on enhancing the learning environment,” Dr Al Awar said. Fewer physical campuses and the need to travel to them also has a real-world impact on carbon dioxide emissions and road safety, Dr Al Awar added.

And while the revamping of the education system may seem like a challenge, Dr Al Awar argued that COVID-19 appears to have triggered that change.

“People who think that the world will stay the same are absolutely wrong. After COVID-19, the education sector will also change significantly,” Dr Al Awar said.

He also urged key players in the education sector to reassess what was essential to the learning experience and what was not.

“Shopping is essential but a brick and mortal shopping mall is not. Banking is essential … banks? Not anymore. Similarly, learning is essential but schools and universities are not. My advice and humble suggestion to my colleagues is that we need to change our mindset and we need to go and learn something new,” he added.

He also spoke about how smart learning shifted a learner’s focus from being ‘employable’ to ‘creating jobs’.

“Stop seeking jobs and create your jobs. You can only do that when you upgrade your skills - upskill yourself. You are multi talented, so why can’t you make your money. Smart learning will provide you that particular focus and offer you the option to learn at your own pace and comfort as you go,” he said.

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