UAE Schools, Colleges & Universities Embrace E-Learning to Cope with COVID-19 Restrictions

The UAE is using the challenges of the present situation to demonstrate how an unfortunate event has the power to shift standard practices, bringing forth a heightened ability to think and act, creating new and better ways of doing things

The UAE government has been taking timely, strict measures to fight the Coronavirus outbreak, at the same time ensuring minimal disruptions to public life. The country has been stepping up its testing capabilities, adding more testing centers including drive-through facilities.

Many organizations in the UAE, mostly those in sectors like education, healthcare, public service, banking and finance, etc. are using the new situation as an opportunity to try new ways of doing things, using innovative thinking and advanced technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and Robotics. Some of the most profound changes in the new situation has been in the education sector.

Ensuring Seamless Academic Operations

With all campuses closed to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, schools, colleges and universities have switched to remote e-learning, with individual institutions designing their own e-learning programs taking into consideration the academic requirements, practicality and convenience, within the framework of the government regulations. In spite of the fact that many schools and colleges had little time to prepare and train the teachers and parents on this new way of learning, the student and teacher communities have quickly adopted. Most of the institutions seem to have tackled the greatest challenges of e-learning, viz., teacher-learner engagement, continuous learner feedback and responding quickly to the learner’s queries. Many of them have trained the teachers and students remotely through webinars, video conferencing sessions and by creating and distributing student & teacher guides.

Some schools have also made adequate provisions in their e-learning programs for ‘students of determination’, including alternative assessment methods, touchscreen functionalities and voice-to-text options.

Practical Sessions and Clinical Training

The e-learning methodology has been inadequate in supporting the practical sessions, and more importantly, the clinical training aspect of medical and health sciences programs. Students of the 2019–20 academic year had completed all their practical trainings and 90% of the clinical training in the case of medical students, before the government decided to suspend all on-campus activities. However, for students of this new academic year, this is going to be a major challenge.

Some universities like the Gulf Medical University are using their Virtual Patient Learning (VPL) system to compensate for the lost practical/clinical sessions, where medical students use an online tool to interact with AI-enabled virtual patients instead of real patients. Likewise, the students of some technology courses are imparted practical sessions through simulation software. However, there is no denying that students will be able to derive the full benefit of practical/clinical training only when normal studies resume, after the situation is normalized.

Assessments

Now that e-learning has been confirmed as the only possible mode of learning at least for the next few months, educators are working on yet another challenge; devising a fool-proof system for continuous assessment and evaluation. For the time being, schools and colleges are left with no other option but to substitute the usual examinations and tests with internal assessments and online evaluations. The details of these are yet to be finalized, and will be subject to the guidelines and regulations of the various educational boards and the relevant government authorities.

Admission Process

Admissions for new students continue uninterrupted in the UAE, especially in colleges and universities. Students and parents allowed to complete the admission formalities online, without having to visit the college or university in person. Most of the institutions of higher education are conducting student interviews through video conferencing, and students can take their eligibility tests online. In view of the present situation where many boards of education have postponed the previous academic year’s final examinations, UAE’s educational institutions are granting admissions on the basis of students’ performances in the periodic examinations.

The Future of E-learning in the UAE

The UAE has always been a frontrunner of innovation in education, and e-learning has always been a priority area. The country made this clear when it launched the Smart Learning Initiative in 2012, under the Ministry of Education and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, in line with the directives of the Prime Minister’s Office. Several noteworthy steps have been taken under this initiative, such as, e-learning being incorporated into many schools and colleges, e-curriculums introduced by leading UAE universities and the opening of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), Dubai.

For many UAE colleges and universities, a ‘blended learning’ approach combining the best of traditional and e-learning methodologies is likely to become a part of their standard educational method, in future.

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