How GCC education institutions changed due to the pandemic

The initial wave of lockdowns in early 2020 prompted education entities to rapidly move to teaching online. While this broad-based shift towards digital learning has largely been reactive, in many cases it accelerated an existing transition to a more blended and technologically oriented approach. However, 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 to education can be improved – for example, through the provision of laptops and tablets, and the establishment of Wi-Fi hotspots at public venues.

Leading the Change

A regional pacesetter in the GCC has been the UAE. Over March 4 and 5, 2020, just days after all in-person classes and events were cancelled on March 1, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the country’s largest applied higher education institution, 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.

In Sharjah specifically, 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 approximately 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 challenges brought about by the pandemic.

Elsewhere, Qatar Foundation is a non-profit organisation dedicated to spearheading the country’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. Qatar Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to coordinate the higher education segment’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. One of its partners is Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, which was an early adopter of full digitalisation in the face of the crisis: 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.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, was recognised by UNESCO in October 2020 for its transition to distance learning across the educational spectrum. In terms of further education, 27 public universities have hosted 2m virtual classes and over 6m panel discussions in the kingdom since the start of the crisis.

Working Together

Some further education institutions in the region actively collaborated with public authorities to facilitate the shift to digital learning. For example, the UAE’s Ministry of Education worked with 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 to develop a series of new digital platforms.

Another leader in the transition to digital learning is Bahrain, which saw widespread uptake of e-learning solutions early in the pandemic. 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. 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. Elsewhere, telecoms companies Batelco and Zain Bahrain announced that eligible customers would be able to browse designated educational websites without being charged for data use.

Hybrid Future

The 2020/21 academic year started with a range of restrictions in place, obliging many higher education institutions 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,” Michael Trick, dean of the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, told OBG. There are a range of benefits associated with a blended, technology-based approach, including expanded learning options. In this light, it seems likely that such approaches will continue to be applied even after the crisis begins to wane.

Permanent Features

Indeed, this is slowly proving to be the case, as certain digital solutions adopted during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic have become permanent features of the educational offerings of a number of institutions more than a year later. “The pandemic has underscored the important role that technology can play in higher education,” Trick added.

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 brick-and-mortar model, the higher education 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. HCT has introduced a hybrid education model whereby courses that require hands-on learning – such as laboratory work, applied research and some entrepreneurship activities – can be done on campus, while other theoretical courses are completed remotely.

Infrastructure & Investment

The successful transition to a remote-learning model by a number of educational institutions across the region 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 2020. “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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