Higher education in UAE during Covid-19 pandemic

Bouziane Zaid

  • Thursday 14, May 2020 09:45 AM
  • Higher education in UAE during Covid-19 pandemic
Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General, said that COVID-19 is the most challenging crisis since World War II. The disruptive nature of the virus pushed governments worldwide to take extreme measures to stop its spread and control its immediate and long-term implications.
The education sector was the first to be shut down, but advances in Internet access and affordability, cloud computing, availability of mobile devices and distance learning platforms have created a tipping point in education. Supported by its digital readiness, the UAE has been able to embrace distance learning at a faster pace, but faculty and students have been navigating uncharted territories and grappling with the opportunities and uncertainties of how to teach and learn online.

Over the last two decades, universities in the UAE and other parts of the world have debated the shift to online learning with limited concrete results. In one week, everything changed. Under the directives of the Ministry of Education, university administrators made the bold, yet necessary decision to shift all courses online. Universities held ad-hoc intensive training sessions, including offline and online workshops and seminars for both faculty and students alike. IT departments produced and shared tutorials on how to use the digital tools and platforms. One thing is certain, there is no shortage of platforms, free or subscription based. From Microsoft Team, to Google Classrooms, to MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms, faculty could choose from a wide range of choices to give lectures, manage tasks and calendars, track attendance, assign and grade papers, and interact with students via video conferencing and instant messaging.

As the pandemic rushed the transition to online learning, both faculty and students started navigating uncharted territory. The transition has changed faculty’s role and responsibilities as well as students’ expectations and workload.

Based on interviews with six faculty from four major universities, university management understood that the transition is a very complex and evolving process. While administrators provided instructions, they allowed faculty flexibility to implement the transition to online learning. However, the transition entailed various challenges for both faculty and students.

Most faculty said teaching online is considerably more time consuming. Office hours used to consist of a few hours per week where students could visit their faculty in their offices to ask questions. Now, faculty feel pressured to respond to every inquiry from their students at all times. Preparation for online courses requires extra labor, imagination and time. In addition to learning about how to make the best use of this distance learning platforms, faculty have to think of innovative ways to deliver the content. Dr. Youssef, an assistant professor of sociology said, “it’s no longer just a matter of presenting course contents but all the additional readings, viewings, and assignments I have to prepare to make sure the content has been delivered and acquired. I can tell when students get the knowledge when I can see them in front of me in class. Now I can’t, I have to find a way to make sure they get it.”

Dr. Ahmed, a sociology professor, teaches a common core humanities course with 72 students, and now asks how one could manage such a number via online lectures. The main challenge for him, in addition to course management during the live sessions, is grading. “In a traditional classroom setting,” he said, “ I can use a variety of tools to measure learning outcomes, multiple choice questions, true/false, class participation, but now the only viable form of examination that ensures some level of adequate testing via online is essay questions. How am I to do that?”

For many faculty, the most critical challenge was to ensure students’ engagement during live lectures with the course materials. Students can join the online session and there is no way for the faculty to know if the student is actually listening, taking notes or in any way engaged with the course contents. Dr. Mira, an associate professor of marketing, said that she increased the participation grade from 10% to 20% of the overall course grade. She included mini quizzes during the live sessions. Students must respond to a series of short questions related to the class discussion. She said “the answer does not have to be correct but must reflect the student’s engagement with the course materials. I don’t want to add more stress on students, I just want them to make sure they’re there and not browsing their phones.” The platform records all the responses so she can go back and grade them. She said the mini quizzes changed the dynamics of the online live session.

Everyone is under stress, but students seem to be the most vulnerable. They’re back home with their parents in an environment outside the community, structure and rhythm of academic life. Some international students rented studio or one-bedroom apartments to wait for an opportunity to fly back home. For them, it’s a much more stressful situation. All students are disconnected from campus resources, and from the various campus communities to which they belong.

Unlike faculty who seem to struggle with technology, students showed aptitude with online learning. It seemed like they were prepared for such experience. The pervasiveness of online tools in millennia communication habits helped prepare them for such experience.

Based on initial feedback from students, they complained about hands-on labs (life science labs, film courses, etc.) and the difficulty to learn when they can’t touch or move what they are supposed to touch and move. They also complained about the unpreparedness of some faculty for online teaching. They said some faculty would just read the slides and lecture without interacting with the students. Students would then just zone out, pick up their mobile phone and even watch something else online till the end of the class. Shamma, a third-year chemistry major, said “I used to zone out in similar situations in face to face courses, but now that the faculty can’t see me, zoning out is much more easy and much more fun. I can go on social media and talk to my friends.” Students said faculty should make their course totally interactive. They also await university administrations to solve the issue of hands-on courses.

The disruptive force of the Covid-19 pandemic has tested our ability to respond to and cope with a novel and evolving human condition. The situation is evolving but few things are clear. First, online learning can probably never replace the face to face interaction with students. Universities are first and foremost communities of learners, and as communities they rely on daily rituals that demand physical presence. Online learning can at best be a supplement but probably never a replacement to offline teaching. Second, universities have grown and matured out of this experience. The silver lining in this crisis is probably the amount of learning and growth that all university stakeholders have experienced. Just the amount of video teaching materials that has been assembled in the past few weeks is probably much higher than what universities assemble in a whole year. Universities must capitalize on this new capacity building that opens new horizons for a much brighter future.