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History shows us that distance learning has been around for more than 180 years. In 1840, an English tutor by the name of Sir Isaac Pitman taught a system of shorthand by penning texts on postcards and mailing them to students. This first distance learning course was also interactive, as students would mail their assignments back to the tutor. Sometime later, the University of London became the first college to embrace the concept and offer distance learning degrees.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Society to Encourage Studies at Home was founded by Anna Eliot Ticknor, whose father was a historian and Harvard professor. This avant-garde scheme brought intellectual, leisured women who were willing to teach women of all classes a liberal education via correspondence and book-lending. The courses were so successful and during the 24 years of its activity, 200 correspondent teachers had taught 7,086 students.

Interactive online learning

Today, the digital revolution has made distance learning easier, faster, and accessible on a grander scale. Prominent universities are offering a range of online courses, from full curricula degrees to short executive education courses, self-paced courses, and massive open online courses (which are free). For the first time in history, precious knowledge imparted by the world’s pioneering thinkers, geniuses, and scholars can be accessed via compelling and interactive online learning methods. The great news is a lot of these courses can be accessed for free.

Prominent universities have jumped on this tech innovation and are luring students with their fascinating courses. These include Oxford, King’s College London, Imperial College London, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, to name a few. Specialist organisations, such as the British Council, Accenture, British Library, Unesco, and the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, have also developed online courses. Additionally, online learning platforms are partnering with universities and instructors to make online courses available to a wider audience, such as Coursera, FutureLearn, and edX.

A quick search for online courses will yield many interesting selections and the topics are tantalising. Examples of some free online courses that are currently offered by universities include sustainable food systems for the 21st century, young people and their mental health, language arts, entrepreneurship, modern building design, cultures and identities in Europe, fashion and sustainability, introduction to forensic science, and the list goes on.

Cost effective, time-saving and convenient

Contrary to what critics carp at online learning that it lacks engagement, online learning is continually evolving beyond the concept of single-to-many broadcasting method. Today, opting for online learning will allow you to tailor your learning according to your needs and you also get to interact with tutors and peers via instant messaging and online/video discussion forums. Not only that, but you are now able to access a variety of degrees (certificates to doctorates) and courses offered by top-ranking universities, successful companies, and brilliant thinkers at a fraction of the cost.

For those who are committed to work engagements and family care responsibilities, online learning is a convenient, time-saving, and flexible way to continue your learning journey, saving time on commuting hours and enabling a better work-life balance. Consequently, online learners are able to expand their knowledge and skills and advance in their careers.

Online learning has a lot to offer in that regard, by teaching students to self-manage their learning, prioritise their time, and channel their learning journey towards their niche interests.

- Sara Al Mulla, UAE writer

As of March 17, 2020, the Unesco estimated that more than 776 million children in 85 countries have been affected due to school closures implemented amid growing fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments, such as China, Japan, and Singapore, have been quick to resort to online learning as an accessible, comprehensive, and user-friendly platform to minimise the disruption to learning.

The UAE Government has been investing in smart learning for years. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Programme was launched in April 2012 with the aim of upgrading the school learning environment with technologies that facilitate the dissemination of knowledge among students.

Using a sophisticated learning management system, teachers are able to view the curriculum for their classes electronically, view books that are part of the curriculum, access supplementary reading materials and activities, and upload video and audio lessons. Today, more than 42,000 teachers have been trained in how to design and manage online classes.

Teacher-parent applications

Additionally, schools have also been making use of teacher-parent applications, such as ClassDojo. This free application allows teachers to post photos, videos, activities, and files while at the same time engaging with parents and students via instant messaging and commenting features. Thus, parents can keep track of their children’s progress, collaborating with teachers to improve academic performance and building positive habits, skills, and behaviours at home. As a result, the UAE government can successfully roll-out distance learning on March 22, 2020, without disruption for students.

Yet in order to successfully navigate through this unprecedented disruption, students will also need to grow intrinsically, by learning to be imaginative, curious, resilient, and responsible. Online learning has a lot to offer in that regard, by teaching students to self-manage their learning, prioritise their time, and channel their learning journey towards their niche interests. Parents can access a myriad of free online resources to pique the interests of their children in various areas.

The pursuit of knowledge is a lifelong journey and its rewards are immediately reflected in one’s improved quality of life. Thankfully, this knowledge is now available at the tap of your fingertips, wherever and whenever you are thirsty for it.

— Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.