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As the country locked down to combat Covid-19, UAE universities were able to move to virtual learning harnessing their digital readiness. But the short timeframe within which they had to make the transition presented challlenges of its own. We talk to heads of higher education institutions to find out how they overcame them and successfully delivered quality and effective learning to students

Dr David Schmidt, President of American University in Dubai (AUD)

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How was AUD’s transition to virtual learning during Covid-19?

AUD’s transition to online courses in March was immediate and seamless and it clearly demonstrated our continuous commitment to teaching and learning. At AUD, the learning, and teaching never stops. Students did not lose any classroom time and the faculty never stopped delivery of a world-class education.

This is a testament to the high level of expertise of the AUD faculty. Ranked by QS World Rankings as the third-most diverse international faculty in the world, their global skill set enabled them to effortlessly adapt and adopt to the disruption of the pandemic and continue serving our students, achieving the highest standards of a university education.

Working along with the guidance and support of the UAE government, Dubai Health Authority and of course, the Ministry of Education and KHDA, we are proud that the pre-emptive early response and measures implemented on campus in early January as part of a Crisis Response Plan and Team allowed for the transition for faculty and students to online learning keeping our community safe and healthy.

Tell us about the innovations you introduced to maintain student engagement during remote learning.

AUD has always been taking innovative approaches to teaching and learning in or outside of classrooms, not just during the pandemic. Our faculty maintain up-to-date teaching techniques and incorporate technologies such as 3D printing and virtual reality into the classroom. We understand that learning and teaching are not limited to the physical classroom. Our newly established Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center is an example of AUD’s Smart Learning Model in support of our well-established traditional classroom teaching.

Prof. Hamid M.K. Al Naimiy Chancellor of University of Sharjah (UoS)

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What challenges did UoS face in its move to virtual learning amid Covid-19?

Internet connectivity and the availability of appropriate equipment were an issue for some students.

How prepared was UoS for remote learning prior to the outbreak?

UoS has three branches and some of the lectures were delivered at a distance. That experience provided us with the strong foundation and platform to engage with students in different parts of the world during the outbreak. The available IT infrastructure and software also enabled us to deliver our courses and exams on time. Furthermore, UoS has well-qualified faculty and staff who are dedicated to the task. These factors empowered us to smoothly switch our delivery from face-to-face to interactive distance learning and we managed to sustain and maintain our academic quality and credential.

How did you manage the shift to digital?

In addition to resource readiness in terms of IT infrastructure, we also held extensive training programmes to support our students, faculty and staff. We created hotlines for students to direct queries about lectures, IT issues, etc. and conducted sessions for tutorial and problem-solving.

What digital technologies did you use?

Our main learning management system is Blackboard. It is used for live, interactive course delivery, source of course lecture materials, online assessment and exams. We also use our electronic portfolio platform, especially for clinical and industrial training. In addition, we use videoconferencing systems (Zoom, MS-Teams and Webex) for interactive sessions, graduate thesis defence and meetings.

How did you maintain student engagement?

We used interactive live virtual sessions where students answer questions and solve problems in groups. The use of technology such as VR/AR/MR helped students understand the subject matter in a different way and enhanced their experiences.

Under your leadership how did UoS handle these changes?

A unique feature of UoS is working as a team in one family. This includes academic and support staff as well as students. Within this agile environment, all elements complement each other, effecting quick and productive changes.

Prof. Waqar Ahmad, Chancellor of Abu Dhabi University (ADU)

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To what do you attribute ADU’s ranking among the top 750 in the 2021 QS World University Rankings?

Our success stems from the quality of what we offer. Great faculty, respectable research contribution, outstanding education and student experience and diversity among our students, faculty and staff underpin our reputation. While we are pleased to have maintained our position, we are working hard to further improve our standing in the years to come.

Under your leadership, how did ADU adapt to the impact of Covid-19?

We have great leaders spread across the organisation, strong infrastructure, creative faculty and students who have been given the resources to be resilient and adaptable. E-learning has always been an essential strategy of ADU’s educational plan, and therefore we have adapted rapidly to this shift. The investment we made in preparing for the transition – extensive training of faculty, testing existing and installing new IT systems, working closely with Student Councils on preparations for the transition, putting in place systems for ongoing trouble shooting, adapting our study and retention support, student engagement support such as clubs and societies, physical and mental well-being – have served us well. Student feedback was used to improve what we do; consequently, student satisfaction improved with successive surveys, reaching higher levels than when students are with us face-to-face.

What innovations did ADU introduce to prevent a dip in learning?

We have re-engineered the delivery of our courses to ensure their effectiveness. The first component is live sessions delivered through MS Teams, which focuses on discussing real-life case studies, problem-solving, reflection and higher-order thinking. The second part is self-learning, where faculty created short videos, assignments, quizzes, reading materials and activities for the students to continue learning outside the classroom. Assessment strategies are aligned with distance learning delivery with more focus on the interview, oral presentation, projects, assignment through Turnitin, and online proctored assessment.

Niranjan Jayakumar, CEO, Manipal Education, Middle East and North Africa

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Under your leadership how did Manipal Dubai adapt to the changes caused by Covid-19?

Reinvention is a continuous process. While many assume that the process of adaptation was drastic, it was a continuous journey for most of us at Manipal Dubai, an extension of something we envisioned and were working towards for over a decade. Technology has remained at the core of Manipal Dubai and over the years we have developed a digital infrastructure capable of delivering quality online education in line with global trends. As a result, as soon as the university was locked down, we switched to online learning across disciplines and programmes. We must also commend our students for adapting to the new ways of learning with ease and the parents who supported our students with the right infrastructure.

How did you maintain student engagement during virtual learning?

As one of the pioneers in education, we are well equipped with e-learning platforms such as MS Teams, Google Classroom, Adobe Connect, Cisco Webex, and a dedicated LMS. Just over a month into this new reality, we began exploring multiple simulations and demonstration software to conduct even the lab-intensive modules online. We conducted a month-long virtual students fest, Unplugged wherein students were able to showcase their extracurricular talents. As you read this, students are also appearing for their end semester examinations successfully online.

How was your experience working with your faculty and staff to facilitate virtual learning?

I am very proud and fortunate to have a team of passionate professionals who rose to the special circumstances and went beyond the call of duty to ensure quality education was delivered to every student of Manipal Dubai.

Having delivered over 15,000 hours of online classes, a month-long student fest, and a seamless examination, it is safe for me to say that it was teamwork par excellence from all stakeholders. A fitting testimony to this teamwork is our latest achievement of 5-star rating in the KHDA Higher Education Classification 2020, where we scored the highest overall score of 836, establishing us as one of the best among the leading universities in Dubai.

Prof. Kevin Mitchell, Chancellor of American University of Sharjah (AUS)

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How did AUS manage the move to virtual learning?

Fortunately, AUS has had a comprehensive learning management system and technology to support remote teaching and learning in place for many years. We also benefit from a robust virtual IT support system. Faculty have been integrating technology into courses for some time, and therefore the move to remote teaching and learning, while very sudden, could be achieved. As a university, we are committed to advancing knowledge and developing new skills, and the current circumstances have offered many opportunities to learn together as an academic community.

What challenges did you face during the shift?

The challenges were related to the disruption caused by the rapid transition to distance learning and teaching in subject areas that are more dependent on direct interaction, such as design and the performing arts or that require access to specialised software in university labs. Examples of overcoming the challenges included providing roll-out piano keyboards to students for online instruction or providing remote access to specialised software for engineering applications.

Also, while many universities around the world required students to leave dormitories at the onset of the pandemic, AUS took stringent precautionary measures and continued to provide housing for students unable to return home due to travel restrictions.

Tell us about the steps taken to maintain student engagement during remote learning

At the university level, engagement is a personal responsibility of each student. The university provides the platform for and facilitates engagement through the academic programmes and extracurricular opportunities. At AUS we ensured that we provided the mechanisms to support engagement, including the provision of online academic and non-academic support services, remote extracurricular activities, an extensive IT support system, and access to extensive library resources, research material, and advanced software.

Prof. Hossam Hamdy, Chancellor of Gulf Medical University

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Under your leadership how did GMU handle the Covid-19 disruption?

GMU has used the coronavirus situation to demonstrate how an unfortunate event has the power to shift standard practices, bringing forth a heightened ability to think and act and creating a new and better way of doing things. The new situation is an opportunity to evolve beyond standard learning practices by implementing innovative e-learning capabilities. This initiative would pave the way for the inclusion of a new blended mode of learning in GMU, combining the best attributes of traditional and e-learning methodologies.

Tell us about the challenges you faced in implementing distance learning.

We had two important issues to address: ensuring an increased degree of engagement between the faculty and the learners, and the provision for giving continuous feedback to the learner and responding quickly to their queries. To overcome this, we produced guides for students and teachers, incorporating multiple layers of activities and feedback and good learning resources.

How did you ensure student engagement during remote learning?

Our e-learning methodology uses webinars and for practical sessions, we use advanced training technologies such as dry labs and virtual microscopy. We also use Virtual Patient Learning (VPL), GMU’s own AI-based training programme. The most important aspect of our distance e-learning process is that we have increased the degree of engagement with the students.

What sort of change in behaviours was required to facilitate virtual learning?

The university conducted a workshop to train its faculty with the skills to use different types of e-learning technologies – synchronous (faculty and students connected to the teaching channel at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently from resources uploaded online) – to ensure seamless learning for students of the six colleges under GMU, pursuing 26 different programmes. Our students are provided with continuous support, ensuring seamless progression on this path.

Prof. Silvia Serrano, Vice Chancellor, Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi

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Tell us about the challenges Sorbonne faced in implementing virtual learning amid Covid-19.

On March 22, we shifted to remote learning. We faced some challenges; motivation usually comes from personal communication during the learning process. It’s absolutely crucial; learning is not only about transmitting knowledge, it’s also about processing and discovering one’s own way in life. Another challenge was the increasing inequality of material conditions among students. It’s also a question of the social environment – those who have books and access to other forms of knowledge and the support of their parents and friends will go through this transition easier than those who do not have these advantages. This becomes challenging in a situation of remote learning. To overcome these challenges, our first step was to make sure all students have the materials required to follow online classes by providing those who didn’t with the required tools such as laptops. We also provided financial aid to those directly impacted by Covid-19.

How did you manage the shift to virtual learning?

We were thinking of developing online teaching even before the pandemic. It was already a part of our strategic plan. There were discussions on increasing online courses in comparison to face-to-face courses and including new technologies and digital tools to enhance our teaching methodology, so we were ready to go for online courses. We are the first university in the UAE to transition its virtual learning environment to Blackboard Learn on a cloud. We also provided training sessions to get students ready for online learning and exams. Our main priority was to facilitate their journey and avoid any technical issues.

Was a change in mindsets required to facilitate remote learning?

This was a temporary situation that had its own circumstances; therefore, I don’t think changing the mindsets was the key to adaptation but paying attention to humans’ need in times of crisis was. We don’t see remote learning as the normal way to deliver courses; we were well prepared to apply the best solutions to maintain the continuity of delivery of high-quality education during this critical time, and we will always be well prepared for any crisis in the future, but we are fully aware of the importance of face-to-face classes.

Andy Phillips, Chief Operating Officer, University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)

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Tell us about UOWD’s contribution to the growth of higher education in the UAE.

The university is expanding to deliver quality Australian education that is currently witnessing a rising demand across the globe. We are in the process of moving to our brand-new, purpose-built campus at Dubai Knowledge Park featuring cutting-edge technologies, modern architecture, and a mix of traditional and innovative learning spaces. The campus will provide an enriched experience to meet the demands of today’s student population, while supporting teaching staff and community research projects. The new facility reflects UOWD’s continued pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, industry engagement and student experience. The need for an education space that caters to a highly diverse group of students is imperative, and UOWD’s new multifaceted campus seeks to fill this gap.

Dr Karim Chelli, President and Vice Chancellor, Canadian University Dubai (CUD)

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How did you manage the challenges of virtual learning during Covid-19?

At Canadian University Dubai, we had the skills and technology to move to a virtual learning space quickly, but the transition from in-class learning to 100 per cent virtual learning during a pandemic required the CUD community to show patience and compassion for one another. We understood that living through a health crisis could mean hardship and concern for the well-being of ourselves and our friends and families. I am proud to say that the CUD community demonstrated not only hard work and commitment during this difficult time but also a great deal of care.

We were proud to watch our students demonstrate the skills CUD instilled in them. As they quickly adjusted to unparalleled learning, their intuition presented an opportunity, and their ingenuity gave us insight into diverse methods. We expanded our view of access, collaboration and design thinking. The virtual learning space became a vehicle for innovation, practical problem solving, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As educators, we value evidence-based theories to help us define our student-centred approach. Asynchronous learning, a method by which students have flexibility in their learning schedules, is an approach from which we have seen great benefit. During the pandemic, our compassionate response presented an opportunity to employ the flexibility of asynchronous learning. Students benefited from the flexibility and were able to strike the right balance between challenge and support.

Prof. Abdullah Al Shamsi, Vice Chancellor, The British University in Dubai (BUiD)

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How did BUiD manage the shift to remote teaching?

Since receiving instructions from the government to move to online teaching, BUiD has introduced several important measures to make it able to perform almost all tasks remotely, and our staff have adapted quickly to the changes. People are more at ease with face-to-face communications and we needed everyone to be comfortable with online communications both in teaching and learning. We made sure that all students, academic and administrative staff are connected. We created email and social media groups for each faculty, programme and department. In this way, information cascades up and down in a matter of minutes.

What steps did you take to ensure effective learning?

We have upgraded our learning management software to Blackboard Ultra by which lectures, exams and discussion groups can easily be carried out remotely with staff being off campus as well. All supervision for postgraduate students is being done remotely. To ensure the continuity of the PhD research of our doctoral students and to enable them to complete their PhD requirements, the university has been conducting viva voce exams online.

How did you prepare both faculty and students for virtual learning?

Before we moved fully to online teaching, we experimented running various services remotely. In the first two weeks, academic staff were instructed to perform their tasks from home 50 per cent of the time. Students were also connected through their module tutors and the Student Administration team. Thus, we identified issues and resolved them before moving totally to fully online operations.

Dr Karim Seghir, Chancellor of Ajman University (AU)

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How did AU overcome the challenges of virtual learning during Covid-19?

Thanks to quick action and training across all colleges and offices at Ajman University (AU), faculty and staff were able to bring pedagogy and technology together to establish and maintain a meaningful learning environment. Fortunately, our Office of IT was already working on innovative tech solutions, prior to Covid-19. Making adjustments, upgrading systems and adding new software/training workshops for faculty and students fully prepared us for the sudden shift.

We also convened the Committee on Transformational Change, which finds ways for AU to be stronger and safer in a post-Covid world.

Tell us about the innovations AU introduced to maintain engagement.

For the practical courses, our virtual labs gave students access to university-licensed software so they could continue with the work they had started on campus technology. Our faculty of architecture, design, math, and physics were connected with an interactive drawing board for creating designs and doing live calculations online. In addition to coursework, students had opportunities to participate in online co-curricular activities and faculty utilised research platforms for collaboration.

The AU community was diligent about communicating with and supporting our stakeholders. We made sure communications were as easy and consistent as possible by leveraging the same kind of technologies being used in remote classrooms.

Dr Cedwyn Fernandes, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Director of Middlesex University Dubai

Middlesex achieved a five-star rating in the 2020 KHDA Higher Education Classification. Tell us about the experience.

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We are proud of our five-star rating as it provides external validation of the work we do in empowering students to transform their potential into success. We embrace a student-centric approach that provides each student with a distinctive experience — defined by high quality and innovative teaching and learning, vibrant co-curricular, sport and cultural activities, and opportunities to develop the skills to succeed. The student experience at Middlesex highlights its commitment to health and well-being and inclusivity and our student body comprises of more than 100 nationalities, diversity is truly a strength of our university.

Our Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, Professor Nic Beech, in his congratulatory message stated that this success is a much-deserved recognition of the hard work and expertise of faculty and staff at our Dubai campus; all of whom have pioneered a world-class student experience in Dubai.

How has Middlesex contributed to the growth of higher education in the UAE?

Middlesex University Dubai has grown over 54 per cent in the past five years and is one of the largest private sector universities in the UAE. It has contributed to the UAE being one of the top 10 destinations in the world for international students. The university offers more than 70 programmes at the foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate level. Our programme offerings are aligned with the skill sets required to support the dynamic growth of the UAE economy. The university has centres of excellence in innovation, robotics, sustainability, data science and immersive virtual reality. Faculty research is focused on research that has applicability for the region and the university conducts regional and international conferences every year.

Dr Vajahat Hussain, CEO of Amity Education Middle East

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Tell us about the challenges Amity faced in implementing virtual learning amid Covid-19.

The shift to distance learning came with its share of advantages and challenges. It is natural for students to take time to get accustomed to new initiatives and methods, but students were quick to adjust to their new normal. Placement exercises, online competitions, guest lectures, contests, webinars and conferences, have all been carried out successfully.

How prepared was Amity for remote learning?

Over a year ago, we introduced Flipped Classrooms. Flipped classes were consistently being recorded by faculty to ensure that all lectures and course material are accessible to students online. This played a significant role in ensuring that the transition to online education was smooth. Professors and faculty had experience, along with a deeper understanding of digital learning. Prior to the lockdown, a series of external training sessions was also organised to give faculty a better understanding of online opportunities.

How was the shift to virtual learning?

It was instant and smooth. As an education group with schools, an early learning centre and a university in the UAE with a global reach, we focused on bringing our teachers together and sharing resources to maximise our offerings. Teachers and faculty received training on how to effectively communicate with students through online learning portals.

How did you maintain student engagement during remote learning?

Distance learning has allowed us to connect with experienced professionals from around the world and provide students with more than daily lectures. Amity’s global online portal has a range of webinars and guest lectures by industry experts. Interactive activities and competitions to keep our students’ spirits high have also continued.

Under your leadership how did Amity adapt to the Covid-19 crisis?

During these unpredictable times, supporting our university community of students, parents and faculty has been the main priority. Planning and preparing for a variety of scenarios have helped us remain organised throughout this period. Our faculty have proven to be the real heroes, as they continue to find innovative and interactive ways to impart knowledge.

Dr James Trotter, Dean and Academic President – Murdoch University Dubai

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How did the university cope with the impact of Covid-19?

Our lives have changed in unprecedented ways in the past few months but as humans, we are resilient, agile and hopeful. These same qualities have been displayed by all our students and staff since we transitioned to our Digital Campus on March 8. For us, the shift wasn’t just about online learning but to bring the entire campus experience to our students online. From online career counselling to virtual bingo nights, the Digital Campus has kept our close-knit community engaged and connected. Classes have been scheduled as per the original timetables and our faculty and student support staff have continued to remain accessible to all their students.

What were the difficulties in implementing remote teaching?

The biggest challenge was ensuring an uninterrupted student experience given the short notice to transition. Thankfully, our team was well prepared since we had been contingency planning for this shift since February, along with our colleagues at Murdoch University’s campuses in Perth and Singapore. As a result, we were able to set up our online classrooms within two days. We were able to make the transition without cancelling or postponing a single class or assessment in our move to the Digital Campus.

Tell us how you maintained student engagement.

We flipped the classroom to co-create content for learning; used a multi-channel approach to communicate with students; provided the same level of student support through our faculty, learning advisors, student support team and 24x7 learning assistance through Studiosity; and constantly collaborated, learned and shared our experiences with peers in other Murdoch University campuses.

What has been the impact of virtual learning on students and faculty?

We are lucky to have outstanding academic and support teams as well as a dynamic student cohort. The entire Murdoch Dubai community has been agile, hardworking and sincere in ensuring the success of our Digital Campus. A key has been our focus on using the digital environment to prepare our students for the future of work that will be increasingly online. We have not simply ported recorded lectures online, but have reimagined learning and teaching for the digital context. This will enable our students to graduate with the skills needed to work successfully in online environments.

Dr Sheikh Selim, Head of Education, University of Birmingham Dubai

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Tell us how the University of Birmingham Dubai handled the Covid-19 disruption.

We recognised the potential outcome of Covid-19 and were prepared to switch immediately to a digital delivery platform. When the news came in that physical education sites such as schools and university campuses would have to close, we were able to adjust seamlessly to an online model, offering our students an outstanding experience.

We knew that students would naturally be feeling uncertain in the weeks to come, but we were able to reassure them by demonstrating that our online learning platform was of the highest quality, full of the innovation and expertise expected of a global top-100 university.

This included a dynamic learning suite with a range of interactive tasks relevant to learning, such as podcasts and carefully selected videos, followed by engaging discussions; flashcard quizzes; debates and discussion forums; as well as continuous feedback upon completion of each activity. Every student had weekly contact with their personal tutors, as well as access to our dedicated, in-country Student Wellbeing Officer.

In challenging times, our students can be confident that we will continue to offer the highest level of guidance and support, every step of the way.

Hanil Haridas, Co-founder and Executive Director Westford Education Group

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Employability is a top priority for UAE students. How does a Westford education prepare them?

It’s our responsibility to provide our graduates with experiences and opportunities that will make them corporate-ready. Our programmes and curriculums are designed to provide a blend of industry and academic learning. We focus on unique career-enhancing initiatives such as WEConnect with Business Leaders, Day with a CEO, We Talk and more. Westford has exclusive certified courses such as Advanced Diploma in Career Development and Business Etiquette to drive career engagement and employability. Our Career Development cell is focused on supporting students with internships, in-house business incubator and campus recruitments.

Tell us about the courses that help students advance their careers.

Westford offers the most contemporary programmes for business education. We provide bachelor’s, master’s, professional courses and corporate training accredited with top-rated universities in the UK. We focus on specialised MBA and BABM programmes. These specialisations come in the form of Triple Crown MBA, graduate plus programmes and Doctorate of Business Administration.