Experts believe that counter-intuitively, the pandemic has revealed the importance of face-to-face engagement Image Credit: Shutterstock

Remote learning is here to stay, but the in-person experience remains essential, UAE educators say as the sector embarks on a new academic year.

With the effects of the coronavirus epidemic continuing to be felt for the third straight year, organisations of all kinds are having to consider whether short-gap solutions should now become a more permanent way of life.

Across the economy, the crisis accelerated trends were already on the horizon. In the education sector, for instance, the quick onboarding of digital technologies meant that fully remote learning quickly became the norm. There is now greater accessibility to higher education – almost anywhere – and to better instructors. And virtual internships and jobs are now commonplace.

But how many of these changes are here to stay? As economies begin to shape a new normal, backed by a vaccination infrastructure and the return of in-person activities, it is time for universities to assess which of these trends should stay, and to devise future-proof strategies.

GN Focus asked UAE educators what that means for the sector going forward.

“The pandemic, though unfortunate, accelerated the adoption of a digital learning ecosystem in the higher education sector, which helped in breaking barriers. The migration of physical classrooms to digital spaces and later hybrid and blended learning environments have led to newer approaches in teaching and learning,” says Vinu Chakravarthy, Head of Business Operations & Student Affairs, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Dubai Campus. “With increased flexibility in terms of space, time, access, and pace, this has transformed the education sector forever.”

Vinu Chakravarthy

He says MAHE Dubai has developed and was offering a blended learning experience centred around the use of technology even before the pandemic. The pandemic only prompted us to fast-track our processes and implement them in our regular classes and course modules. “Our programmes are designed with the right blend of theory and practice, rooted in traditional knowledge as well as futuristic technological innovations.”

Technology-based components don’t just substitute for the real-world experience, they transform classrooms into hybrid, interactive spaces, he says, through the use of online learning platforms, virtual labs, game-based learning and international virtual exchange programmes.

Similar changes are visible across the education landscape in the UAE and elsewhere, whether in terms of augmenting curricula with experiences that use virtual reality and artificial intelligence, or in the use of tactical approaches such as learning pods.

Beyond the health and safety aspects of the pandemic, student demand and a favourable regulatory environment have also played their part.

Favourable regulations

Many students now actively seek out flexible and remote courses, and institutions are also seeing the benefit, says Daniel Adkins, Group CEO at the Curtin University Dubai’s education management services provider.

“Going forward, theory classes and even case-study tutorials may be offered online in many universities, with face-to-face classes being reserved for lessons with a hands-on component like engineering or medicine. This proves more convenient for students, allows the easier integration of some learning technology, allows for the best professors to teach from anywhere, allows for students to be anywhere, and allows for students from multiple campuses to study together,” he says.

Daniel Adkins

“The pandemic drove much needed changes in the legal and regulatory environment to recognise that online learning can be of the same quality as face-to-face classes. This has now freed the educational institutions to develop programs and delivery methods that best meet the needs of students and industry.”

He says the university has used the black swan event to demonstrate business and workplace unpredictability, and how professionals can plan ahead for them.

“The biggest change that the pandemic has allowed was being able to show students using something that personally impacted them, the value of risk planning and being resilient. These concepts have been built into all relevant courses in Curtin Dubai so that students understand how to prepare for the next unexpected event that the world will face,” Adkins says.

At the same time, the last couple of years have underscored the need for human interaction. A January study of 1,173 students at one university in the north of England found that more than 50 per cent experienced high levels of clinical anxiety and depression, with females scoring significantly higher than males. The survey also suggested relatively low levels of resilience which the researchers, from the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, attribute to restrictions, isolation and fewer opportunities to engage in helpful coping strategies and activities.

In-person pedagogy

The group events and extracurricular activities commonly associated with university life are therefore perhaps more essential than ever during a time of generalised social anxiety and in a world where digital solutions have become the default.

“Counter-intuitively, the pandemic has actually revealed the importance of face-to-face engagement in all spheres of human activity,” says Dr Srinivasan Madapusi, Director, BITS Pilani, Dubai Campus.

“While the online mode has enabled greater access to education and learning across the world, effective application of knowledge in the social contexts rely on traditional engagement modes,” he adds.

“The metaverse will be a great facilitator for improved communications and enhanced understanding, but will it replace our universe as we know it?”

He says BITS Pilani, Dubai transformed its classroom environment practically overnight to deliver courses virtually without reducing the number of classes at the onset of the pandemic. “We continue to progress in effective utilisation of the virtual space in conjunction with face-to-face learning in a smart classroom to provide an optimised hybrid environment for effective learning.”

He says the experience offers lessons for other aspects of the sector, including the need for lifelong learning given the relentless advance of constantly evolving new technologies. “We have effectively converted the challenges of the pandemic to opportunities to gear ourselves for the future of education that include remote learning, face-to-face interaction, and most importantly, learning outside the classroom environment.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been studying the impact of coronavirus-linked disruptions on university teaching and student learning, research, finances, and mobility in different regions. In a June report titled Resuming or Reforming, the body called for educational authorities to think about the impact of Covid-19 on the sector 20 years on the road, to create a more equitable post-pandemic education environment, enrich blended learning and access to technology and to mental health and build student-centric models.

“The massive disruption of the pandemic has forced key stakeholders to engage in the intense process of learning to cope and to reinvent themselves. As vaccination processes progress worldwide and restrictions become more flexible, questions about the long-lasting effects of the pandemic arise,” the report said. “Whether a real transformation of leadership, teaching and learning, research, and internationalisation is underway, or whether higher education institutions will slowly resume their traditional practices, remains to be seen.”