‘Online learning models are more flexible & scalable,’ says Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar

The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education and Ministry of Education recently launched a new program that aims to support universities in the UAE in strengthening online programs and making them accessible to more students in the country. In our exclusive interview with Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer of AGFE, we look at distance learning efforts in the UAE, as well as key features of the UCQOL.


What key features of online learning is the UCQOL looking to strengthen?

The University Consortium for Quality Online Learning (UCQOL) reflects the Abdalla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education’s (AGFE) commitment to providing inclusive, innovative, and wide-reaching education opportunities for Emirati and Arab students.

Through strategic partnerships, the UCQOL in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Education, will make online learning programs available to a larger pool of underserved students from the UAE and beyond. The Consortium, which is expected to scale up with more partner universities in the future, is already collaborating with the country’s top universities: the American University of DubaiAmerican University of SharjahBritish University of DubaiKhalifa UniversityNew York University Abu DhabiUAE UniversityUniversity of DubaiUniversity of Sharjah and Zayed University.

As part of this initiative, the Foundation leverages knowledge and builds on authentic partnerships with the private sector, civil society and government entities with the aim of strengthening the capacities of universities to roll out accredited online programs. By bringing about institutional change at the university level through the UCQOL, key stakeholders in the online education realm, such as university administrators, faculty and curriculum designers will be equipped with the technological expertise to design, develop and deliver high-quality online programs.

On the back of these collaborations comes the development of a tech-savvy, online professional learning community at leading universities in the UAE with a platform to network, exchange information, collaborate and jointly advocate for better online learning. Online learning partners are aware that the transition to online teaching and learning will take time. It requires strong instructional design skills and technological readiness, which was difficult to find in the region prior to COVID-19 came along and hastened progress towards the online learning approach.

No doubt, the UCQOL will play a pivotal role to shape a best practice model that the UAE and Arab institutions are migrating towards whereby online learning programs are becoming more mainstream. A model with the UAE context viewed from a regional lens from the inception of the initiative.

How can universities better support students during these difficult times?

Repercussions of the pandemic in the education sector have been challenging, particularly with the need for a sudden shift from traditional to online learning solutions. The situation continues to evolve, as universities around the world seek alternative pathways to provide access to higher education qualifications during this time of uncertainty.

An online learning model at the tertiary level could not have come at a more appropriate period, particularly for vulnerable youth in the region. It is more flexible, scalable, and potentially more affordable than face-to-face learning. More importantly, online learning provides a viable alternative for students trying to juggle family, work and academic commitments.

Challenges such as inequitable access to internet connectivity, lack of technological readiness, and the negative impact of limited student interaction need to be addressed by educators and students alike. Universities should collaborate with private and public sector entities to provide the access and technical tools needed to reduce the digital divide, provide better technical support to all students, make course content available offline and identify low-tech tools to ensure more widespread student engagement.

There is also a need for career counsellors at universities to better guide students to pursue labor-market-driven specializations that will also sharpen their analytical and advanced digital literacy skills. Integrating mentorship and internship elements into degree programs in collaboration with the private sector, corporate and government entities will also empower graduates to be more career-ready.

University administrators need to also realize that their support must be comprehensive: encompassing the academic, technical, personal, and mental health aspects of making online learning a success. As part of their efforts, universities need to identify and work with vulnerable students who are already facing financial and emotional distress, promote social connectedness and support the development of life skills through more experiential learning programs.

How does the UAE’s distance learning program compare with other countries?

While tertiary institutions have been venturing into online education for some time, Arab countries have had a historically conservative attitude towards transforming their education systems. COVID-19 rapidly uncovered the digital divide in Arab countries, exposing financial disparities and the nature of public sector commitment to online learning.

In the UAE, even though the current model of emergency remote teaching (ERT), a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode in crisis situations, is a make-shift solution, universities responded to the crisis caused by the pandemic in a positive manner. Counterparts in the UAE education sector quickly stepped up to help each other and coordinate efforts within and between educational institutions. The sudden transition to online learning revealed that students are more technologically ready for this transition than their faculty. This chartered the course for local initiatives such as the UCQOL to strengthen the skills of faculty and institutions so that they can pursue online learning projects more successfully.

When looking back at the evolution of online teaching and learning in the UAE, we note that even before the pandemic, many Arab universities and government counterparts were reluctant to invest in online learning approaches. However, there are UAE-based actors in the education sector, government, and private sector (including the AGFE) who were already exploring online modalities of education at the local and regional levels.

Since 2012, regional upskilling platforms such as Edraak & Rwaq have attracted some 2 million users regionwide to participate in short training and soft skills courses. In recent years, regional government sector entities such as Abu Dhabi School of Government, Dubai Future Foundation and Saudi Arabia’s MiSk Foundation have been collaborating with global online learning partners such as Coursera, Udacity and Microsoft to provide upskilling opportunities to their employees and citizens.  Strategic and valuable private sector partnerships were also nurtured with online learning giants like Coursera for Business, providing employees of DEWA, Etihad Airways, TECOM Group and Dubai Asset Management with online training rather than traditional, more costly face-to-face programs.

Educators, students, employers, and employees had already been exposed to digital platforms in one form or another prior to COVID-19 and were more ready to embrace online and blended learning models when the pandemic started. Universities in the UAE quickly realized that there was a need to invest in technology and innovation, while students could benefit from a more flexible, scalable, and potentially more affordable model than face-to-face learning. With regard to youth, particularly those from underserved communities, trying to juggle family, work and studies, getting their buy in to apply to online programs has not been difficult.

What advantage do UAE universities have over other countries in the region regarding the provision of high-quality online learning? Internet connectivity and technological readiness are certainly important. But it is the commitment of the public sector to support the roll-out of accredited degree programs that is of paramount importance.

Can you tell us more about the Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program?

The Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program (OLSP) brings the best of online learning to underserved Arab youth who demonstrate academic and leadership merit but do not have the financial means to pursue a quality education.

Since it was launched in 2016, the OLSP has provided a select group of accomplished Arab youth with 370 full online scholarships to pursue online master’s degrees at two of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Arizona State University (ASU) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology online (MITx).

At ASU, some 300 scholars are pursuing more than 30 sought-after degrees that are not readily available in the Arab region. This includes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and other labor market-driven specializations such as Health Informatics, Sustainability Leadership as well as Global Technology and Development that are in high demand. Over 60 students have also completed a Supply Chain Management Micromasters at MITx, a professional certificate equivalent to one semester of coursework at MIT.

At the Foundation, we go beyond covering tuition fees. OLSP offers scholars self-improvement and career-readiness opportunities such as academic advising, career counseling, mentorship opportunities and internship support. With this support, disadvantaged Arab youth can enter the workforce feeling more financially empowered to support themselves and contribute positively within their communities.

Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education