UAE must lead online learning in Middle East

This op-ed written by His Excellency Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Chairman of AGFE, was originally featured in Gulf News on March 31, 2020.

In an early attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, the UAE Ministry of Education closed schools, colleges and universities in early March.

When the decision was made, only 16 other global leaders made the decision to implement countrywide closures of schools and universities. That first week, UAE students were among about 400 million affected learners globally. Today, with over 150 countrywide closures, they are among over 1.4 billion learners affected globally.

The early decision to shut down campuses and move learning online during these unprecedented times of uncertainty was necessary to ensure that students’ learning was not disrupted as the country worked to contain COVID-19.

This placed a demand on UAE tertiary institutions that called for adaptability from the administration, professors and students. The universities that found the transition the least stressful were those with plans on the shelf for blended and fully online learning programs.

The reality is that in all the UAE universities, there are a group of professionals who have been pushing an agenda to move learning online for years. The apprehension in making this hope a reality for the benefit of the students and community, has been administrative and bureaucratic resistance.

The rapid response from universities and students in the UAE has a lot to do with the values that the UAE embodies. Values that were articulated in the steps His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai, laid out in the road map for the future success of the nation, under the directives of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Specifically, that the UAE society has a unique personality that perseveres in dealing with challenges, that the UAE relies on nurturing the brightest minds to generate innovative ideas, and that the UAE is focused on ensuring the prosperity of future generations.

The reality is that the universities in the UAE have the infrastructure, the knowledge, the talent, the technology, the network, and the necessary inventive drive to offer online programs and degrees. So why did it take a global pandemic to offer fully online university-level programs in the UAE?

Over the past four years, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education has been working to support and promote high-quality online programs in the UAE and across the Arab world. We have funded over 200 scholarships and helped regional universities improve their capacity to offer educational courses and programs online.

We have been working with multilateral agencies and government leaders to better understand why the Arab world is lagging in the provision of high-quality accredited online learning opportunities, and how we can better support a positive shift.

This is a concern because our research has shown that online learning evolved at a much faster pace than traditional learning. It offers personalised flexible education and training opportunities to growing numbers of youth and professionals in the region and globally.

Online learning is already part of the normal reality for many, not a mere stopgap. There are governments, universities and students around the world who already fully appreciate how online learning addresses the demands of tomorrow’s market and have embraced that challenge. The challenge of assuring the best combination of high-quality teaching, learning, assessment and technology to engage learners.

For example, today, a learner can earn a Master of Science Degree from the Stanford School of Engineering, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, or a Master of Leadership at University of Queensland’s Business School without ever stepping foot on campus.

Platforms that they use are similar and, in some cases, the same as the ones that we find at universities in the UAE. These online learning systems allow for the immediate feedback and support, the detection of cheating, the promotion of collaboration and the motivation of students.

We are now amid a global crisis. A crisis that has driven learners, parents, universities and governments to take on the challenges of online learning to embrace its potential. But we need more than reactive measures to break the misconceptions and lower the barriers around high-quality online learning in this country.

We need assurances of quality through investing in university capacity, accreditation and regulations.

The scepticism about high-quality online learning in the Arab world is dissolving during this crisis. But if we do not infuse the long-overdue government guidance and action that assure learners that the online learning degrees that they are now working towards are accredited to UAE standards of higher learning excellence, then we are doing them a disservice.

The policies, frameworks and expertise to accredit quality online learning and to support institutions embracing this model of learning exist in the UAE.

In parallel, universities should devise clear strategies, including preparing the infrastructure, training the faculty, creating and adapting courses and programs, and providing students with the support they need to succeed.

Education is the greatest responsibility that families and governments carry toward the younger generations. Technological advances, economic change and major disruptions such as the current pandemic demand sophisticated and courageous ideas.

Online learning is an evident response: The sooner we embrace it for long term gains in the education system, the more prepared our students will be to thrive and contribute to the development of the region.

Students in the UAE are fortunate that the government has offered them a way to continue their studies in difficult circumstances. The challenge now is to look beyond this crisis. The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education has been at the forefront of innovative thinking and programming promoting online learning in the UAE and in the region.

The fact is that this country did not need this level of crisis to embrace online learning because the UAE has been moving in this direction for years. It is now time that we move forward and create the mechanisms for quality and serve as an example for the rest of the region.


H.E. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Chairman, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education