Dubai: Distance learning, where the student and teacher are not physically present in the traditional classroom environment, has become the norm in most parts of the world that have been in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020.
Information is conveyed through discussion boards, video conferences, and online assessments. Educational activities have taken a variety of forms and methods, most of which use computer technology via the Internet.
Now, with worrying new variants such as the Omicron strain emerging, and infections again on the rise in many parts of the world, it increasingly looks as though distance learning, rather than being temporary, is here to stay.
The pandemic has disrupted the school year for more than 1.7 billion students worldwide, accelerating the current trend toward digitization, changing the way people study, work and interact.
What started as a temporary solution to allow schools and universities to complete the school year while adhering to strict social distancing regulations has become a staple of the education system.
Online education is now tightly woven into school education models, overturning the previous reliance on traditional classroom teaching. As a result, a new hybrid model of education has emerged that combines online teaching and in-person education.
Many educators in the Gulf Cooperation Council states that combination is a more “practical” and “economic” approach to learning in the twenty-first century. Jeffrey Smith, director of school partnerships at iCademy Middle East, believes blended learning, or hybrid learning, is the way forward.
“Students and families today are demanding more flexibility than a traditional education model can support,” Smith told Arab News, citing the evolving demands of the modern workplace as one of the key factors driving this change.
“They need fast and affordable access to information and classrooms to acquire skills.”
Developments in the education technology sector, known as EdTech, also reflect the new trend. The demand for online learning solutions has skyrocketed during the pandemic period. The education technology sector, which was worth $227 billion in 2020, is expected to grow to $404 billion by 2025.
The demand for online and hybrid courses at universities in the GCC was already growing before the pandemic. “Online learning results in better retention rates, which means higher graduation rates and higher revenue for universities,” Smith said.
In Saudi Arabia, the largest education market in the Gulf Cooperation Council, about 77 percent of teaching was conducted remotely during the pandemic, according to a June study by cloud computing company Citrix Systems.
The study, which included a sample of C-level executives, IT managers, teachers and administrators in Saudi universities, showed that the majority (81 percent) believe that the blended learning model will improve the learning experience during the next academic year, with half agreeing. The new method will greatly improve learning.
Leading academic institutions in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait have also committed to digitizing their education sectors.
Unsurprisingly, the Middle East and Africa educational technology market and smart classrooms is expected to rise to $7.1 billion by 2027, according to a study by The Insight Partners.
Europe currently has the largest edtech community, with more than half of the continent’s top 20 edtech companies based in the UK – one of the largest suppliers of smart learning solutions in the Gulf region.
One example is Firefly, a portal used by over a million students, teachers and parents, and available in more than 600 schools in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
The growing popularity of online learning is evident at Bahrain’s Applied University of Science, where students have been given the option to either return to campus after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted or continue their studies remotely for the 2021 academic year.
“We had 25 percent of our students who decided to study on campus and 75 percent who decided to study from home,” Ghassan Awad, president of Arizona State University, told Arab News.
While the negative “psychological” impact of the pandemic on students is a major concern, Awwad says, online learning has major advantages.
“We provided the learning outcomes to our students of the highest quality, and in fact, it might have been helpful by recording all the lectures for them,” he said.
He said the online shift also enhanced IT skills, improved time management and increased independent learning among students.
The hybrid model is certainly not without its drawbacks, considering that nearly half of the world’s population does not have easy access to the Internet. For organizations that lack proper online infrastructure, issues with technology, accessibility, and communication between teachers, students, and parents are fairly common.
Not many schools and universities were ready to relocate when the pandemic hit, but they had to adopt the distance learning model as a way to stay afloat.
In fact, according to a recent UNICEF report, at least 460 million students worldwide cannot access distance learning programs because they lack the necessary hardware or infrastructure.
For inclusivity, schools and universities are working hard to get students back into classroom learning. In the UAE, recently announced safety protocols are designed to facilitate a return to 100% personalized learning from January 2022.
Similarly, the Saudi government has spent more than one billion Saudi riyals modernizing facilities in accordance with safety protocols to ensure the smooth return of students and staff to schools and universities.
The Food and Drug Authority has also approved the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 years, which will allow pupils in that age group to return to the classroom.
Although online learning models have provided a practical solution to meet the needs of the pandemic, few believe that traditional classroom learning is over.
“I can’t imagine a 50-50 hybrid,” Awad said. “On campus, traditional learning will be dominant with the online learning component. This will become the norm, especially for general course types. However, for practical courses, students have to be on campus.”
Moreover, according to him, the personal, analytical, and critical thinking skills that students need to succeed in many professions cannot be taught via webcam.
Parents are naturally divided about the benefits of in-person and distance learning. A recent survey conducted by the UAE government, which included 28,171 participants, showed that 59 percent of parents prefer that their children learn remotely, compared to 41 percent who prefer in-person lessons.
George Tharakan, who attends his 10-year-old at Apple International Community School in Dubai, believes that learning from home has improved family interaction, eliminated bullying at school, and allowed parents to help with tasks and activities.
On the other hand, he admits that his child may lose formative interactions with other students, disregard his writing skills in favor of writing and verbal communication, and suffer from disruptions caused by technical problems.
Alia Khan, a mother of two, has been affected by the quick and seamless transition to online learning during the pandemic, but remains supportive of traditional classroom learning.
“Online learning should be out of necessity only and not out of choice. I am not a big fan of the hybrid model either, as it involves exposure to screen time, which I do not support,” Khan told Arab News.
“By learning face-to-face, students socialize and build healthy bonds. This is why humans are called social animals. Apart from social skills, children can focus better and participate more actively in classroom learning.”