There is this one statement that we have been hearing repeatedly since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out: “We can’t predict the future.”
We couldn’t have predicted that a pandemic would lead to a worldwide closure of schools this year. What we could have predicted, however, was that, eventually and inevitably, a new reality of education would come to pass, in which students learn remotely from home, or from just about anywhere.
The UAE has been moving forward aggressively to answer key questions around excellence in reshaping human society and the betterment of human life through education.
For instance, the country has been working on digitising education, building the infrastructure and resources to do so ever since the launch of the “Mohammed bin Rashid Smart Learning” programmeme in 2012.
The objectives behind these efforts have always been to create a unique learning experience for students, teachers and parents and to provide access to quality education.
We can confidently predict that the next step moving forward will be to provide a learning experience that is “inclusive”, preserves the uniqueness of each student while intensifying their sense of belonging and diminishing any inequalities created by status, gender, ethnicity or geographic location.
AI will be the core building block and the corner stone in creating an accessible, quality and inclusive learning experience.
“Artificial intelligence is an engine that holds immense powers in reshaping human society and human life.” These words from Chen Baosheng, China’s Minister of Education, are especially true in the context of AI’s undeniable influence in education systems, which have already witnessed its transformative power in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UAE has been leading in this direction by making bold transformations, including, for example, initiating a long-term plan to phase out printed textbooks. There is an even more aggressive plan in place to invest in a world-class Education Media Centre, which will create an abundance of high-quality digital content.
In addition, the personalisation of learning and introduction of accelerators to propel students with unique abilities through dual-credit programmes will bridge primary and secondary schools with institutions of higher education, both locally and internationally. But these accelerators can only work if learning is delivered adaptively.
That could involve the use of machine learning-enabled platforms, which could enhance students’ desire to learn through the personalisation of content and providing an abundance of learning resources. They could also increase efficiency and cut costs for education providers
With AI and machine learning capabilities, acceleration could also become the norm for each student, instead of a special programme for the outliers who find themselves on the tail of the bell curve.
Each student has gifts and talents that we need to discover proactively, and invest in adaptively.
The UAE has been moving tirelessly towards a knowledge-based economy. It has declared 2021 as a year in which to mobilise the entire nation to design a roadmap for the next 50 years that involves big ambitions and seemingly impossible goals, and education is the engine at the heart of this plan. We moved forward with these plans despite the unique circumstances imposed by Covid-19. As a matter of fact, Covid-19 only accelerated and intensified the charge.
Another significant leap we are making in AI-enabled education is the guarantee of seamless access to clean data. This is made possible by the establishment of an “education data centre”, which will act as a hub for safeguarding data relevant to education as well as a central brain for analysing it at different levels.
It will help the Ministry of Education, for example, in providing analysis and recommendations to decision-makers, and in designing policies based on concrete evidence. The analysis capabilities will also help schools develop more efficient and effective education management systems and optimise their productivity.
It has been critical to ensure that all stakeholders are part of these efforts to design the future of learning while guaranteeing transparency throughout the process, facilitating debates around the benefits of AI and the possible risks it might involve and how to overcome them.
It has also been important to make sure that teachers can cope with any changes quite rapidly. Hence, we have been keen on building up the capacity to re-skill teachers in anticipation of AI-enabled education by setting up a world-class facility to train them.
The pandemic offered an early test for our ability to equip teachers for a new education landscape. In the span of just weeks, we managed to train all teachers for the new reality of remote learning. The post-pandemic reality will involve hybrid learning, and we are ensuring teachers are prepared for that, too.
At the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye to the negative effects that digital transformation and AI may have on the well-being of the students, teachers and parents alike.
The UAE has launched an initiative that aims to build a smart security structures in schools, making it the first country in the world to realise the concept of an “e-safe school”, in accordance with the EU Standards for Safe Internet, across both public and private schools.
But perhaps the most fundamental question is what impact AI will have on skills.
AI is changing the quality and quantity of jobs available, and so the nature of demand for skills is drastically shifting. Bearing in mind that skills have to be in sync with both economic growth and individual well-being, it’s worth revisiting our initial narrative about AI “reshaping the future of human life”.
To thrive in a future knowledge society enabled by AI, three kinds of skills will be necessary: the skills to develop and manage AI, the skills to work with it and the skills to live with it.
The first, to develop and manage AI, will require a well-stocked pool of individuals with solid computer science backgrounds. The second, working with AI, requires people to be able to problem-solve, adapt, be creative and innovate. And the third, living with AI, will mean having a good sense of AI’s capabilities and limitations, even if you are not a good coder or have no computer science background.
Aligned with these core skills, we have introduced a framework integrating computer science, creative design and technology, incorporating soft skills and hard skills alike.
We have heavily invested in creating an extra-curricular activities framework that functions in parallel to regular schoolwork, with focus on creating, applying, transferring and using knowledge.
For instance, we have launched series of national competitions for AI and Robotics in line with the UAE Vision 2021 and the UAE strategy for Artificial Intelligence 2031, along with a National Science, Technology and Innovation Festival that focuses on building students’ research and Innovation skills.
Beyond K-12, UAE has established the Mohammed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence to support the advancement of scientific research, development, transfer and use of artificial intelligence through MSc and PhD programmes.
Altogether, we need to embrace the concept of lifelong learning, since the demand spectrum of skills will always be shifting, changing and evolving. I was privileged to recently accept the invitation of Mr Chen, the Education Minister in China, to attend the International Forum on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Education, which his country is co-organising with Unesco. There is a need for global dialogue and partnerships with ministers of education from all over the world, in which we can share our practices and initiatives with the world.
It’s crucial for us to bring the outcome of this dialogue to our community to inspire and shed some light on how education will evolve and ensure ethical, inclusive and equitable learning opportunities for all in the age of AI.
Hussain Alhammadi is the UAE Minister of Education