The UAE has an opportunity to make distance learning a success

Schools have at least until the end of term to refine a digital teaching model that could prove useful in the future

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Last month, teachers and pupils of the 1,262 schools and universities in the UAE, like elsewhere in the world, were tasked with an unprecedented challenge. To contain the spread of coronavirus, the decision was made to close educational institutions for a month, from March 8 to April 5. On March 22, distance learning began in all emirates and last week, we learned of the decision to keep schools and universities closed and continue distance learning until the end of the academic year.

As far as precautions go, this is crucial. The nearly 1.1 million pupils in the country's schools – and their parents – understand that safety comes first.

On March 22, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai attended the first tele-school day in the state’s schools.

He wrote on Twitter, "Schools stopped and universities were closed but education will not stop. Education, like health, will not stop under any circumstance". Sheikh Mohammed added, "We have invested in smart learning during the past ten years a lot, today we reap the fruit."

Especially at a time like this, the quality of attention bestowed upon students is fundamental

Distance learning does, however, come with teething problems for everyone involved – teachers, parents and students, the latter having to deal also with spending their days without friends. Teachers have had to transition almost overnight from addressing packed classrooms to explaining theorems and concepts to students on a screen.

"No child in the world is in any way at fault here," said the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, who launched last week the Global Partnership for Education, which provides $250 million (Dh918 million) for 67 countries to fund schemes to address the crisis in learning. She told The National, "No child in the world, whether it is in Australia or the UAE, should in any way be deprived of education as a result of the measures needed to fight coronavirus".

In line with that principle, last month more than 42,000 teachers and academic staff used a free e-training course to equip themselves with skills needed to instil virtually in their students a whole day's worth of lessons.

Noura Al Kaabi welcomes students to distance learning

Noura Al Kaabi welcomes students to distance learning

This has helped to give distance learning in the UAE a good head-start.

Especially at a time like this, the quality of attention bestowed upon students is fundamental. We must bear in mind that not every student learns and adapts to virtual teaching in the same way. Some are more vulnerable than others. Educators must ensure that, despite the constraints of this phase, children with special needs and those requiring extra attention are given it.

While there are limitations to distance learning, it may well emerge as a legacy of these times.

On the bright side, the method gives rise to the possibility of expanding high-quality education to countries where it is not the norm or otherwise inaccessible because the infrastructure for physical schools is absent.

If distance-learning is refined to a high standard in the UAE, the country may even prove to become a regional or global hub from which students in less privileged parts of the world can learn remotely.
In the present situation, it is only wise that lessons continue to be taught virtually until the end of the academic year.

The UAE extends distance learning to end of term

The UAE extends distance learning to end of term

And while it will test further those directly involved, one takeaway is that, in some form or another, the method is here to stay. In the long run and steered correctly, it could lift up a generation of disadvantaged pupils, with no access to physical classrooms, and become a key component of future education models.