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AnthologyDelivering student engagement and success with online learning platforms

Delivering student engagement and success with online learning platforms

As universities move towards sustained digital transformation, there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of shifting teaching online in the midst of a global crisis

Universities the world over have been united in grappling with the same challenge: how to deliver quality degree courses in a remote learning environment.

For many Middle Eastern institutions, online learning was not commonplace, and so the sudden digital shift presented additional challenges.

At a virtual roundtable with Times Higher Education and Blackboard, education leaders from across the region met to discuss the challenges they face and share examples of how they have overcome them.

Hanny Alshazly, regional vice-president Middle East at Blackboard, kicked off the session saying that despite some initial teething problems, many institutions had been “pleasantly surprised at the level of engagement” from both staff and students using online platforms for teaching and learning over the past few months.

While universities were rightly priding themselves on adapting, Jihad Mohaidat, vice-president of education technologies at the Higher Colleges of Technology, warned that staff should not become complacent. “I expect the whole thing will change drastically – we are going to be seeing a huge shift from student-centric to demand-centric,” he said.

For the American University in the Emirates, the key to maintaining that engagement was delivering training sessions to bring staff up to speed with new technologies, said provost William Cornwell.

Students, too, benefitted from training sessions familiarising them with new digital platforms, which “help build an understanding of the culture for online learning, because it really is different…It’s important for students to understand that their participation is crucial in an online environment,” Cornwell added.

Surveys undertaken by the university showed that student satisfaction with online learning was noticeably higher in autumn 2020 than spring, suggesting that students were “adjusting to it” but also that staff had “learned lessons and become more effective” in their online teaching practices, explained Cornwell.

Several roundtable participants raised the point that some aspects of teaching cannot be replicated online. Ajman University, for example, has a high intake of dentistry students and so special measures had to be undertaken to accommodate the practical elements of these courses. “There was no way around it save for increasing health and safety precautions,” explained Khaled Assaleh, Ajman’s vice-chancellor for academic affairs.

Similarly, Umm Al Quwain University (UAQU) brought engineering and applied science courses forward to the summer so that students could complete practical modules during two-week intensive sessions on campus.

Others, including Muscat University, were able to secure virtual work placements for students who would normally be spending a year in industry. “For this, the main challenge was how to work with students on building their CVs [and] how to do interviews online,” said Chiraz Zizi, director of academic relations at the university. Muscat University had 67 student applications this year, all of whom were successfully placed across 18 businesses, she explained, “a major accomplishment during this period”.

For many, the digital transition provided new opportunities for cross-institution collaboration. “Working online, we can get experts from around the world to assist in classes,” said Cornwell. “We could have always done that, but it’s given us a push to do it at a much higher level.”

But, Cornwell countered, there will always be students who don’t like online learning – and he expected a full return to face-to-face teaching.

Hany Bakr, vice-chancellor for academic affairs at UAQU, said that while he agreed time on campus was important, face-to-face learning could also be “boring” and lack student interaction. By contrast, faculty members embracing online platforms were learning “how to engage the students, how to pose the right questions so that students can do the research on their own”.

Moving courses online also helped students become independent learners – an important skill to graduate with, Bakr added: “It is the best opportunity to demonstrate to the student that, as a professor, we are here to provide the material and assist [them] in the course – but it is [their] responsibility to learn.”

Fouad Chedid, vice-chancellor of A’Sharqiyah University, argued that students should always be central to decision making. However, he urged caution:  “Universities are under attack. It’s as if they have to explain [themselves]. There is so much pressure on them to serve society but as long as they do so, graduates are citizens too, not just employees…so I don’t totally agree with hiring graduates to demand.”

“Just as this is a new norm, I would expect there to be another, newer norm in another two years. Universities should be forward-looking, plan ahead and expect changes,” Mohaidat added.

The panel:

  • Hanny Alshazly, regional vice-president Middle East, Blackboard
  • Khaled Assaleh, vice-chancellor for academic affairs, Ajman University
  • Hany Bakr, vice-chancellor for academic affairs, Umm Al Quwain University
  • Fouad Chedid, vice-chancellor, A’Sharqiyah University
  • William Cornwell, provost, American University in the Emirates
  • Mona Ismail, college dean, Scientific College of Design
  • Shamim Miah, instructor and chairman of the e-learning committee, University of Buraimi
  • Dr Jihad Mohaidat, vice-president of education technologies, Higher Colleges of Technology
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Yasser Selim, assistant dean for academic affairs and research, Al Buraimi University College
  • Barry Winn, vice-chancellor, Sohar University
  • Chiraz Zidi, director of academic relations, Muscat University

Watch the roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Blackboard and higher education.

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