Fixation with in-class learning must go

Less than 3 per cent of overall education expenditure is spent on technology globally. That’s not nearly enough. The pandemic has made a coherent digital strategy – and backed by a team focused on its execution – more critical than ever.
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COVID-19 forced universities to rapidly shift online this past spring. While universities with digital capabilities were better equipped to make the transition, under-resourced institutions struggled to provide a high quality remote learning experience in such a tight timeframe.

Unfortunately, as the new academic year began, the virus was still spreading – and universities face an uncertain fall. While some institutions across the UAE partially re-opened with safety measures in place, the majority of students in the region must go at least partially remote.

With conditions changing so quickly, how can universities prepare? Practicality, flexibility, and compassion are key to successful outcomes. Here are five areas to focus on that encompass these principles:

Digital capacity, governance

Less than 3 per cent of overall education expenditure is spent on technology globally. That’s not nearly enough. The pandemic has made a coherent digital strategy – and backed by a team focused on its execution – more critical than ever.

In the UAE, Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University is the only institution accredited by the Ministry of Education to offer a distant learning experience that supports digital education and flexible learning experiences. Students have to attend either live online classes, referred to as “virtual synchronous sessions”, or have the option of “asynchronous sessions”, where they are provided with a range of self-paced educational materials.

Universities without any existing digital capabilities can take the first step by forming a small committee whose primary responsibility is to build a digital roadmap and execute on it. Once you have agreed on your strategy, set strong governance in place. Create a set of digital readiness criteria that you regularly measure each department against to evaluate your university’s overall progress.

Curriculum readiness

This crisis is also an opportunity to reinvent structure content and prepare students for the workforce. With more students planning gap years or taking academic breaks due to family or health obligations, it’s crucial to embrace flexibility. Consider more modular, stackable courseware into your curriculum.


Students will need and demand frequent communications about reopening strategies, safety protocols, remote learning options, and more. Ensure you have a self-serve communications infrastructure that regularly updates students — relying solely on email bulletins will not be as effective.

Students need an interactive intranet resource they can turn to for the latest information. Lead with empathy in all communications, taking into account that, like you, students are also feeling uncertain in nearly all facets of their lives.


When campuses are fully or partially shut down, students can feel isolated in their learning experience. Building a virtual community is another way to embody compassion and help students collaborate with course material. Professors of the University of Illinois iMBA programme use Zoom to host live sessions to discuss course material and solve problems in a hands-on manner. They engage with students personally, encourage participation, and read facial cues to understand how students react to the discussion. Faculty can foster knowledge sharing among the students themselves via Slack groups or similar communication tools.

Build on trust

The notion of trust in our context involves all three guiding principles of flexibility, practicality, and compassion. Many faculty and administrators believe that a face-to-face environment is necessary for students to pay attention… and truly learn. After all, that’s the way they learned.

Successfully teaching online requires a shift in fundamental thinking. Trust that the learning is happening, even if you’re not there to see it. If you haven’t already, it’s time to flip your classrooms.

Assign asynchronous learning opportunities — these can be high-quality online courses from other institutions if you don’t have an extensive digital catalog — and use live class time for virtual discussion.

This school year will be challenging for university administrators, faculty, and students as they navigate this dynamic situation. However, the world is already proving that remote learning can be successful with the right tools.

No matter where you are in your digital journey, leading with practicality, flexibility, and compassion will help you support your staff and students through this challenging time.

– Betty Vandenbosch is Chief Content Officer, Coursera.