Dr. Fehmida Hussain (DPhil, SFHEA, MBCS CITP), the Head of Computer Engineering and Informatics, Associate Professor – School of Science and Technology, Head and Founder of Center for Innovation in Human Experience (CIHx) and Chair of the Student Research Committee, at Middlesex University Dubai, speaks about the challenges faced by the education sector during the pandemic and the ways to overcome those challenges
How has the pandemic affected the education sector in the region?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented challenges to the education sector globally and this region has been no exception. In response to contain the spread of the virus and implement sanitization drives, education institutions had to shut down in-person teaching from March 2020 for a considerable period. School, colleges, and universities moved to online learning, and depending on the availability of the resources and training of staff, both synchronous and asynchronous modes of learning were adopted. In addition to moving teaching to 100% online, the assessments had to be adopted in various forms.
For example, a few schools had to cancel certain board exams and assess students based on internal assessments; universities replaced in-person unseen exams with other ways of assessing student’s progress. Educational institutions invested more in online learning platforms and trained their staff and students to embrace the ‘new normal.’ Though moving to online learning and adapting to the changing needs was challenging, this accelerated adoption of technology resulted in providing continuity of learning, and student progression was ensured. Furthermore, due to the provision of online learning continuing into the new academic year, institutions reached out to a wider audience and students could enroll from any part of the world.
Is there a digital disconnect despite tech tools being available for distance education?
However, this global digital shift, to a certain extent, wrongly assumed that all students have access to the internet and a laptop or desktop computer to participate in online classes. This was a major challenge for many and we noticed the digital divide was exacerbated creating digital haves and digital have-nots. To bridge this gap, institutions, in their capacity loaned devices to students and provided socially distanced study areas on campus.
Poor internet connectivity was a serious issue that would restrict the student from attending live sessions and submit assignments on time. To address this, teachers provided recorded lectures and assessment submissions in a longer time frame.
STEM has risen as the go to stream of education during the pandemic. What importance does STEM have in developing the skillsets of a student?
There is no doubt that technology adoption was fast-forwarded in the effort to provide online learning to students, which has expedited the need for more skilled technology professionals who can join the workforce in developing and deploying solutions for problems caused by the pandemic. This is not limited to online learning tools only. For example a simple sensor-based sanitizer dispenser or a complex delivery robot, after all, necessity is the mother of many inventions.
Where STEM skilled professionals will be more in demand, teaching STEM subjects fully online is not so simple. Some topics require students to practice in a physical lab. This was partially overcome by installing virtual environments and simulation software, and allowing students to borrow equipment from the lab and use it at home. It is a fact that the experience cannot be fully compared with an in-person lab but in times of need, ensures continuity of learning.
What about the security aspects of online learning? How can that be addressed?
In addition to the digital divide, another issue that has become more pronounced due to the shift to digital platforms is the privacy and security aspects of data. Institutions first need to acknowledge this and then invest in security solutions to ensure confidentially integrity, and availability of data and systems. Finally, training staff and educating students about the importance of ethical and legal use of technology is crucial.