Thu 07-05-2020 10:18 AM
By Binsal Abdulkader
ABU DHABI, 7th May 2020 (WAM) -- Tech-savviness and an understanding of current work-from-home trends have helped young Emirati students at a government-owned educational institution to smoothly transition to distance learning.
"Our students are young and technologically savvy, reflecting the best of Emirati youth, and they were very aware of the need to impose distance learning to assist reduce the spread of COVID-19, yet they absolutely want to progress their studies to graduate and take their place in the UAE workplace," says James Morse, President of Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi.
"It is worth adding that many of the students understand that distance learning and working will undoubtedly be an important aspect of their training and business lives in the future, so this period will be transformational in many aspects," he tells the Emirates News Agency, WAM.
The Academy is offering academic programmes and short courses for organisations and individuals in the safety, security, defence, emergency preparedness and crisis management sectors, which are extremely relevant in the current circumstances.
Established under Law No. 07 of 2013, issued by President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in his capacity as Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Rabdan Academy offers learning in a dual approach, combining academic and vocational education in one place.
Contributions during the pandemic
The Academy already has more than 260 graduates working in the UAE Government entities who take with them the skills and education that they learnt from this world-class institution.
"In addition, over the past few years we have delivered numerous courses in Business Continuity to a wide range of entities. So these are very direct contributions to the nation’s effective response to this or future crises," the president explains.
Now, a cooperation is underway with Abu Dhabi School of Government to conduct a series of online forums, under the title of ‘Strategic Business Continuity and Crisis Management Leadership,’ with the presence of more than 100 high-level representatives of local government departments, director generals and executives.
"These forums come within Rabdan’s strategy to enhance the expertise in the fields of business continuity and crisis management during disasters," Morse says.
The Academy’s current academic programmes, such as Business Continuity Management, BCM, and Integrated Emergency Management, IEM, cover many aspects of the current crisis and the necessary responses to any such disruptions and emergencies, including pandemics.
"Of course, we will be further reviewing the content in light of COVID-19 lessons identified to continuously seek to improve the programmes and cover any emerging subjects," reveals Morse.
He joined the Academy in 2016, after a successful and rewarding 34-year long career in the British Royal Navy, which culminated in the role of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Capability), Controller of the Navy and Chief of Staff of Navy Headquarters.
Since the Academy was launched in 2013, the number of students has grown every year and currently there are more than 600 men and women studying academic programmes, from diploma to masters’ level.
In 2019, the Academy delivered 682 courses to 13,960 attendees and in January 2020 - before stopping regular classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic – it gave 23 short courses to 499 trainees, with a high rate of satisfaction among the students.
Beginning of e-learning
The Academy followed the Ministry of Education’s direction and commenced distance learning from 22nd March 2020.The transition to online teaching went smoothly, based on extensive testing and training conducted in the weeks beforehand.
The students and faculty were provided with instructional videos to train them on the system, hence they were ready from day one, with a telephone support line to assist with accessing material and any IT issues.
"The students have engaged enthusiastically with distance learning, embracing the technology with the natural talent expected from young people today," Morse says.
The Academy has chosen some of the best international solutions available for distance learning, based on ‘Moodle’ as the learning management system, and ‘Screencast-O-Matic’ to prepare and record lectures, ‘WebEx’ for synchronised/asynchronous lectures, and ‘Respondus,’ which uses Artificial Intelligence, to assist with proctoring online assessments.
Given the commitment of students towards a larger cause of crisis management, Morse found that they needed "a little encouragement" to join the online platform. Some of them have found the flexibility of the system suit their individual learning style.
"Of course, they keep in close contact with their faculty and fellow students through a variety of communications channels, and this partially makes up for the informal learning that takes place at the Academy when the students discuss the subjects over a coffee or meal," the president says.
Challenges of e-learning
There are challenges in utilising distance learning, particularly for those who have not experienced it previously.
"These relate to getting the most from the systems that are available and ensuring that the educational experience is robust, meeting the requirements for world-class higher education," Morse points out.
There are also challenges that relate to online assessment, to ensure that academic integrity is maintained whilst allowing the students to perform to the best of their ability in circumstances with which they are not familiar, he explains.
"One of the biggest challenges is to attempt to replicate the personal relationships between fellow students and their faculty, as the university learning experience is one of sharing ideas and concepts, of reflection and contemplation, as well as the more formal education delivered in classes," the president reveals.
So the faculty have been conducting webinars and encouraging students to work together remotely in teams on projects that build those relationships that are at the core of the Academy’s mission to build cross-entity capacity and capability, Morse explains.
About the possible distractions during the distance learning, the president says, "Distractions do exist whether at home or in the workplace, so learning to deal with this issue is an important life skill for the students.
"They are encouraged to be disciplined in their approach to their studies, particularly as many of them are sponsored by entities in the safety, security and defence fields who expect discipline from their staff once they have graduated."
Although technical issues are also a challenge, Morse explains, "We should also acknowledge that technical issues can arise and that support is critical to ensure that such disruptions do not impact on the student’s experience and commitment.
"Modern systems do allow extensive remote monitoring and are much more robust today than they were a few years ago, so in reality there are few situations that cannot be resolved quickly and our expectations of our students therefore remains high."
Conducting team activities through online tools is another challenge. The current situation is not ideal for such activities, although modern technology can assist with group working, which suits the requirements of Rabdan Academy programmes, the president says.
However, the Academy believes that working in groups during normal times or remotely as today will develop leadership and team skills that will serve the graduates well in their careers.
"These projects have continued despite the restrictions. Faculty are available for online consultation as normal and the final presentations are given by students online, rather than in the lecture theatre; but the learning experience is still entirely valid," Morse concludes.