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Education in the UAE: Then, now and tomorrow

From rustic schools with a minimum infrastructure to technologically-advanced classrooms fitted with smart boards, the education landscape in the UAE has come a long way

More often than once, you have heard a grandfather trying to convince his grandchildren how easy school is for them.

"You take an air-conditioned bus to school? When I was your age, I walked 10 kilometres, braved a desert sandstorm and walked uphill to get to my school!"

Educational institutions in the UAE are not at all like how grandpa describes it. Since the '90s, educational institutions in the country have evolved to suit the needs of a highly-competitive job market. From the late '70s to the late '80s, students who attended single-storey schools at Al Fahidi area in Dubai, for example, had nothing but books and the inspiration from their teachers.

With sprawling school and university campuses, new courses and regulations, an increased focus on technology, and a greater focus on student well-being, growth in the education sector has matched the rapid pace of the UAE's development. Despite rapid events, there also continue to be several challenges in the industry, including high costs, and the actual task of 'instilling the joy of learning in children'.

Khaleej Times takes a closer look at the opportunities and challenges faced by stakeholders in the education sector, including teachers, students, school owners and the government.

Education for Gen 2020

Over the years, the government has continued to launch initiatives benefitting students. When His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched a free educational platform for 50 million students around the Arab world at the World Government Summit in 2017, he said: "Priority is education, second priority is education, and third priority is education." He added: "Providing high-quality education in science and math to all Arab students is integral to rebooting our civilisational development; E-learning is the fastest way to bridge the educational gap in the Arab world."

The UAE's Ministry of Education (MoE) has developed an Education 2020 strategy, which is a series of ambitious five-year plans designed to bring significant qualitative improvement in the education system, especially in the way teachers teach and students learn. Smart learning programmes, new teachers' codes, licensing and evaluations methods, as well as curriculum revision, including teaching math and science through English, are all part of the strategy.

Tracy Moxley, head of Global Citizens Connections GEMS Education, said: "We are lucky to have many varied tools to support learning as part of the technological advancement and this can offer a whole range of possibilities for educators, such as flipped and blended learning, for example."

She added: "It is clear that there has been a welcome move away from teaching pure content and the teacher as the focal point, to the learning process, the learner and a focus on skills and competencies." Moxley explained the move away from the industrial model of education, and a 'one size fits all' approach to personalisation of learning is what meets the needs of a knowledge society.

More importantly, there has also been a substantial move away from factual recall and memorisation to development of higher order thinking skills and nurturing students for creativity and critical thinking. "Certainly, resilience, adaptability, interpersonal skills, a high level of communication and the ability to problem solve are now described as the basics of numeracy, literacy and IT," added Moxley.

Growth in the private sector

The private school sector in the UAE is expected to continue to drive UAE's education market to 2020. Over 175,000 additional seats will be required in the K-12 segment in the next three years, and 90 percent of this will come from private school enrols. The data was released through a study published by PwC Middle East, Understanding the GCC Education Sector, Country Profile: UAE in 2017.

Other findings of the report show that based on historical demographic trends, Dubai is forecast to require 74,500 additional seats in 50 new private schools by 2020, while 62,000 other places in 52 new private schools in the same period would be needed in Abu Dhabi.

Sally Jeffery, PwC Middle East Education and Skills Partner and PwC Global Education Sector Leader said, "In the private sector, there are a couple of areas that are underserved. Pre-school is growing at twice the rate of K-12, and smaller sized facilities can meet that demand, and regulation - particularly pricing - is less controlled than in K-12, although this may be changing as the government focuses more on early learning."

Challenges in education

By 2020, enrolment increases and continuous quality improvement is expected in the K-12 level, although UAE is still behind Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages and its own National Agenda Target in international assessment results.

Despite the far-sighted approach to education, schools, students and parents also continue to face several challenges in the UAE. Dr Ashok Kumar, the CEO of Indian High School, said: "The biggest challenge is creating emotional skills and connectivity with the students. EQ skills need to be developed and worked upon constantly."

On this subject, Moxley said: "Key challenges for educators will continue to be to help children find their passion and instil a joy of learning for its own sake." She added, "Providing learning opportunities that engage and inspire; dealing with the diverse nature of the classroom and ensuring that every child is included and has a voice, as well as integrating the richness they bring to the classroom is challenging and complex."

High costs of education, both at the school and higher education level also continues to remain a challenge for students and parents.

Ranjitha Nair, a parent of two girl children in Dubai, said: "Quality education comes at a cost. Even if the school fees are affordable, hidden costs such as school books, transportation, uniforms and school trips add a financial burden on parents."

Meanwhile, students are worried if the skills they've learnt in schools and universities can better prepare them for the workplace. Students also stated that education is becoming increasingly expensive. Eshani Shekhar, a Dubai-based music artist, for example, completed her college and high school education in the UAE. She said, "Though I studied in the UAE and it has provided me with several opportunities, the costs of studying the UAE remains extremely high. Parents with several children are struggling to pay school fees."

'All future students will speak Arabic'

Another significant challenge faced in education here continues to remain Arabic education in private schools. Expatriate students graduate from schools without fluency in the language, even though Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world.

Deema Al Alami, vice-president of Arabic and Islamic studies at GEMS Education, said: "Despite the inherent challenges of language learning, and the limited availability of high-quality Arabic resources, the past few years, have seen a significant increase in the prevalence and quality of Arabic resources."

She added: "Young, enthusiastic and proud Arab youth are at the forefront of developing innovative platforms, programs such as apps and multimedia tools that make the Arabic language ever more accessible.

"The opportunity for learning Arabic, is being able to have a more meaningful understating of the Arab culture through literature, arts, music and more. At GEMS Education, we view our non-native Arab students as ambassadors for the Arabic language. Therefore, we try to make the language more accessible to them and ensure they are exposed to it beyond the parameters of a classroom."

The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) regularly organises 'Living Arabic', a platform where educators come together to share and develop innovative solutions for language teaching and learning. The initiative pushes towards one common goal of providing a first-rate education for all UAE students, as outlined in the UAE National Agenda's Vision 2021.

Fatma Al Marri, CEO of KHDA said: "Education continues to be a top priority for us, and our teachers are a cornerstone of this journey to progress. Through our commitment to support every Arabic language teacher in Dubai, we are creating new opportunities in the classroom that shape the future skills expected of our students."

Students then; students now

Providing his insight on how students have evolved over the years, Dr Kumar said: "The UAE's vision has always had education as its prime focus. The traditional classrooms have evolved tremendously in the UAE. The new education system focuses on innovation and creativity over theory-based learning. The teachers and students in the UAE are equipped with the most creative tools that can be custom designed/tailored as per a student's needs."

He added: "The exposure students have today is unmatched to the students then. Thus, their knowledge, skills, adaptability and sensitivity are way nimbler. Students nowadays are cognisant of their aptitude, proclivity and likewise the prospects."

Is curriculum going to be defunct?

The most significant impact technology has had on teaching and learning is how teachers and students access, analyse, present and transmit information. According to experts, this has led to a democratisation of the access to knowledge and information, but allowed teachers to differentiate instructions and cater to the individual needs of their students.

"Most important of all, it allows for lessons to be made fun, interactive, and intellectually stimulating," said Krishnan Gopi, the Chief Disruption Officer at GEMS Education.

However, easier access to information and the lack of unified testing has raised the question: 'Will curriculum become defunct in the years to come?' Dr. Kumar said, "No, I do not believe the curriculum is ever going to become defunct. Building basic skills in students is essential for their development and growth. Though I completely believe that the face of the curriculum will keep evolving as we grow and move ahead towards a digital world."

Chipping into the conversation, Moxley also agreed that curriculum is still required to develop skills that students need now and in the future, such as critical thinking and creativity. "Learning objectives will still feature in holistic education and include curricula for the development of moral and ethical dispositions for an inclusive and equitable society that we all desire," she said.

STEAM education

Speaking about the installation of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (Steam) in UAE classrooms, Gopi added: "Design studios, maker spaces, and Steam labs are available in most schools. Teachers have access to professional development in Steam and students have opportunities to showcase their Steam knowledge through Maker Fairs, Science Festivals, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship conferences and competitions."

But for Indian curriculum schools such as the Indian High School, technology at the Indian High School is used as a support tool and is not a dominating factor. Dr Kumar said: "The values of traditional classroom teaching are very much existent in our classrooms, but we have evolved regarding learning tools and delivery methods."

He added: "A future classroom will be an amalgam of both traditional teaching ethics and values with modern technology learning tools and delivery methods."

Making the future employable

Schools have a part to play in making a student employable. "Every teacher has aspirations for every child. Each person brings something valuable and unique. Of course, every child has a contribution to make to their communities and their society," said Moxley.

She added: "From a school perspective, it's our job to help every one of our students find their passion and their strengths and nurture those."

How important is the role robotics is going to play in the future classrooms?

Robotics education will prove to be essential in promoting innovation.

Robotics, coupled with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will play an ever-increasing role in all industries, particularly education, medicine, warfare, and space exploration.

Robotics is connected with critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving - crucial 21st-century skills that will apply to all industries.

What is a future classroom going to look like?

  • Distributed learning spaces
  • Personalised learning pathways
  • Access to mentors and real-world learning
  • Greater emphasis on Project-based learning
  • Less focus on content and more focus on Future Fluencies and 21st-century schools
  • Greater opportunities to solve problems in the real world.
  • Teachers as mentors and facilitators
  • Incorporation of Virtual and Augmented Reality
  • Pedagogy informed by Neuroscience and Mind-Brain Education
  • Emphasis on cross-curricular learning
  • Greater use of online tutoring apps and online educational platforms

(Source: GEMS Education)


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