Ilya Bystrov has PhD in economics and management, is an author of 24 publications. His research interests range from sustainability and economic development to expatriate adjustment. His working experience includes leadership positions in logistics, consulting and education. Last 10 years he has served in the GCC higher education institutions.
Just five years ago the educational landscape of the GCC region was different. Higher education institutions had been cautiously trying to implement blended learning within existing programs and purely e-learning offerings were a relatively rare commodity; face-to-face learning was prevailing. The same reluctance had been demonstrated by the regulating authorities that didn’t give warm welcome to e-learning initiatives. The COVID-19 outbreak completely changed the status quo.
In spring, 2020, the situation with COVID-19 had reached a pandemic level and lockdowns of different intensities spread like a forest fire across the region. Within weeks all players and regulators of the educational market had found themselves in a new reality that required an immediate response. Being put under such stressful conditions when the only choice they had was between ceasing any educational activities or immediately switching to e-learning most of the higher education institutions managed to develop and implement solutions within 1-2 weeks, if not mere days.
This period was a golden opportunity window for businesses specializing in solutions and tools for remote collaborative work. The key ingredients for a successful remote class include a component that enables videoconferencing for lectures, a component that is used for online assessments (examinations, assignments, etc.), and a component with the group and individual messaging capabilities. Software products that offer additional features – like breaking the class into parts for small group discussions – have an additional advantage. Different institutions mixed their own recipe. As a rule, they didn’t limit themselves just with learning management systems. Applications designed for online meetings and video chatting were also utilized. In some cases, even popular messengers were used to support instructor-student interactions.
Even though the transitional process, under given circumstances, was rather smooth, it wasn’t completely free of complications. Among the most common problems were organizational issues related to the switch, limited experience of teaching staff in online delivery, the need to implement different assessment approaches, academic integrity, complaints from the side of students about internet connection, and inaccessibility of learning resources. As a result, the grade reports in the end of this crash-landing semester could show skewness to the higher side. Some students were even reported “lost” – they normally started the first half of the semester in the regular face-to-face mode but didn’t make themselves available for e-learning in the second half. Most of these transitional phase hiccups had been successfully targeted and eliminated by the beginning of the next semester with only some minor issues remaining for fine-tuning.
At the beginning of the new 2021/2022 academic year, most higher education institutions of the region have opened their doors and welcomed students for the regular face-to-face mode of learning. However, the experience gained in a 1.5-year period of lockdowns is not abandoned. The majority of colleges extend their regular in-class delivery with a blended learning approach when selected courses of the offered curricula are either delivered partly in the remote mode or totally in the e-learning format. Semesters of online delivery demonstrated tangible benefits both for the supply and demand sides. Students enjoy the flexibility of studying remotely, while educational institutions appreciate the multi-faceted improvement of efficiency caused by the virtualization of key business processes.
What are future perspectives? There are many factors that define this. Will there be an effective medication or approach to win the battle against COVID-19? Will there be other outbreaks that are even more dangerous than this one? What social, political, ecological, and economic changes will the world witness in the coming decade? All the above-mentioned can and will affect the rate at which e-learning spreads. The general tendency is, however, more or less obvious. In the short run, we can expect a further gradual shift of balance towards e-learning. In some areas – like social sciences, for example – it will progress faster, while in other areas – such as engineering or health sciences that require the acquisition of manipulation skills – the process will go slower. The current estimates show more than half a billion-dollar growth in the GCC’s e-learning market until 2025. In the long run, we will see traditional face-to-face classes becoming a luxury that is available only in a few areas and for a few groups of learners. This will be a reality for those instructors that have already started their teaching careers in higher education.