As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world and disrupt lives, Khalifa University has responded swiftly, taking significant actions as required to protect the health and wellbeing of its diverse community of students, faculty and staff, and to ensure service continuity and support systems available during the epidemic.
Higher education has been particularly affected by Covid-19. Since the beginning of March, many universities around the world, including all universities in the UK and the UAE, have closed campuses and moved courses online – a move that has never been seen on this large a scale ever before in history.
The UAE reported its first case of Covid-19 on 29 January. After deliberate consideration, the Ministry of Education decided to close schools from 1 March.
Within a week, over 390 KU faculty members and staff received training on how to deliver instruction online. On 8 March, all 670 courses began online as scheduled. Since then, faculty and students have demonstrated a strong commitment to the new mode of teaching and learning, with an average of around 92% of students reported facing minor or no issues with distance learning during the week of March 22nd, coupled with around 88% of students, on average, rating their distance learning experience as Excellent, Very Good and Good, during the same week.
As an educational institution, Khalifa University’s primary goal is to empower the lives of its students with knowledge, which rests on its ability to ensure their health and well-being. Khalifa University must prioritize the safety of its students, faculty and staff, in order to deliver on its founding goal of building the human capital required to support Abu Dhabi’s transformation into a knowledge-economy.
That is why, after the outbreak of Covid-19, Khalifa University took immediate actions to deliver the University’s emergency operations plans, which are in line with the UAE government’s Public Health Center. These plans emphasize preventive actions for students and staff, including actions individuals can take, such as staying home, appropriately covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning frequently touched surfaces, and washing hands often.
A process was established immediately to communicate information to faculty, staff and students on KU’s infectious disease outbreak response plans and the latest Covid-19 information in order to reduce fear, anxiety, rumors, and misunderstanding among the community. The University’s clinics prepared for COVID-19 in line with the Health Authority Protocols, and extra supplies were provided to staff, hand sanitizers, tissues, and disposable facemasks. Buildings and offices were disinfected multiple times a day. Quarantine facilities for students and faculty who had returned to the UAE after travelling were set up, and required for 14-day self-isolation periods. Special assistance was also provided to students studying abroad and international students on campus.
Students who resided on university accommodations were asked to return to their homes, and the University continues to comply with the UAE’s “Stay Home” orders.
In other efforts required to take precautions to ensure the health and well-being of its students, faculty and staff, on 2 April, Khalifa University underwent a serious effort to clean and disinfect the places and spaces used on a daily basis by the KU community. In line with the directive issued by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council Executive Committee encouraging all entities to sanitize and disinfect their respective places of businesses and occupations, the university is increasing its cleaning and disinfecting processes across its campuses. The services are being provided by a professional, ISO-certified facilities management company.
Creating a Distance Learning Ecosystem
Even during these unprecedented circumstances, teaching and learning must not be undermined. When Khalifa University shifted its courses online, this virtual mode of teaching and learning became the University’s primary form of educating its students, and it will continue to be the primary means of education until further notice.
That is why the University has taken it upon itself to ensure that online courses are delivered with the same quality as its traditional, in-person classes.
To achieve this, KU has created an online learning ecosystem, comprised of four interconnecting layers:
- The first layer is the KU Community itself – the faculty, instructors, students, researchers and staff, whose positive attitude and willingness to adapt to new circumstances creates the foundation on which the other layers rest.
- The second layer is the Leaning Management System (LMS), which allows faculty to manage their courses, upload their learning materials, and facilitate discussions with students. Tests and quizzes can also be administered and feedback from faculty provided to students.
- The third layer includes the virtual classrooms. Recognizing that its faculty have different needs and preferences according to required learning outcomes, Khalifa University is the only higher education institution in the UAE to offer three virtual classroom platforms, including Big Blue Button, MS Teams and Black Board Connect.
- The fourth layer is a collection of content development and management tools that provide faculty with the resources needed to develop their lessons to be delivered in either a synchronous or asynchronous teaching method.
Observations made through the Learning Management System have revealed that interactions between faculty and students has been quite high. Students’ satisfaction with the courses was also measured and found to be considerably high. During the week of 22 March, around 88% of students rated their distance learning experience as Excellent, Very Good and Good.
The online learning ecosystem KU has developed is proving to be very effective and creating a rich teaching and learning experience for faculty and students.
Extending Support to Students
Ensuring students’ mental and psychological wellbeing, as well their physical wellbeing, is not just a best practice, it’s an absolute necessity during the coronavirus crisis. As previously mentioned, students form part of the foundational layer of KU’s distance learning ecosystem, and as such, they must be well supported.
As such, Khalifa University has ensured continuity of its mental health services, by offering remote counseling, and has encouraged students to call the Student Council if feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious.
KU is offering other important support services, such as virtual tutoring and a number of online development courses for its students, including leadership courses and courses on managing stress and achieving positive thinking.
While the KU Library is providing a number of services – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to support students and researchers through its collection of e-services offerings. The Library provides the KU community with more than 60 electronic databases that contain thousands of full-text journals; thousands of Ebooks; and full-text journal access to any journal. Librarians are available to answer any reference questions online, and they are hosting workshops virtually to improve research skills and enhance students’ understanding of how to use the library’s many resources.
Responding to Covid-19 with Research
As a research institute, Khalifa University responded swiftly and initiated several Covid-19 research projects to contribute positively to the UAE’s and wider world’s pandemic-prevention efforts. Researchers across KU are conducting sensitivity testing for medical devices, developing computer models to detect the spread of Covid-19, and supporting the fabrication of emergency ventilators.
Utilizing its state-of-the-art facilitates, including its Molecular Genetics Lab, researchers at KU’s Center for Biotechnology (BTC), led by Dr. Habiba Alsafar, are validating commercial kits currently being used to test for SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes Covid-19) for their sensitivity and specificity, using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method. Their goal is to fast-track detection of coronavirus strains in less than three hours, without the need for an elaborate laboratory setup.
Another research team, led by Dr. Cesare Stefanini, Director of the Healthcare Engineering Innovation Center (HEIC), is working on a collaborative project to ensure the UAE’s needs for ventilators are met. Dr. Stefanini’s team aims to develop a working prototype for an emergency ventilator in less than two weeks, while also designing a mass production unit to ensure that fabrication can be easily scaled up.
Taking on social responsibilities
Universities have the resources, collection of skills and experts, and unique position to make indispensable contributions to this fight against Covid-19. But to do so effectively requires collaboration with other higher education institutions.
For this reason, Khalifa University participated in the ‘Online Forum on Universities’ Responses to Covid-19,’ a forum organized by Tsinghua University in collaboration with the Asian Universities Alliance (AUA), and exchanged best-practices with other leading universities on the measures taken to address the coronavirus crises, and opportunities to strengthen research collaboration in areas relevant to Covid-19.
These unprecedented times, which call for social distancing and call on a strong communication infrastructure and networks to allow the country’s educational institutions to offer teaching online, highlight the critical role being played by Ankabut, the UAE’s national research and education network, which is managed by Khalifa University. Ankabut is ensuring reliable operations for all schools and universities in the UAE, in areas such as distant learning, library services, and research computing.
In the face of this unprecedented global challenge, universities like KU can offer their communities a beacon of hope. Endowed with the broadest and deepest scientific expertise and best quality research facilities in the country, and united in its goal to educate and empower the world’s future leaders, and research innovative solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges, Khalifa University has an important responsibility to promote confidence and hope among its community, and bring solutions to the world.
3 April 2020