Since education in the UAE moved to a distance learning model in March 2020, students and teachers in all sectors of education have been working hard to adjust the sudden, unexpected shift to online provision because, in the words of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, “It is true schools were shut down, universities were closed but education will never stop.” Understanding the experience of learners from kindergarten to university is key to maintaining the government’s Inclusive Education Policy with its focus on the principles of diversity, personalisation, equity, respect, acceptance and enrichment.  So what difference does online learning make to inclusivity? 

For some, the autonomous nature of distance learning is very welcome as it sweeps away barriers to their learning, perhaps offering the opportunity to study in a way more suited to their learning style, or more flexibly. Multilingual students may feel more confident participating in online discussions than in traditional face-to-face discussions (Reinert Center, 2016).  Recorded lectures can be viewed at times more suited to preferred study rhythms; for example, people with attention issues can study when others are asleep and distractions are minimised.  Students can spend more time on tricky aspects and overlearn as often as necessary using newly created online resources, or work at their own pace more easily.  Learners with frequent medical appointments can work around these commitments to build an individualised study timetable.  People with autism, social anxiety and mental health can avoid the stresses of busy schools and campuses and work in environments they find more conducive to their learning. 

On the other hand, online learning can create barriers to inclusion in education.  Some students can lack resources, such as IT equipment, specialist software, and reliable internet access; they miss the better IT facilities and resources on campus. Teachers and pupils are having to learn new formats and platforms (GoToMeeting, Kahoot, Zoom etc.), and might struggle to communicate using the technology.  The interactive nature of learning in class alongside peers using multisensory modes such as debates and role play is challenging to replicate online, and issues with group working and communicating effectively can impede educational progress.  Some students will undoubtedly find it more difficult to avoid distraction in busy homes, maintain daily learning routines and motivation away from campus.  This causes stress which raises anxiety and affects mental health.  Isolated learners miss the more immediate face to face interaction with staff and peers, also stressing mental health.  Finally, students with hearing difficulties may find online classes inaccessible without captions. 

In order to mitigate the effects of the move off site, it has been important to adapt and design online learning environments that are accessible and inclusive of all learners, including students of determination.  Excellent communication from teachers regarding key learning objectives and online support routes is key to facilitating distance learning and raising learners’ confidence.  Teachers must remain approachable and supportive, provide clear feedback on assignments and respond quickly to sort out issues. The approach of UAE educational institutions to no detriment, providing an assessment ‘safety net’ during the COVID-19 outbreak, is vital.  The French Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, suggests that distance learning has increased inequalities to the extent that it has caused a ‘social emergency’ (BBC, 2020).  If we work together and build strong strategic support plans going forward, inclusivity will be protected. Student wellness and academic achievement remain the key dual focuses of the UAE education community.  With a strong ethos of inclusion, education in the UAE will continue to adapt to improve the experience of learners, while keeping everyone safe and well.  

Siobhan McNiff is a Lecturer in IFP and the Learning Disability Counsellor at the Centre for Academic Success at MDX Dubai.