Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The Middle East has one of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). To counteract this, the United Arab Emirates’ Government has implemented various initiatives, included among them are life-skills courses at higher education institutions. Anthony Pollitt has been living in Dubai since he started working at Dubai Men’s College of the Higher Colleges of Technology, 17 years ago. Clinical Nutritionist by training, the New Zealander teaches the Introduction to Nutrition course as part of the general studies program offered system wide to all colleges.
Established in 1988, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) system is the largest higher education institution in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), offering degrees in Business, Computer & Information Science, Media, Health Sciences and Education, Engineering, and Aviation. The institution has a strong focus on guaranteeing work-relevant skills coupled with a well-rounded education. The latter includes the Introduction to Nutrition course, as well as other intercultural communication, life, and study skills courses. The learning model at HCT, through which this education is delivered, demands the implementation of innovative practices where Blackboard Learn, and other similar products, have entered the picture.
Pollitt currently instructs 86 students at the Men’s College as well as another 420 students through Blackboard Learn across eight of the 17 colleges spread across the UAE. All teaching is done in English while students are all Emiratis. In those colleges where Anthony can’t be physically present, lecturers deliver his course with the same content and assessments he has put together.
The Blended Learning Model
According to Anthony, his subject demanded a different approach with students and blended learning seemed to be the way to go. He wanted them to be engaged and to discover things for themselves, with the teacher serving as a guide. Pollitt decided to take a blended learning approach from the onset of the course two years ago. During the course design phase, student self-study was intended to enrich classroom interactions by integrating the online component in an intuitive and accessible manner.
The course lasts 16 weeks covering one topic per week. As it is not intended for science majors, the first weeks are dedicated to the body systems and how these are affected by food. Most of the theory focuses in understanding macro and micronutrients, and practical sessions are used for students to assess their own food intake by completing a 24-hour diary, as well as measuring their weight and height to calculate their BMI and BMR. One of Pollitt’s class projects consists of having students cook a healthy meal after watching a video of him explaining the task, and then filiming themselves while completing the assignment. Carrying out this type of project at the scale that he wanted to wouldn’t have been possible without an online component.
The purpose of the project is for students to appreciate what is involved in the preparation of their food and, even if they order or eat out, for them to be aware of what to look for and what to avoid. As Anthony told Blackboard, even though there’s a grade, students have basic tools they can use for the rest of their lives to help them make changes; a Life Skills course should probe them to discover about themselves as it makes them more liable to want to change.
The course also provides students with external motivators to encourage them internally. For example, all students are motivated by getting good grades, so the assessments were created so that students can apply the knowledge to themselves directly. Quizzes were created so that half were about class content, and the other half about the extra videos and readings that were required. Students can complete the quizzes multiple times, which encourages them to study. At first, they might attempt a quiz without having read any of the material and get four out of 20 questions correct, the second time five, and so on. Eventually they come to realize that they in fact have to look at the readings and extra material in order to learn the content. A comment that Pollitt typically gets from students at the end of the course is that they have learned how to study.
The Importance of Tutor-student Interaction
In the traditional classroom, teachers spend a lot of time maintaining students’ attention and keeping them on task, as where with the blended model, this doesn’t occur so much. Pollitt attributes this to the students being capable of accessing the information when they are ready to do so. Although they are driven by deadlines, assignments and quizzes, they can access the information in their own time-frame, which makes them more receptive. And, if there are any questions, they can message always their teacher or raise the question during the next session.
Opposite to what is generally thought about blended learning, for example that it decreases contact between students and tutors, the interactions actually increase. At HCT, they found that out of the 64 total course hours required during the16 week period, the average online time for the students was 108 hours. Not only did interactions with the instructor increase, but the time students spent by themselves also rose. For instance, the weakest group only spent 68 hours and their average grade was a C, while the group that spent more time had 140 hours on average and their average grade was a B+.
The interactions, along with intuitive and seamless access to the materials, enabled Pollitt’s vision of the teacher as a guide to be realized. When students are engaged enough, not only with the course but with the content as well, that knowledge can be applied in their daily lives resulting in improved lifestyle, performance and grades, almost as a by-product.
*Anthony Pollitt – Dubai Men’s College, Higher Colleges of Technology
*Photos: Dubai by iStock and Anthony Pollit by Hugues Bouayed