A vision of an online future for the Arab World and beyond

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Mansoor Al Awar

Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University is changing the face of higher education in Dubai. Mansoor Al Awar, its founding chancellor, tells John O’Leary of his plans for dramatic further developments.

Smart learning, the ultimate development of distance education, can be the saviour of higher education in the Arab World and the model for other regions, the founding chancellor of Dubai’s most innovative university believes.

Dr Mansoor Al Awar, who leads Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), is highly critical of traditional University models for failing to have an impact on the economies of the region. He believes that the online model followed by his own university offers the only chance of meaningful change.

“I claim that most of the universities in the Arab world do not contribute to the growth of the economy in any way,” Dr Al Awar said in an interview for QS Showcase. “On the contrary, they are providing the market with the bulk of unemployment.”

Dr Al Awar’s concept of smart learning not only involves online delivery of courses, but also a change in pedagogy, with much more active participation by the student. HBMSU engages learners in coffee shops and sports clubs, rather than on a traditional campus, and offers short courses at different levels, as well as degrees and research.

He defines smartness through three characteristics:  accessibility, flexibility and (most importantly) affordability. Any service, including education, can be judged on these criteria, he says, but it must still be governed by quality. “You can’t lose that concept. We have to transform from a push and pull system with learners managing their own learning.”

Dr Al Awar says: “I have been raised in Western education – a US master’s and PhD in the UK. But education can’t be expensive or it’s not for all. I can access the best programmes in the world with minimum cost for any speciality without the student leaving their home town.”

He adds: “The problem with universities now is that educators are sitting in ivory towers and they think that they have that privilege because they are educating societies. But over time, these people who thought they were elites separated themselves from societies.

“There is an obsession with traditional universities – we are always obsessed with the way of life that we used to have. But students don’t want company now because they are much nearer to their families through technology. Learning is happening throughout life from 9 to 90.

“Smart learning can be a solution to so many problems,” Dr Al Awar argued. “With the current unrest in the Arab world, there is a substantial number of children out of schools. Their only choice is to adopt smart learning.“ I believe that all smart learning is going to be distance learning. However, distance learning is not necessarily smart. That is because of our obsession with the way we were doing it. A paradigm shift needs to take place because smart learning totally transforms the way of thinking about education.

The Smart University was the vision of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in 2001. “The aim was to revamp our approach to higher education, but doing that and putting smart learning forward is not an easy task,” Dr Al Awar says. “The most difficult part involves the core values. We have built up a culture to be able to cater for non-conventionality and non-traditional approaches to learning.”

Top of his list of values is the centricity of the learner. “We put the customer first.  You need the whole university to take that approach. It starts when the learner comes in and it is above education.”

Technology is necessarily at the centre of the learning experience, so software was a challenge, Dr Al Awar says. “There is instant feedback for learners, including a complaints system – a mini twitter within the smart campus with access to the leaders of the university and peer education from freshmen to PhD students. No one can hide – even myself.”

In order to respond to the demands of its students and wider society, HBMSU has adopted the “four Cs” model, standing for continuing learners, committed, concentrated and casual – short courses and seminars. In 27 coffee shops all over the UAE, for example, a scratchcard entitles learners to free coffee after a 30-minute exercise. “We are gradually building up a new mindset in the Arab World, with incentives to learn,” he says.

“Deans report on all four Cs because we need to open up access to higher education and cater for the whole of society,” Dr Al Awar adds. “We also wanted to make learning fun, using gamification, giving points for each task. People are rushing into these types of gamification programmes.

“We have a trophy for the best learner now – not the highest marks, but for leadership. That’s because we are not a traditional institution but an academic enterprise, so we use business vocabulary, such as customer relationship management – we have a learner relationship management department.

“We are also among the few universities to have a voice of the learner in the supreme council of the university. It can be a little bit irritating to the deans and academics.

“Learners’ representatives have different approaches. Sometimes they embarrass us as educators. They asked for more emphasis on research; 25% of study planning comes from learners. They want quality and it is becoming tougher.”

HBMSU has introduced weekly research seminars focusing on priority areas that fall under the competencies of its three faculties: Business and Quality Management, Health and Environmental Studies, and E-Education. Research areas include innovation and excellence among educational leaders and innovative strategies for enhancing the UAE’s global business competitiveness.

The university was the first of its type to be accredited in the UAE. At first, the Commission for Academic Accreditation did not know how to approach it, but the first fully online Master of Science, in innovation and change management, was approved this year.

For its higher education courses, HBMSU chose a blended model, with a virtual classroom, face to face interaction and learning at students’ own pace. “We have minimised the face to face element,” Dr Al Awar says. “But smart learning is not about technology, it is about pedagogy.

“Educators are reluctant to be taught how to teach on the new online model, but becoming a coach or facilitator it is totally different from what they have been used to. Some academics felt that facilitation was insulting their intelligence. The work of the traditional teacher doesn’t exist anymore – you have to provide the content and facilitate learning.”

As a research-driven institution, HBMSU is planning for no more than 2,000 higher education students, although casual learners could eventually be numbered in the millions.

“The Arab World consists of different countries with different capabilities and internet coverage,” Dr Al Awar says. “We need to cater for all. In the UAE, internet penetration is high, so we will offer two programmes that are totally online, which will be unlike the others in terms of quality. But many of those in other countries have no access to education, so smart education is the only choice, particularly in rural areas, where we can create jobs.”

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s aim is to prepare a young generation capable of envisioning and building a better and more secure and sustainable future, using the tools of the knowledge economy. He expects HBMSU to play a pivotal role in supporting the UAE’s efforts to transform from a natural to a human resource-based economy, as expressed in its Vision 2021.

Dr Al Awar hopes that by providing a unique learning experience through technology, innovation and scientific research, HBMSU could be ahead of the universities of the world by 10 years. A new Strategic Plan for 2018– 2020 focuses on supporting the UAE Vision 2021, which has already made substantial investments in science.

“The new strategic plan represents an integrated framework for advancing the development of innovative laboratories and academic accelerators, which are a solid foundation for the UAE’s 20x initiative,” Dr Al Awar says. “This aims at placing us ahead of other global universities in the development of teaching methods while also supporting our valuable contributions to the ‘Transformational Economy’ model that is based on a holistic way of successfully integrating human wisdom and technological innovation in support of the national efforts to make Dubai the city of the future.”

Dr Al Awar has no doubt that the online revolution will sweep through education, as it has in other fields. “Smart education is now a fact – either by choice or because people have no choice. But tomorrow they will recognise it as the best choice.”

Dr Mansoor Al Awar is chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), and chairs the governing board of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE). He is an honorary visiting fellow in organisation and information management at the University of Bradford and an adjunct professor at the University of Salford, as well as a member of the International Academy for Quality. He has a BSc in mathematics from the UAE University, an MSc in applied mathematics from the University of Michigan and a PhD in the same subject from the University of Wales, UK. Dr Al-Awar was chosen as the Middle East CEO of the year in 2011 for his efforts to promote the knowledge economy and IT, and received the Distinguished Government Employee Award, in the Dubai Government Excellence Program, in 2005. Dr Al-Awar was director of the College of e-TQM (Total Quality Management) from inception in 2002 until it was transformed into HBMSU in 2009. He has published several books on management and quality.