Narimane Hadj-Hamou: A Pioneer of Distance Learning in the Arab World
Narimane Hadj-Hamou says the most rewarding thing in her career was founding a center dedicated to training academics in advanced teaching methods.
Hadj-Hamou, an Algerian-American academic, set up the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions (CLICKS) in 2012 to focus on developing educational policies for universities. The center has offices in Dubai and the United Kingdom.
“Training academics helps higher education institutions develop an internal quality culture, and promote student-centered, technology-enabled and results-based teaching and learning strategies,” she wrote in an email.
Hailed by Forbes Middle East in 2014 as one of the 200 most powerful Arab women, Hadj-Hamou has over the past decade met with thousands of Arab academics to discuss how modern universities can help build a knowledge-based economy and thus help build better societies.
Founding and leading CLICKS “was probably the most rewarding thing in my career,” she said, “because it gave me the opportunity to learn about different educational systems and then try to better understand local requirements and develop policies and solutions that truly fit educational needs.”
In her education journey, Hadj-Hamou moved between the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Algeria, gaining a special vision of the nature of the role that higher education institutions must play. She believes that a contemporary university should transcend its traditional roles, in teaching and research alike, to develop and have a greater impact on local communities.
“I think that the main obstacle to the development of Arab universities’ working strategy lies in the need for more autonomy at the system level, to be more responsive to the changing world and interact with the latest educational systems,” she said.
Early Work in Arab Online Education
After obtaining her Ph.D. in computer and software engineering in the United States in 2000, Hadj-Hamou began her academic career in the Emirates as a professor at Ajman University, her alma mater.
In 2003, she joined the Electronic College for Total Quality Management, today known as Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, as a specialist in computer and software engineering and was eventually made Assistant Chancellor for learning and academic development.
Hadj-Hamou “contributed to pushing the distance education experience to an advanced stage, in a time when the Arab world did not know anything about this advanced method.”Ghassan Aouad
president of Bahrain’s Applied Science University
“The work experience was a turning point in my career,” she said. “It represented an exceptional opportunity for me in such an early stage of my life, and gave me a lot of experience and growth opportunities.”
Hadj-Hamou played a major role in designing academic programs and transforming the university, which has been recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education in the United Arab Emirates as the first to provide distance learning in the region.
“Distance education is the new educational system that keeps pace with the world’s technological development, in which a student has the greatest role, leaving to the teacher the role of guidance and direction,” she said.
In a phone call, Ghassan Aouad, who is currently the president of Bahrain’s Applied Science University, said that Hadj-Hamou “contributed to pushing the distance-education experience to an advanced stage, in a time when the Arab world did not know anything about this advanced method.”
Her commitment to innovation in designing educational programs and raising the quality of education helped the university to take the lead in online education in the Middle East, he added.
From Teacher to Leader to Director
Aouad added that one of Hadj-Hamou’s greatest qualities was her extensive experience in adapting imported educational experiences to the local environment so as to meet the needs of society by relying on trained local cadres.
“Her experience helped her move easily from a teacher to a leader and director in a short period of time,” he said.
With the widespread expansion of distance education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hadj-Hamou has trained more than 3,000 academics from 11 Arab countries on aspects of course design, online assessment and teaching, quality assurance, and academic guidance. (See a related article, “Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?”)
“We need to change the culture that dominates faculty members and questions the quality of online education.”Narimane Hadj-Hamou
The main obstacle to implementing and popularizing online learning and research, she says, comes from the lack of clarity in the long-term goals of integrating it into the university’s mission and strategic priorities.
“We need to change the culture that dominates faculty members and questions the quality of online education,” she said.
Hadj-Hamou believes that training faculty members and changing their negative ideas about online education is key to improving students’ distance-learning experience. (See the following related articles: “Interest in Online Courses Surges in the Middle East”; “Next Steps for New Online Courses: Measure Learning, Prevent Cheating”; and “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
With this in mind, she established several regional initiatives, notably the MENA Higher Education Leadership Forum. One of the first nonprofit regional associations, the forum brings together higher-education leaders and decision makers from across the Middle East and North Africa to promote the concept of online education, and raise the quality of academic institutions.
Ideas for Education Quality Assessment
Hadj-Hamou has also spent a large part of her career trying to change the concept of education quality and academic assessment methods.
“Higher-education institutions must bear a primary responsibility for the quality and guarantee what is provided,” she said. Academic accreditation, she added, should be seen as “a means of promoting and improving a culture of quality and not a mere requirement to be obtained.”
“The main factor in Dr Narimane’s success in implementing quality programs at different universities is combining her experience in academia and management.”Nabil El-Kadhi President of the Khawarizmi International College in the UAE
For Hadj-Hamou, accreditation criteria should not be mandatory across institutions of higher education, because they are diverse and different in nature; the influence of local context should be taken into account. (See a related article, “Measuring Quality in Higher Education Is a Tricky Proposition.”)
“The main factor in Dr. Narimane’s success in implementing quality programs at different universities is combining her experience in academia and management,” Nabil El-Kadhi, president of Khawarizmi International College in the United Arab Emirates, said in a Zoom interview.
This contributed to her ability to use quality requirements as a measurement and extraction tool at all stages of the educational process, he said, adding that he had relied on Hadj-Hamou’s experience in universities in Bahrain, Oman and the Emirates.
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Apart from Forbes Middle East’s recognition, other honors bestowed on Hadj-Hamou include the 2016 Arab Woman Award for Education, given by the ITP Media Group. In 2017, she was one of three recipients of the Influential Educational Leader Award, presented at the Inspiring School Leaders Conference at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
“These awards gave me great pride and were an incentive to continue supporting higher-education institutions in the Arab world,” she said. “I aspire to expand the center’s activities to become more global, and to better serve our Arab region.”