ABU DHABI—Future universities in the Middle East and North Africa must adapt to keep pace with rapid growth in technology, educators who gathered at a conference here last week said. One key task for those universities will be building on the transition to digital learning that was forced on them by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The conference, called THE Digital Universities MENA 2022, was organized by British company Times Higher Education and co-hosted by Khalifa University of Science and Technology. Held September 12 to 14, it explored ways to customise future universities in the Middle East and North Africa region to keep up with fast-growing technology and the rise of skill-based economies.
“It is a very challenging task, but technology is not waiting for us,” said John Schwartz, head of global business development at edX, the free online-learning platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Universities will have to change their mind-set because they will continue to fall back if they don’t think forward.”
He added: “Education is lagging behind, but technology is not. We need to give students the tools to enable them to go into the marketplace. Academia is facing the challenge of having organizations (like Google and Microsoft) building their own curricula and making what universities teach obsolete.”
“Education is lagging behind, but technology is not. We need to give students the tools to enable them to go into the marketplace.”John Schwartz, head of global business development at edX
The tools and content for beefing up digital learning are available, Schwartz said. “Universities can work in a hybrid situation and tap into some of the best institutions providing digital content. It makes them much more viable and appealing to a multicultural audience.”
Other speakers noted that the expectations of “digital native” students, who grew up surrounded by technology from an early age, are high especially after the pandemic, and that universities will have to fulfill those needs in order to be viable.
The challenge is “to use digitization where it fits and where it makes sense,” said Ahmed Al Shoaibi, vice president for academic and student services at Khalifa University of Science and Technology.
“We want our students to be empathetic and able to connect with other students and teammates,” Al Shoaibi said. “We don’t want them to suffer from isolation being behind the screen for longer periods of time. I believe learning should not be online 100 percent nor on-premise 100 percent. The greatest opportunity lies in between, in blended and customised learning.”
He underlined, however, the opportunities that digital learning and the use of advanced technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence offer to students in terms of global interaction and knowledge exchange.
“At Khalifa University we ran a course with different universities in the United States and China last semester that brought together students from different countries, different languages and different time zones who not only attended the same lecture but also worked in a single group to solve problems. That in itself was a great opportunity that students benefited a lot from.”
“Striking the balance between the opportunities and challenges that digitization offers is the greatest challenge,” Al-Shoaibi said.
Keeping Students Engaged
At New York University Abu Dhabi, which is more than 95 percent residential, students had the option to work online from home during the pandemic, but few took that option, said Kyle Farley, a former associate vice chancellor of students at NYUAD.
“We told our students, you don’t have to go home if you wish to, but all classrooms are closed, all athletic facilities and extracurricular activities are stopped, and the only thing you can do is take classes in your bedrooms,” said Farley. “Despite the restrictions everyone stayed. It shows that geography still matters.”
With the restriction of campus life, universities had to resort to digital tools to help ensure student engagement.
“In online learning, engagement is a key,” said John Matthews, associate dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University, in Dubai. “We worked on redesigning the whole curriculum to include engagement activities while resorting to digital tools to help monitor how students are engaged.”
The resulting digital classroom experience was in some ways “equal to or better than what we were seeing in terms of face-to-face instruction as well as in terms of students’ commitment,” he said.
During the pandemic an estimated 37 million Arab youth were deprived of education because they did not have access to the Internet and digital devices. In the Middle East and North Africa region, the divide and technological inequality is widening.
“Programmes don’t have to be all digital or all face-to-face. Bringing together the best of both worlds will deliver the best possible outcomes.”Anthony Tattersall, Coursera’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa
Issam Srour, director of the Abdullah al Ghurair Hub for Digital Teaching and Learning at the American University of Beirut, argued that “digital poverty goes beyond infrastructure” to include “not being trained to learn in a digital world and to leverage digital tools.”
What role can universities have to bridge that gap? asked Srour.
At the Abdullah al Ghurair Hub, programmes were specifically designed to address the needs of disadvantaged people.
The centre offers continuous upskilling education programs to enable people to join the workforce. It is open to all, taking into account gender balance and economic fairness.
“Universities cannot work alone to bridge the gap for students who are digitally poor,” Srour said. “Industry has to step in, as well as governments.”
Partnering with Online Platforms
Online course providers like Coursera have been collaborating with universities to help bridge the gap between education and business by improving students’ skills in an ever-changing job market.
“We are trying to help make sure that when students leave the university they have the skills that enable them to survive and thrive in the world of work,” Anthony Tattersall, Coursera’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told al-Fanar Media.
Tattersall maintained that universities can create more personalized modules for enhancing students’ skills with the support of open learning platforms.
“Technical skills are constantly evolving and it is very difficult, costly and time consuming for universities to keep up with latest innovations on their own,” he said. Platforms can provide content from cutting-edge industries that universities could offer as electives or integrate into curricula.
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Designing future universities in MENA is a work in progress. One thing that experts agree on is that, after 18 months of online teaching, there is no going back to pre-Covid methodology fully.
“I believe we are going to see a lot more forms of blended learning and flipped classrooms,” Tattersall said. “Programmes don’t have to be all digital or all face-to-face. Bringing together the best of both worlds will deliver the best possible outcomes.”
- Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?
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- Blended Learning: Finding the Right Blend for University Students
- Saudi International Education Conference Emphasises Distance Learning and Skills-Based Curricula
Also see Technology & Online Learning, a collection of Al-Fanar Media’s reporting on the use of technology in education and the issues it raises.