Online Learning in the Middle East: One Chancellor Speaks

Photo of Dubai

Recently I had the opportunity to attend several speeches by Dr. Mansoor al Awar, the chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU) in Dubai, the Middle East’s first online university, founded in 2002. Dubai’s higher education model is very different from that of the U.S., yet there are lessons to be learned from the success of the region’s first e-university. Educators in Dubai feel the pressure of time keenly, and faced with a geographically disparate population and significant challenges to access, institutions like HBMSU are intentional in innovating with modes of instructional delivery and alternative credentialing. Dr. Mansoor explains the situation:

“My dream is to offer education to all 450 million people in the Middle East. That is the HBMSU vision. There is 40% illiteracy in the Middle East. But even the illiterate know how to use this smartphone. Using this mobile device, I can get them access to the knowledge they need. But we need to accelerate the pace. There are 17.5 million children in the Arab world who are out of school; 3 million of them are Syrian refugees. If we rely on the traditional model of education to get them caught up, it will take us a century. The Arab world cannot wait for that. Time is not on our side. We need to accelerate.”

A guest at the Ellucian Live 2016 conference, Dr. Mansoor shared his institution’s approach to delivering online curricula. I also asked him what advice he would offer his peers in North America, presidents and chancellors of institutions in the US and Canada who are also considering how to serve the needs of nontraditional students.

Interview with Dr. Mansoor al Awar

Dr. Mansoor. When we talk about the smart university or the online university, there are three words that define our approach to student success, to being “smart.” I want you to memorize these three words. These are the three things you must have to be “smart.”

The first is accessibility. We want to think about access to knowledge in nontraditional ways.

Second, there is flexibility. I will tell you a story. In our graduation ceremony last February, we had a disabled graduate who was half-paralyzed because of a car accident. She had been enrolled in a master’s program at a traditional interview and had completed 70% of her degree before her accident. Then she had treatment for two years. She told me, “In the middle of my pain and everything, I received a termination letter from the university, telling me I was dismissed. Now I came to study here at HBMSU and I am graduating.” That is student success. That is having a flexible model.

Third, there is affordability. This is the most important word that governs our philosophy of student success. I attended colleges in the UK and in the United States, and we used to say there, “If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.” But I want to say to you, “Ignorance is expensive; education should not be so.” With smart learning, with online learning, you can cut away many of the expenses that drive up tuition.

And to have this impact requires an integration of technology systems, a one-stop shop with one password, one login. We call this Smart Campus. From recruitment all the way through, it is one learner experience. As they enter, they build their knowledge and competencies and they build their CV, whether they are committed or concentrated or continuing learners. At the other end, we have companies partnering with us looking at those CVs. Our students are headhunted by large companies because of the capturing of the individual learner experience and competencies.

Daniel Fusch. What obstacles have you had to contend with, in transitioning to “smart learning”?

Dr. Mansoor. I think the biggest transition has been for the faculty. They have a new role. Our faculty have a contractual obligation when we recruit them to the university; they have to go through certification to become e-faculty, to shift their role to that of a coach.

When we first launched the e-faculty certification, I was there to welcome the deans and the faculty, and they told me, “Dr. Mansoor, we have an observation to share with you. We think you guys are insulting our intelligence.” I replied, “You fly, don’t you?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “If you are going to fly on a jumbo jet, and the captain or the pilot didn’t get into a training simulator every 6 months, would you fly with him?” They said, “No.” I said, “We are challenging your intelligence, not insulting it.”

In smart learning, your faculty have to continually be learners, be continually challenging what they can do. This is essential. And we have to do this. Any smart city, any smart government, the core of it must be a smart education. There are no smart governments without a smart education.

Daniel Fusch. Dr. Mansoor, what is one piece of advice you would offer—the most pressing advice you would offer—to institutions in the U.S.? What is the big thing you would want to share, from your context in Dubai?

Dr. Mansoor. There was a report published by Pearson a few years ago, addressed to all presidents, chancellors, rectors of universities. The title of the report was The Avalanche is Coming. My humble advice to my colleagues around the world is: We need to be understanding the needs of the new generation. We always claim when we get together, “Look at those golden days.” But the Golden Days are yet to come for the new generation. We are not smarter than them, they are smarter than us. We must understand this. Their golden days are yet to come. We have to serve their needs with smart learning. We can’t be hung up on the traditional role of the professor or the traditional role of the university.

In 1902, the Wright brothers flew the first airplane. It was not until 1928 that we saw the first trans-Altantic aircraft. And in 1928, the newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic called them “the adventurers.” It wasn’t until still 30 years later that we saw commercial aircraft on a major scale. We are in that same gap with smart learning. We are the adventurers. What I claim is that I think shopping is essential but shopping malls are not. Banking is essential, but banks as a brick and mortar institution are not. Learning is essential, universities are not. They must adapt. That is my advice to my colleagues.

Our learners are not confined any more to just one textbook, and they are also not confined to just one faculty member, to just one brain. Our e-faculty are around the world: our learners can get the best experiences from around the world. That will bring the globe together. You cannot bring the world together without education. Education does not have borders. It does not recognize gender, race, religion, anything.