HBMSU on a drive to revolutionize education in the GCC/MENA
One thing that struck me when I interviewed Dr. Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), was the passion that he exhibited during the interview.
For sure, Dr. Al Awar’s high professionalism and academic knowledge were on full display, but he could barely keep his enthusiasm in check when talking about his e-learning endeavors at HBMSU, and globally.
Perhaps it was the fact that he helped recruit the best of what the world had to offer in terms of global specialists and think tanks in online education.
Or because he was changing the world of education as we know it. Not changing. Revolutionizing is more apt a description.
And now UNESCO extended an invitation, eager to know what he, HBMSU, and an alliance of higher education changemakers have to say.
Investments in Edutech
“Online education in higher education is here to stay. Early in the last decade, investments in edutech were in the millions of dollars, but today, especially after the pandemic hit, spending surged in the billions worldwide,” began Dr. Al Awar.
“Yet, in the Arab world, higher education investments in e-learning technology currently are only around $33 million, and the expected investment in global education technology will be around $1 trillion by 2027worldwide.”
I also discovered that Dr. Al Awar was an educator and a natural storyteller at heart, and he liked to illustrate as a way to explain realities.
Referring to the gap in investments in and slow adoption of e-learning, locally and globally, he said: “When the Wright brothers pioneered flying an airplane in the early 1900s, ships were the major transportation vehicle around the world at the time. It took until 1958 for airplanes to become commercialized. So, you can imagine how long it will take with education, to go from conventional teaching to online education.”
Can online learning offer quality education?
Dr. Al Awar was quick to point out that HBMSU’s mission for change took years to be realized.
“We started with a blank sheet of paper at a time when neither the UAE nor the Arab world had any inkling on how to accredit or license e-learning institutions,” recounted Dr. Al Awar.
“We started fresh. And to start fresh, we needed quality measures. Together with the Swiss Center for Innovation and Learning (University of Saint Gallen), we have invested a considerable amount of money and time to have a quality framework on the Middle East.”
That was back in 2010, and the quality framework had to be contextualized or localized for the Middle East, differently than quality frameworks for the European region of the time.
“We called it MELQ 1.0. The Middle East e-learning quality framework measured the readiness of any institution that wanted to be digitally transformed,” Dr. Al Awar explained.
MELQ1.0 and MELQ2.0
Institutions that weren’t ready for that quality framework resorted to applying fixes here, there, and everywhere, just to be able to deliver learning online.
“Today, our 2.0 version of MELQ is ready. So many people claim that they have smart and online learning, while all they really have is distance learning,” Dr. Al Awar declared.
So, what’s the difference?
“Distance learning has been in existence for the last century when early students learned by correspondence. When we were little, we learned by watching teachers on TV, and some of that is still with us today,” Dr. Al Awar explained.
“Smart learning is revolutionizing the pedagogy of learning. That’s where the challenges lie. MELQ is measuring the readiness of any institution to go through it. That’s the gateway to smart learning.”
Dr. Al Awar added that HBMSU also worked with the international community to develop the ‘experience quality’ of online learning “which is always questionable in traditional universities.”
“At the gateway of MELQ, you measure the readiness to be digitally transformed and if you also measure the quality of the experience, then learners are safe.”
MELQ2 has tremendously changed because both the technology and the pedagogical approach evolved.
“MELQ addresses the quality on the technology side as an enabler but pedagogy is the most important factor for faculty, learners, and administrators,” Dr. Al Awar clarified.
In 2019, together with international organizations like the Commonwealth of Learning, Asian Association of Open Universities, the 6., European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, the Arab League of Universities, the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, and others, HBMSU launched the Benchmark Framework in Dubai 2019.
“This is a completely different thing from MELQ which measures the input quality for digital transformation. The benchmarking framework is actually measuring the output quality, meaning the learners, the real outcome of these institutions,” Dr. Al Awar explained.
“That’s why, along with our partners The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), we were invited to present at UNESCO’s World Higher Education Conference.”
He explained that in the past, examining the quality of online learning on learners was made by individual efforts on the part of universities and e-learning bodies around the world, in all 6 continents.
“We, at HBMSU, were able to invite them all to come together and discuss it under one umbrella. Together, we represent almost 75% of the globe into this particular development of benchmarking set of data,” Dr. Al Awar estimated.
E-learning ranking and benchmarking
Today you cannot rank online universities. Most rating agencies today are measuring traditional learning.
“When we applied for a ranking, we were told that no such standings existed, and so we decided to have our own standards,” Dr. Al Awar said.
The Benchmark Framework brings quality standards and total transformational thinking to higher education administrators.
“Admin will come across criteria that they may or might not have or may not apply in the right way. They will be introduced to certain criteria of standards that they need to maintain in order to make sure that the outcome of those online institutions is quality-based,” Dr. Al Awar clarified.
“When I say quality based, I mean employability, and graduates becoming employers not employees.”
What is online education revolutionizing, exactly?
According to Dr. Al Awar, online education has revolutionized the 4 major pillars of education: Learners, faculties, curricula, and learning environments.
“We need to define the learner. Everybody is depending on schools and on tertiary education to do the learning for students. Today, failing to learn is blamed on everyone but the learner. Today, this is changing. The learner is responsible for his/her own learning,” Dr. Al Awar described.
“Online education is moving from a push to a pull system. That needs considerable re-engineering of what we inherited from traditional learning.”
In fact, with smart learning, faculty members are also being redefined.
“The word teacher doesn’t exist in the vocab of online education. They become facilitators, mentors, and coaches. And lousy coaches, even in a great football team, simply won’t win. Whoever joins HBMSU as an educator is contractually obligated to be licensed or certified for providing online education.”
“Just like passengers won’t fly with a captain that had not undergone rigorous flight simulations, same with online educators. Benchmarks are there to qualify and certify them to make sure they safely transport today and tomorrow’s graduate students on a fulfilling learners’ journey to brighter destinations,” Dr. Al Awar affirmed.
Said just like a true teacher. Illustrating, but also leading by example.