Educating for the digital age

Educating for the digital age

HCT is showing how technology can transform the traditional campus in the interest of employability: we learn from its visionary President and CEO

HE Professor Abdullatif Al Shamsi, a leading intellectual and educationalist, is the President and CEO of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), as well as holding the Chair of Engineering. From 2017 he has been the driving force behind the HCT 4.0 Strategic Plan, titled Employability and Beyond and inaugurated by UAE Prime Minister, Vice President, and Dubai's Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2019. An early initiative under the plan established on-campus Sector Skills Academies to provide students with multiple career pathways, coupled with flexible and agile workforce development programmes. 

The plan offered Professional Certification Qualifications (where students gain academic and professional qualifications concurrently) and a Fast-Track degree system for high-achieving students to receive a bachelor's degree in three years. It pioneered the concept of 'Graduating Companies' –  awarding graduate status to start-up companies, not just individuals, with HCT becoming the first higher technical institution to create its own on-campus economic free trade zone. This is one of three core principles of HCT 4.0, together with focusing on technical leadership, and empowering graduates to know that they are employable, and indeed have the potential to be innovators and entrepreneurs so that no Emirati would be left behind.


Radical reforms

Prof. Al Shamsi has been developing his educational philosophy in publications for more than a decade, passionately promoting the need to revamp education – to rethink it in the light of present-day realities and emerging technologies like IoT and robotics. “We are fed up with the traditional ways of delivering instruction. For the present generation the traditional model of classroom teaching has become boring, and it creates the attitude of 'I just want to get my degree and get out of here: after that, I'll think about what work I'm going to do!’ I was drawing attention to the implications of the fourth industrial revolution before that term became current, and I am proud of that and the interest it has attracted.”

He has led the growth of HCT for six years now, and is pleased with the steep rate of progress to date, while anticipating further huge changes in the coming five years. “With 16 separate campuses and 23,000 students, we have a secure place on the global academic scene, but we are more concerned with the applied nature of our programme: to prepare our youth to serve and to be the number one choice for employers in different industry and business sectors. We maintain the academic rigour of our courses to the highest international level while always keeping a clear eye on real-world relevance. We think we have a different educational blend, one that is more demanding.”

Professor Al Shamsi's campus of tomorrow will be re-engineered on the foundation of HCT 4.0. The pandemic was a paradoxical blessing on his vision. “In some ways Covid-19 brought positive as well as negative outcomes: the pandemic forced universities to accelerate their new models of hybrid learning. Our instructors became more comfortable with online teaching using technological tools, simulations and apps, and engaging with students on-screen. No need for travelling to meetings – in the academic world, as in the business world, it has brought us the freedom, convenience and flexibility to engage anytime, anyhow, anywhere, optimising online resources. As for the students, they are already more receptive to online working than their elders. What we have gained through Covid-19 will continue with us for years to come: even when we're going back to campus.  I don't need to bring my students in five days a week when they can perhaps come in for one or two days for hands-on programmes, workshops and labs. The campus will become more of a social place where they can meet and exchange ideas with their peers and their tutors as needed.”


Accelerating ideas

His intention is that many of the ideas being exchanged on-campus will lead to innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and start-ups. “This generation is extremely smart. They generate thousands of innovative ideas – I think their brains are digitally rewired in a way that enables them to think outside the box and come up with solutions we have never thought about. They don't need consultants and experts – bring those kids together and they will come up with a project. The next question is how do you convert those student projects to a commercial product or service?

“This is where our journey is taking us. Developing an idea into a product that can go to the market and compete. That is why we need an ‘InnCuvation’ space – a place  where innovation, incubation and venture is under one roof. InnCuvation space activities include workshops, boot camps, proceeding to accelerators, and connecingt with an angel investor to scale their project and build their prototype. Then, as ‘company alumni ' of the programme they can retain their connection with HCT for a further two years. Because we know that nine out of ten start-ups will fail, these filtration processes give them support to ensure their businesses can be sustained.”

This is what he means when he says that HCT is no longer just in the business of graduating students, but graduating companies as well. It's a thoroughly thought out, ten-step process. Funding has to be in place, and HCT has its own 'pre-seed funding' resources to cover the initial setting up costs, then connect them with clients to create a revenue stream, then help them to access funding sources within the UAE, of which there are many.

InnCuVation is taking place already, and the rate will only accelerate. The plan is being executed. Within the next ten years Prof. Al Shamsi is aiming to graduate 500 new companies and already this year celebrated the first batch of HCT companies, companies that all focus on high tech industries, leveraging robotics, AI and IoT solutions  and involving a variety of app developers. “What do we mean by technical leadership? Well, we have embedded professional certification in disciplines like IT, accountancy and finance, engineering, project management or health and safety within every programme we deliver today, awarded by internationally recognised professional bodies. And we're already seeing the outcomes – in the last year alone 12,000 certifications have been awarded to our students. And that's in addition to their academic qualification – it makes our graduates competitive, not only in the local UAE and Middle East markets, but in the global market.”

These students, graduates, and companies are already showing their potential, with some projects already well established and growing. “I can give you a couple examples from the top of my head. One of our companies has seen an opportunity in recycling old electronic devices – so many devices are thrown away, and our entrepreneurs have put collection points across the UAE. They recycle them and retrieve the materials so they can go into new products, and they have already collected hundreds of tons of this material. Another of our HCT graduate companies is pioneering 3D printed buildings in this country with a focus on insulation to cut energy consumption here. Some construction is already taking place. There are many more success stories we could point to.”  These companies, E-FATE and 3DCP, as can be seen below, have been thought up and developed by students in their early 20s, supported by HCT and helped by experienced mentors.


The campus re-engineered

The traditional campus has closed classrooms, sports and club facilities, labs and workshops. That won't serve tomorrow's students. “The question is, do we need hundreds of classes physically on campus? About 70% of university campuses consist of classrooms within four walls. But all of this information is available online, virtually. To create the campus of tomorrow we need to convert our campuses to become more of an open lab space for innovation, to incubate those ideas, open labs for learning spaces to discuss a project. More importantly, create more of a simulated work environment for students to gain experiential learning. We want to create a networking and social environment here. We want our students to feel excited about coming to the campus, and not just because they have to.

“One big advantage of this opportunity is that it will reduce the footprint of our campus. Future campuses will accommodate many times more students, lowering the cost of higher education and at the same time making it more exciting for them. Our young people's prospects will be better because they will be more skilled and have better prospects of employment in their chosen field than those from traditional institutions.”

In place of one-size-fits all, lecture-based teaching does (which does not serve the ‘Gen Zs’!) the vision is to offer customised curricula for every student, enabled by technology. “At HCT today we have 23,000 students, and around 70 different programmes. Not all of these will meet their expectations: some they are excited about, others may be a filler that they have to do to get their degree. So what do we mean by customised curricula? Well instead of 70 programmes we should have 23,000! We can do that. We have big data relating to the students – social media from their high school days and other experiences that reveal their interests and will define for us their interests, what motivates them, where their strengths lie and what excites them. On the other hand, we have access to the needs of employers. With this framework, I can come up, aided by AI,  with a study programme specially designed for this student only, and surely that will make him or her more engaged and excited.”

This part of the transformation, he admits, may take a little longer but he believes it can be fulfilled within 20 years. But another initiative, on which personalised learning will depend, is already in place. The days when employers took on people solely on their potential, then trained them to do the job, are gone, he says. “We strongly believe that any job today depends 80% on the skills and competencies the candidate already has, and this is what we must give our students. Knowledge is easily accessible today, but you need the skills to access the knowledge. It's neither the instructor nor the textbook that's the main source of the knowledge – it is open source. But accessing the knowledge you need requires skills. Four years ago at HCT we shut down our physical library and moved it online, creating an advanced digital library. We contracted with McGraw-Hill and gained access to tens of thousands of books and supplemental materials online. That's a major step forward and a very special partnership. Sadly education has lagged behind other sectors in adopting technology of this type up till now, but this concept will have to be widely adopted.” By ditching the bureaucratic mindset of face-to-face teaching and written exams, HCT can turn out students ready to hit the ground running, and contribute to employers at the speed required by today's employers.

This conversion to a digital, paperless campus customised for its principal stakeholders, the students, is in full spate at HCT and Professor Al-Shamsi is determined to deliver it over the coming five years. It might have taken 50 years, he says, had not the pandemic accelerated the process. Make no mistake, in executing this plan HCT is showing the path to global higher education transformation. “Unless digital change is done, and done quickly, higher education across the globe, like another Kodak, would be put out of business, and a whole generation of students let down.” 


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