Gulf Insider interviews Dr. Susan E. Saxton, Founding President of the American University of Bahrain.
When did you realize the pandemic was about to impact your day-to-day life and work? What immediate actions did you take and how ready was AUBH to adopt these actions?
COVID-19 has changed the way that institutions globally deliver education,and the way that students approach their futures. As soon as we saw the pandemic take hold in Europe, we pro-actively mobilized our technological tools to be ready to move to an online modality. AUBH, as an institution, is in a fortunate position due to the structure of our business as a start-up, which means that we are naturally able to adapt and change very quickly. We moved to distance learning seamlessly, without missing any class time. I’m pleased that all of us, including staff, students, and support teams, have demonstrated the ability and desire to adapt and try new teaching and learning methodologies.
We added measures to assist students who have had to return from studying abroad, who may not have access to all the necessary documents due to exam disruption. Being a recognized Cambridge English testing center, we were also able to offer applicants with an alternative for the IELTS, by providing the Linguaskill English proficiency test. To further support students, our admissions team are looking at applications on a case-bycase basis in this unusual scenario.
We are fortunate to have American style programs that are flexible in credit transfer and adaptable to different learning methodologies and modalities.
How has your role as a leader changed, given the need to operate in the midst of a pandemic?
The past few months have been a learning curve for myself and my team, and it created a space for us to work creatively, learn to collaborate from a distance, and find new strategies for motivation. We are also fortunate to have supportive boards. They have been very responsive and have a long-term view for AUBH in delivering a unique brand of American-style education in the Kingdom.
How did you adjust to fully remote work? How did you help guide and support your faculty and students through this?
I think it’s fair to say that day-today life has changed, and institutions that have operated the same way for years are having to adapt. Our senior management became even more motivated by our mission and in each decision, underscored our vision for delivering a unique brand of American style education in the Kingdom and beyond.
Drawing from our “sound mind, sound body” approach to holistic education, we have focused on maintaining our students’ health and well-being. We provided them with a free subscription to an application called Headspace, with the aim to encourage mindfulness, and assist in minimizing feelings of anxiety. Furthermore, we offered students additional support by sharing a “Tip of the Day” on how to stay active in isolation, including workout videos by our Sports Center trainer. We found that the more we communicated as a group, the more we came together as an AUBH community.
Online platforms such as Microsoft Teams have proven invaluable to us in facilitating communication. I scheduled regular online calls with the AUBH Management Committee and the academic team, and we created virtual groups to share new techniques and learning tools. Through teamwork and constant communication, we were able to identify the most effective strategies and tools and ensured their implementation institution-wide.
What is the AUBH’s technological infrastructure like? Do you employ Artificial Intelligence tools?
The key to our success was having tech-savvy people and tools already in place before the pandemic, which allowed for a quick transition to an online modality. We are proud of our innovative faculty and fortunate to have American-style programs that are flexible in credit transfer and adaptable to different learning methodologies and modalities.
We have mirrored global best practices to enrich our student experience at AUBH. For example, we utilized ProctorU, a U.S.-based, AIenabled,online, assessment platform to protect the integrity and credibility of high-stakes exams. ProctorU is used by more than 1,000 institutions and universities in the U.S.
We are extremely proud of how seamlessly students moved to an online modality, achieving great results in the face of adversity.
In your opinion, what’s the single most important thing leaders can do for their teams and communities right now?
The best strategy leaders can have, is to seek out global best practices and act 110% for the benefit of their staff and communities. For the higher education sector, this of course includes students, front and center, making the best investment and policy decisions for the long-term health and welfare of our educational communities.
How did you formulate your plan for campus re-opening in September?
As a Management team, we based our strategy on a single goal: to keep everyone safe. We worked diligently within the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health, Higher Education Council (HEC), and National Taskforce for Combating the Covid-19 to ensure compliance. The strategy is part of our “Culture of Care” philosophy, and we are continually exploring ways to support and protect the health and well-being of the AUBH Community.
We have an NHRA-accredited on-campus clinic, in partnership with Bahrain Specialist Hospital (BSH), and have prepared a containment strategy for anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19, with dedicated isolation rooms. For any new faculty and incoming students, we have partnered with Le Meridien Hotel City Centre to provide isolation facilities.
As part of the plan, we will also implement several innovative new classroom procedures:
• We are offering a dual-modality opportunity, allowing classes to be held on campus according to the University schedule, and simultaneously online, where students who are unable to attend class on campus or prefer to study at a distance can attend at the same time as students in the classroom. This solution incorporates a specialized camera system with views of the classroom, live broadcasting and remote participation, whiteboards, and activity through our interactive CleverTouch monitors, all being shared through Canvas, a cloudbased learning platform, and Microsoft Teams.
• Our beautiful 75,000-sqm campus ensures effective social distancing practices with adapted classroom seating, and reduced numbers of students per room. All our classrooms have been modified to incorporate social-distancing between seating locations. For classes that require additional space, two classrooms will be used simultaneously with the lecture being broadcasted across both classrooms.
• For laboratory classes, we have implemented simulation software to complement the traditional classes for scientific majors. This will ensure all students – whether face-to-face or at a distance – can benefit from experimentation and exploration in a safe environment.
A comprehensive and well-thoughtout full protection strategy is also detailed for all employees and visitors to campus, and I’m very confident in our return to campus in September.
Why should parents and students choose the AUBH for future education?
At AUBH, we truly care about developing our students’ real passions,and aim to equip them with the knowledge and skillset to achieve their personal and professional goals, for a lifetime of success. The AUBH quality of American-style education mirrors that of the best universities in the United States. One of the key differences of our style of education is that our students are given the freedom to change majors during their academic journey with us. Students have two years of general education courses common across all colleges, giving them the skills to be productive, to find their own resources, to self-assess, but to also have a chance to change their mind if they decide they want to enroll in a different degree program, while transferring a maximum number of credit hours.
We’re also unique in the characteristics we look for in students. As part of our admission process, we interview every single applicant to understand their goals as well as their personal and academic skills. We nurture soft skills such as confidence,creative thinking, entrepreneurship, problem solving, etc.
Finally, we are thinking holistically about the challenge of global employability readiness. Our curriculum is built to respond to new job requirements such as computer science and multimedia design. We envision a new caliber of graduates, empowered with the ability to think critically and add real strategic value to the field they choose to enter. At the AUBH, we truly stand for a lifetime of success.