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The evolving role of technology in education

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Gulf Insider talks to Mr. William Hurt, Chief Operating Officer of the American University of Bahrain on digital transformation, FinTech, and the evolving role of technology in education.

What is the scope for digital transformation in education and what are the risks associated with it?

The scope for digital transformation in education is as wide or narrow as institutions want to make it. AUBH came into existence at the peak of digital transformation in the region, facilitating our ability to become a leader in the field. As a start-up institution, we are inherently dynamic and we had invested heavily in technology from the beginning. We believe in the power of digital education to reach students in a profound and engaging way, enhancing their education through greater access to learning materials, instructors, and other students. As a result, our entire campus and our teaching models have been specifically developed to use the most advanced educational technology available.

The risks of migrating to a primarily digital platform are twofold. First, not everyone has access to the required technology. Students who don’t have the right device at home to access programs such as Adobe Photoshop, etc., would not be able participate fully in live online classes. To mitigate this issue, we partnerned with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and adopted AWS WorkSpaces, a cloud-based virtual desktop that replaces a traditional one. Students could access their virtual desktop with any device they have at home and complete their work on the cloud. Second, in an increasingly digital space, the management and security of data becomes a key issue – we must consider how to safeguard the privacy of our students while not creating excessive barriers to an open learning environment. This is why from day one, we decided to host all our assets on the AWS Cloud. This means we don’t have server infrastructure on the campus – it’s all on the cloud.

What are the necessary elements of a successful education model centered around technology?

A successful education model centered around technology will require a dynamic institution, one that can update and expand its technology to meet the ever-changing needs of a competitive marketplace. AUBH was designed with this in mind; not only to begin with the best technology but also with strategies to update our tech and evolve. Institutions also need to invest in and work with the best partners. For example, our relationships with AWS and Microsoft were a game-changer during the pandemic campus closures.

Businesses across all industries now require innovative skills that are not traditionally taught in tertiary education. A combination of professional knowledge, technical expertise, and an array of soft skills are in demand; with creative thinking, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and digital literacy being central to the new graduate toolbox. At AUBH, we have a holistic approach that encompasses academic learning, social development, and a variety of soft skills. Students need to be willing to adapt to new technology and ways of learning during their educational journey – once they’ve entered the workforce, their adaptability will serve them for the rest of their professional lives.

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Is a hybrid learning environment the future?

Yes, absolutely. The most transformational movement for education will be the continuation of the hybrid modality learning model well into the future. At AUBH, we have embraced the dual-modality learning experience and we are using it to amplify our student’s educational experience. Some students actually perform better in this environment so finding what works for each student is key.

Mr. William D. Hurt

With Covid-19 pushing the world to rethink how technology is used, we are expecting to see institutions, regulators, and educators rethink how they leverage digital platforms and services, and how they can integrate them within the curriculum to offer the most engaging learning experience possible.

How effective is digital technology in education?

In a word – extremely. It allows students greater access to instructors, materials, and learning experiences at all times, on and off campus. Also, thanks to AI, scenarios can be brought to life that traditional methods just don’t allow. Students don’t have to wait for a library to open, they can access all of our books and journals through well-established digital platforms, EBSCO and JSTOR. They don’t have to wait for a class to have a question answered, they can message their instructor on Microsoft Teams and most likely receive an immediate response.

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Digital technology streamlines the grading process, helping instructors identify students who are struggling and need extra support. It allows the same instructors to monitor the students who are exceeding expectations to provide more advanced learning opportunities. In conjunction with this, students don’t have to wait as long for feedback and can adjust their study habits to meet the demands of the virtual classroom environment. 

Digital exam moderation is another great example – we invested in ProctorU, a remote invigilation software which uses AI to give students as ‘real’ an exam experience as possible. ProctorU is a U.S.-based, AI-enabled secure online assessment platform which protects the integrity and credibility of high-stakes exams. It is used by more than 1,000 institutions and universities in the U.S. and can detect cheating by monitoring eye movements via a webcam.

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What qualities does a student need to have to be fit for employment in the digital era?

In today’s rapidly evolving economies, employers recruit candidates with soft skills such as problem-solving; presentation skills; creativity; entrepreneurship; and digital literacy among others. Those crucial skills, in addition to lifelong learning are essential and have been identified by the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report, as the main qualities a student needs to succeed in tomorrow’s jobmarket.

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At AUBH, we focus on ingraining these skills within our curriculum and learning experience both in the classroom and beyond, by exposing our students to different sets of activities. These include events related to sports; culture; arts; entrepreneurship; and inspirational speaker series.

What is the relevance of Fintech in Bahrain? Should some level of Fintech training be mandatory for all students?

Bahrain has made great strides in positioning itself as a FinTech hub in the region. Bahrain FinTech Bay is a huge achievement – a collaborative co-working space in which to share knowledge. We see a future for many of our students in this field, not only our Computer Science graduates but also our Business graduates, whose programs incorporate FinTech modules.

Finding your real passion in education as a student is incredibly important to your academic success.  By counseling students about Fintech, and the economic opportunity it represents, they may unleash a passion of which they were previously unaware. Our job as educators is to work with the student to bring out their best qualities. Helping a student understand what drives them will make them excel for a lifetime of success. When you are passionate about your field you are more likely to contribute in a meaningful way to society, which is a key part of our vision at AUBH.

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Must technology be adapted into an education model or should education be structured around technological infrastructure?

At the end of the day, as a student-centric University, our objective is to prepare our students through quality education, with the most advanced technology, and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed after graduation. As a start-up institution, we built the University with the latest technology in place and are using it, so the tools we have in place are adapted into our education model. There is room for both solutions in the field of higher education, it really depends on each institution’s objectives and needs.

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