Dr Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor, Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU)

Dr Mansoor Al Awar is the Chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohamed Smart University. He is also the Chairman of the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) and a Member of the Executive Council of the Association of Arab Universities (AARU). Dr. Mansoor has served as a chair for several awards related to innovation, leadership, education, and excellence, including Chair of jury for the Arab Government Excellence Award, the first round 2019, the Arab world’s most prestigious award under the umbrella of the League of Arab States in the field of Arab governance excellence, Chair of jury, Egypt Government Excellence Award since 2019, Chair of jury, Minister of Interior Excellence Award since it has been launched in 2011 (UAE) and Judge, Innovators Under 35 awards (IU35), launched by Dubai Future Foundation and MIT Technology Review Arabia.

Besides Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), the region’s first university with smart learning approach, Dr. Al Awar has started, built and led several innovative enterprises, like Innovation Arabia, the annual scientific conference with a focus on innovation in the Arab world, First Quality Department at Dubai Police, including suggestion and self-assessment schemes and public opinion survey center, Emirates Business Women Award, at Dubai Quality Group, Middle East eLearning Association (MEEA) and Middle East Quality Association (MEQA).

Dr. Al Awar has received numerous awards and accolades: Golden Order of Merit, on Arab World Good Governance, and ICT & Knowledge CEO Excellence Award, etc. Dr Al Awar has also published several books on innovation management, leadership, higher education and quality. In a conversation with Higher Education Digest, Dr. Al Awar talks about Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University’s vision, learning approach, plans and much more.


Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University is the first smart university in the UAE. What was the vision behind establishing such a unique institution?

H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai directed the establishment of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU) nearly 19 years ago to redefine the future of higher education. His vision was to transform traditional education to advance the development of the future generations. The progress cannot be achieved without changing the traditional way of thinking in education and all its dimensions – way of delivery, curriculum, environment.

This was the inspiration and the keystone to launch Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University. The vision to re-imagine, re-think and re-engineer higher education is reflected in all aspects of HBMSU’s design and operations as we were the first one to implement this vision.

Since the inception, HBMSU has been thriving under the leadership of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and President of HBMSU, to pioneer a smart learning approach that would redirect the future of education and benefit individuals, organizations, and society.

Tell us about Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University’s learning approach and philosophy. What makes its learning paradigm unique compared to other universities?

HBMSU is the first university in the Arab region that has adopted smart learning. The smart learning concept is, first and foremost, about accessibility. So many people in the Arab world have been deprived of the right to education and the current literacy rate in the Arab region of less than 85% is still lagging behind the world averages according to the UN indicators. Illiteracy is a very costly disease for the society as the knowledge disability affects the lives of people and jeopardizes their future. Smart education provides learning opportunities to all accessible at any place at any time. For this, HBMSU has developed a unique lifelong learning model which outreaches all age groups – from the age of 6 to 99 – when it comes to learning opportunities and enable them to gain knowledge and skills that they can use to contribute to the growth of the economy. At the same time, HBMSU focuses on adapting learning approaches to different ages taking into account specific needs and characteristics of different age groups. In the same way as a restaurant would offer its young guests a special kids’ menu, the smart pedagogical approach at the University implies that every learner is offered knowledge and learning modes that suit this particular learner the best. Quality is the second pillar of smart learning applied at HBMSU. Quality of all products, offerings and education in general is the focus of the learning paradigm established by HBMSU. The third pillar – affordability – has an enormous potential for re-engineering the higher education that will no longer be a luxury for students to pursue a life-changing degree. The traditional campus model implies many hidden costs in addition to high tuition fees, while smart education has a lot of comparative advantages being time and place flexible, thus providing much more affordable opportunities. Having been providing flexible learning opportunities to all to study from anywhere at any time, HBMSU became the first hub of smart learning in the UAE and the MENA region.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what are the most significant challenges for educators? How did HBMSU support educators as a member of the UNESCO Global Education Coalition launched in response to the pandemic?

As teachers had been forced to rapidly move to online modes of delivery at all levels of education, we at HBMSU saw their struggle during the emergency closure of schools and universities and recognized the importance to assist teachers to ensure learning continuity by sharing our knowledge and expertise in online education. In partnership with the UAE’s Ministry of Education, we launched the survival kit for teachers: two crash courses for teachers in the UAE ‘Be an online tutor in 24 hours’ and ‘Design an online course in 24 hours’. Within the first two weeks after launching the courses, more than 70,000 teachers from public and private schools have been trained to apply online modes of teaching and learning, use available tools for conducting online lessons and organize distance education more efficiently and effectively.

Building on the success of the crash courses in the UAE and the Arab region, the University joined hands with UNESCO to help teachers around the globe. HBMSU was the first and only Arab university to join the Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO to respond to COVID-19 emergency and support countries in scaling up best distance learning practices. The coalition joined by HBMSU rallies the United Nations family, civil society organizations and major technology partners including Microsoft, Huawei, Google, and others to act together. It harnesses the expertise of public and private partners to help countries implement innovative and context-sensitive solutions to provide education remotely.

Following the unprecedented demand for HBMSU’s courses in English and Arabic, its versions in Russian, French and Spanish languages have been developed to help teachers from respective countries. The Russian version of the course ‘Be an Online Tutor in 24 Hours’ has been produced by HBMSU in partnership with UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE). Since the global launch of the crash courses, more than 330,000 educators from 102 countries have been trained how to teach online effectively.

Please tell us about HBMSU’s collaborations with global organizations and universities worldwide.

Since its inception, HBMSU has been built based on the “outside-in” approach: we came into existence with the great support from 12 “quality gurus” from all over the world – prominent experts in the field of Total Quality Management who facilitated the soft launch of this project. Thus, the University have always recognized the importance of international cooperation both with individual experts and leading institutions. HBMSU has come to be known as the ‘House of Quality’ and our partner network currently includes all leaders in the field of quality management such as EFQM (the European Foundation for Quality Management), British Quality Foundation, etc. as well as global partners in the fields of smart learning and online education, including the Commonwealth of Learning, European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, Asian Association of Open Universities, UNESCO IITE, and many others.

HBMSU is associated with many reputed academic and professional institutions because we strongly believe that the global collective effort in order to re-engineer the education is a must.  This philosophy was evident when we invite our partners to Dubai in 2019 to launch the international consortium for Benchmarking Framework and Data Set for Online, Open, Smart and Technology-enhanced Higher Education. The consortium brings together leading online and open universities from around the world, including higher education associations and quality assurance institutions with the aim of collectively developing a benchmarking framework that would establish and promote a common understanding and criteria for quality in technology-enhanced higher education. This global initiative supports the ongoing efforts of online and open universities to assure the quality in online education and facilitate the achievement of the UN Sustainable development Goal on quality education. The consortium currently unites 18 members from all over the world – from Canada to New Zealand – and continues to receive global support. The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), a leading international organization focused on online and distance education, has recently become the official partner of the project.

HBMSU continues to expand its network of partner institutions and collaborates with leading international organizations in accordance with the university’s strategic agenda. ‘Together we grow’ is one of the significant values we hold.

You are also the Chairman of the Governing Board of UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) and a board member of the Higher Education and Scientific Research Co-ordination Council in the UAE. Being part of the global dialogue on the future of education, could you share with us what innovations should we expect in higher education in the coming years?

I am confident that we will witness an accelerated shift in all aspects of education in an effort to move away from traditional models of teaching and learning. At HBMSU, we prioritized digital transformation as one of the strategic directions of the University. We will continue to leverage innovation, creativity, technology, and scientific research to change the face of higher education in the region and help transform the UAE into becoming a world leader in innovation.

The revolutionary trend we advocate for and the concept which we will present in February next year at Expo 2020 is transforming education from ‘service’ to ‘utility’. This is a break-through approach to education which will be learner-driven, rather than institution-driven as was established in the past and still prevails in the higher education landscape. The new philosophy is based on the premise that education is a fundamental human right for everyone. In this context, “utility” means that all have access to it and learners can consume knowledge at their own pace and on-demand rather than as dictated by an institution. The concept will be presented by the University at Expo 2020 during the launch of HBMSU’s Cloud Campus, an innovative solution to provide learning for skills opportunities for everyone. HBMSU’s innovative endeavors aim to deliver equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

There has been an increase in the adoption of EdTech by higher education institutions across the world. How do you see this trend? Will all universities move to online teaching and learning?

While new technologies such as AI and Machine Learning, Big Data, and the Internet of Things (IoT) will certainly have a great impact on education and change teaching and learning practices, I don’t think all higher education institutions will transform into online, open, or smart universities. The invention of a passenger plane and appearance of commercial airlines didn’t stop people from using ships. As with all inventions and innovations, there is a variety of reasons to choose different options while the transformation is on the way. One thing I am confident about is that learners will be in the driving seat of education, while we at universities should support the learning process with our knowledge and expertise. I always give my students an example of universities serving the same way as Google Maps for its students: it won’t function unless you enter the direction. If you don’t follow the advice of Google Maps, you may get stuck in a traffic jam and it will take you longer to reach your destination. While such delay on the road can cost you 15 minutes; in the world of education, you can lose 15 years if you do not follow the guidance of your educators. At HBMSU, we strive to provide our learners with personalized and intellectually stimulating learner experiences to reach their goals.

Online education is one of the major trends and rapidly developing markets with the predicted value of 370 billion USD by 2026. While traditional universities will continue to exist providing people with different options, smart education is on the rise and going to continue its growth.

How is HBMSU encouraging innovation and creativity in students? What are the mechanisms adopted by HBMSU to support entrepreneurship among students?

One of the great impacts of smart education on students is that it gives learners self-confidence and independence: smart education is all about “pull-system”, not “push-system”. At HBMSU, our learners are at the heart of our operations and are involved in decision-making processes. It means that the learner takes responsibility for his or her own education, which develops critical thinking and confidence.

We identified 5 major skills of HBMSU’s graduates: academic excellence; analytical skills, passion for knowledge which is necessary for research; communications skills; and national identity. These soft skills promoted at a university level are combined with specialized skills acquired by learners over their programs and courses of their choice. Such strategy is based on fundamental pillars of leadership change, passion for results, and innovation and entrepreneurship. Following the directions of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, HBMSU pledged to graduate entrepreneurs rather than job-seekers and we successfully implement our commitment. Additionally, our faculty and learners work together with the local and international communities to develop top-caliber research and deploy creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship for the sustainable development of the UAE and the rest of the world.

What are the next plans and projects of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University?

Under the guidance of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, we will continuously promote the culture of smart learning and distance learning, as well as transform higher education as one of the main drivers of a nation’s growth.

I have already shed some light on our ambitious plans, and we look forward to the launch of the ‘Zayed Cyber Palm for Education’ initiative at Expo 2020 Dubai in February 2022. This initiative will help spread the concept of smart learning at the regional and global levels. We will continue to utilize our resources and capabilities to support knowledge-transfer with the aim of making a real difference in people’s lives. All these efforts will enable HBMSU to continuously serve as a hub for smart education and the house of quality in the Arab region and globally.

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