The pandemic has impacted all industries and education has been no exception. For the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the UAE\u2019s largest higher educational institution, this crisis accelerated a digital transformation initiative meant to move the university toward an Uber-like model for delivering education and preparing graduates to be entrepreneurs.\nStarting in March, HCT went completely online and by the end of May, 23,000 students as well as 2,500 faculty members and staff spent 1.4 million hours working and studying remotely to complete the semester without a hitch.\n[ Keep up on the latest thought leadership, insights, how-to, and analysis on IT through CIO\u2019s newsletters. ]\nThe move is a foretaste of the university\u2019s planned transformation to a fully digital campus built on a core learning management system. Adoption of digital technologies, training of the faculty, and end-to-end application integration is enabling the university to adopt a new model of student and faculty engagement, after awarding more than 72,000 degrees since 1991.\u00a0\u00a0\nHCT\u2019s plan, among other things, calls for students to be able to pursue very specific skills-oriented credentials \u2013 rather than follow a traditional years-long path to a degree\u2014and to allow both students and faculty members to enroll from anywhere and work and study online.\nTech can eliminate need for a physical campus\n\u201cIn other words, you would source a student from anywhere and you would source faculty from anywhere. A hundred percent technology powered, education system or higher education offering without actually having a physical campus, exactly like Uber, who have no cars,\u201d says Dr. Jihad Mohaidat, vice president of Education Technologies at HCT.\n Jihad Mohaidat\n\nJihad Mohaidat is vice president of Education Technologies at HCT.\n\n\nThe plan has been several years in the making. A few years ago, HCT began planning what the university should look like 10 years in the future. It developed an education technology strategy that focuses on what technologies need to be available to help build what it expects its future to look like.\nThis comprises five pillars including a competency and skill-based approach for student education; robust IT infrastructure to support the institution\u2019s future vision; applications to create an interactive experience; a train-the-trainers initiative; and suitable content.\n\u00a0As part of the planning, it identified the need for a core learning management system and selected Blackboard Learn, a multimodule, web-based education platform designed to allow organisations to add online elements to traditional programs and develop and manage completely virtual offerings.\nSince no single IT application can meet every expectation of every end user, Blackboard\u2019s learning management system has been adapted to be able to interconnect with other content applications through APIs and various external tools.\u00a0\u00a0\nApp integration avoids vendor lock-in\nHCT has leveraged the Blackboard platform to integrate the learning management system with other content development tools.\n\u201cWe have a series of education consultants that are always being used to help, guide and advise HCT on some of their roadmap activities. I think this is one of the reasons why you know, the relationship is strong, because we are on the ground,\u201d says Robert Speed, vice president, Middle East and Africa, at Blackboard.\n Blackboard\n\nRobert Speed is vice president, Middle East and Africa, at Blackboard.\n\n\nBeing a global technology vendor, Blackboard has a lot of best practices from around the world. \u201cWe have got millions of users and thousands of customers that are all in a similar position and that knowledge and expertise from around the world is something that HCT can tap into,\u201d says Speed.\nThis has empowered the university faculty to publish content on their own into the core learning management system, rather than depending on requests to a central team to integrate their content into the core learning management system.\n\u201cWe made it in a way where we decentralize such kind of operations and give access to the faculty to utilize other development tools that are integrated with Blackboard,\u201d Mohaidat says. \u201cI want to focus on the integration capability rather than actually getting help. That is probably more crucial to us and more important. There is a lot of activity in the pipeline with more integration to ensure decentralization and utilize much more of the capability of Blackboard.\u201d\nIn early 2019, HCT also decided to investigate the adoption of micro-credentials for higher education, instead of the traditional academic approach. Micro degrees are a manifestation of competency-based education, which seeks to tie credentialing to specific skills sets.\nThe university\u2019s Uber-like, smart e-learning strategy is part of its vision for a digital campus. This futuristic approach includes curriculum personalization, digital credentials, and campuses with no physical borders.\nBig data is key for virtual learning\nBig data plays a big role in HCT\u2019s strategy. The university started its big data journey a couple of years ago by building a data lake. The data lake is responsible for capturing every single data point generated inside the university. The university started collecting data a year ago and utilized this capability extensively during the pandemic lockdown.\n\u201cWe were able to track every single student during the pandemic,\u201d Mohaidat says.\nAs an example, data captured during the pandemic lockdown was able to show the number of sections being run simultaneously; which faculty delayed the start of their lecture and by how many minutes; and which faculty finished their lectures earlier and by how many minutes.\nThe big data platform contains data from multiple sources and serves as a unified data layer, allowing the university to analyse voluminous data in any format\u2014structured, unstructured or semi structured\u2014via reporting, dashboarding and machine learning applications.\nMonitoring and aggregating the data is key to the university\u2019s Uber-like education strategy. \u201cYou have to see what is happening in order for you to make decisions,\u201d says Mohaidat.\nPandemic speeds move to online education \nMeanwhile, as the pandemic raised concerns about the general wellbeing of HCT\u2019s community, it also caused the university to pilot distance-based education by introducing students and faculty to a fully online mode of delivery. \u00a0The core business went fully online, ensuring students had uninterrupted access to their course content, real time interaction with the faculty, and access to key e-services.\nThe university was able to test its readiness for online delivery through a two-day pilot in early March 2020. The Blackboard Learn learning management system and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra solutions provided the framework to deliver this remote experience. High-impact training\u00a0for HCT\u2019s faculty supported the transition to online delivery of teaching.\nHCT\u2019s strategic planning had laid the groundwork. \u201cWe were completely prepared,\u201d\u00a0 Mohaidat says.\nThe actual switch-over of operations by the university involved a few days of pilot testing to ensure the online content tools were synchronized. The university ran the remaining part of its ongoing semester from 22 March to 7 May, completely online. Blackboard Collaborate was used to consolidate the student usage data.\nDuring this period, the university did not suffer any outage and completed the semester exams online as well. At present, the summer session is also running online, without any hitch.\nBlackboard applications are hosted on AWS and Blackboard\u2019s Speed points out that latency of the vendor\u2019s applications have not been a concern in the region. \u201cWe have not really seen any issues and we host with Amazon globally. In fact, we have seen crazy numbers of students online at the same time - over a million students online at the same time,\u201d Speed said.\nThe Blackboard applications are also built to work offline, allowing student to complete their assignments and tasks even when they are not connected to the Internet.\u00a0\nAccording to Middle East data provided by Blackboard, usage numbers spiked significantly during the period March to May 2020, year-over-year:\n\nBlackboard Learn: 25 percent increase in users\nBlackboard Collaborate: 400 percent increase in users\nMobile access: 117 increase in users\n\nCloud-based education creates pricing issues\nThe concept of micro-credentials, competency-based education, and the Uberization of education has its challenges for technology solution vendors as well as educators. Public cloud licensing is based on usage by the end user, whether the end user is engaged full time with the application or part time.\nIn the case of HCT, with the concept of remote, demand-based education and micro-credentials, a student is not necessarily engaged with the university for the full span of 12 months.\nAccording to Mohaidat, there needs to be a distinction between an aggregated number of students enrolled in the university for higher education, versus full-time students, and this leads to the concept of full-time equivalent students.\u00a0\u00a0\n\u201cYou need to have a different business model. How would you calculate the total number of students as full time equivalent students or FTEs?\u201d asks Mohaidat. \u201cBlackboard needs to start thinking. You have to come up with a business model of how to calculate FTEs rather than number of students.\u201d\nA few years ahead, when HCT is delivering on its new education strategy, students may enroll themselves as new users, and may also come and go in terms of completing their competency evaluation. The question is therefore, how will vendor licensing change to be in sync with this disruption in student enrolments and online activity?\nWith the deep partnership with Blackboard and the strong direction by leaders such as Mohaidat, the innovation demonstrated by Higher Colleges of Technology is path breaking in the region. Competency based education as adopted by the university and recommended by its forward-looking stakeholders potentially has huge benefits for the future graduates of UAE and the region. This can only further drive entrepreneurship and economic development in the UAE.