Image Credit: José Luis Barros/©Gulf News

The world is changing through technology and this includes the world of higher education. ICT is helping to put students at the centre of the learning experience, more in control of the process and providing a range of options to access, consume and share this educational content — using smart devices anywhere, anytime.

Dubai is perfectly positioned to benefit from this trend with its prime geographical location, global connections through its airlines and the world’s busiest airport — and one of the world’s smartest cities.

Sitting at the crossroads of the real world and digital economy, the Dubai Smart City project will create a sustainable high quality of life built on six pillars — Smart Economy, Smart Living, Smart Mobility, Smart Governance, Smart Environment and Smart People. It will also connect students, teachers and institutions from all over the world through any device.

Dubai and the UAE are already competing effectively in building the infrastructure; the UAE was ranked the world’s 12th most competitive country by the World Economic Forum in its 2014-15 report; and even higher for infrastructure and government procurement of advanced technology (ranked third); attracting professional talent (also ranked third) and ranked high for technological readiness.

The WEF’s Networked Readiness Index score (24) means that Dubai is well positioned to be the world’s classroom — and a natural hub for higher and business education through a blended learning approach.

Today, with communications technology connecting people in so many ways, the possibilities of improving the blended learning ‘mix’ are growing by the day. Education has always been influenced by technology and has increasingly adopted a multimedia approach; It is clear that the future of learning is ‘blended’ ... but will more technology in blended learning improve or dilute the mix?

How can we be sure that it is the right mix, without forgetting that face-to-face contact for some purposes (such as a part-time MBA workshop, where students meet faculty and each other) in many ways is irreplaceable and still very highly valued by students as part of the overall learning experience.

Today, we are only seeing a glimpse of the future picture of higher education that is still emerging — these are still early days of the ICT-based blended learning approach. The technology is pushing the possibilities — but there is also growing demand pulling the process.

There is certainly increasing global demand for high quality Western-style university education from students who may not be able/want to come to campus for the full immersive experience, for whatever reason. Reputable educational institutions (licensed, regulated, accredited and recognised) are certainly looking to engage more students and transnational education is a common feature among the world’s top universities and business schools.

Blended learning is also gaining traction in business education especially perhaps aided by the fact that this mirrors the way global business is increasingly conducted — mobile workers and teams operating remotely and collaboratively, often in English, through audio and videoconferencing and webinars.

So, this is a very familiar mode of working and studying for many business people in multinationals.

Blended learning is an evolution from the first online education experiments. In fact, the first online learning attempts failed as limitations were quickly realised. But the advantages of cost/convenience were recognised. ‘Blended’ — using ICT tools to deliver learning opportunities and complement face-to-face contact — quickly gained ground as a more viable alternative.

Contact time with faculty and peers is still highly prized by students and so a truly blended model can work very well, offering the best and convenience of both formats (online and face-to-face) and socialising the learning opportunities for people of all cultures and nationalities in the region.

Non-business undergraduate programmes may find it more difficult to adopt a blended learning approach — because of the content and students — although younger undergraduates are probably more comfortable with technology than the faculty.

So, if ICT is making the world a village, shouldn’t there be a ‘global village classroom’? Is this the role of the MOOC (massive, online, open course)?

In a world where information and knowledge is increasingly stored and shared online, where communities, workers, friends and family are increasingly bound together by technology/social media, and commerce and transactions are following, surely education can follow a similar path to meet the growing demand.

A MOOC may be capable of delivering a classroom experience and educational content to the world but the results and impact are still unknown. Like many recent social media and technology innovations, the MOOC may still be searching for its role in the educational landscape.

MOOCs may just be a part of the evolving mix of blended learning, but they clearly demonstrate that educational content can be delivered freely through the internet. We will have to wait and see where this development takes us next.

What is certain though is that through Dubai’s Smart City initiative and world-class physical infrastructure, the city is ideally positioned to support digital and face-to-face learning in a truly blended environment.

Credit: The writer is director for the Middle East at Manchester Business School.