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When Covid-19 hit early last year, almost all sectors were upended. The world of education was no different.

Institutions around the globe were forced to close their doors to prevent the spread, while alternative teaching methods and technologies had to be adopted overnight. Online learning – which had been enjoying a slow roll-out – suddenly became an urgent necessity, rather than a useful option.

It was a trial by fire for educational institutions in the UAE, and in many ways illustrated which ones genuinely had innovation in their DNA.

A notable success story is Heriot-Watt University Dubai – a satellite campus of the revered Heriot-Watt University with a history dating back to 1821 and a long tradition of excellence.

Professor Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, believes that a culture of embracing change and blue-sky thinking has stood the university in good stead.

“There is no doubt that the changes brought about by the pandemic have stimulated innovation within the education sector at establishments with a vision,” says Prof. Kaka.

There is no doubt that the changes brought about by the pandemic have stimulated innovation within the education sector at establishments with a vision.

- Professor Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

The university developed a contingency plan right at the outset of the pandemic that ensured students could continue studying, but off-campus with faculty providing remote support.

“Key to this remote support was Vision, the university’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which could be accessed by students on any device from a desktop PC to a phone at any time,” he adds. “All staff and students at the global campuses used Vision daily for learning and teaching tasks and was already the repository for learning and teaching materials. It allows for the delivery of live and recorded video content, setting quizzes, surveys and assignments, and encourages online discussion and tracks progress and manages grades.”

Now with a vaccine being rolled out, Heriot-Watt is using the upheaval to usher in a new era of education with the launch of a state-of-the-art campus in Knowledge Park that takes into account the changed circumstances.

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“Staff have to work much harder than before to ensure students stay engaged,” he explains. “Health and safety now take centre stage, especially mental wellbeing.

“While graduating students recognise that the job market is more challenging than ever before, students and parents see higher education as an investment in the future and want returns.”

In a scenario where the focus will be on online classes and developing soft skills that cannot be replicated by machines or automation, Heriot-Watt is evolving its offering to meet these expectations, while still delivering top-notch education.

“The campus, ready to welcome students later this year, will boast a digitally enabled learning environment supporting the delivery of the university’s portfolio of programmes including data science, computing and AI, business, accounting and finance, psychology, architecture and design, construction and engineering,” says Prof. Kaka.

It will also feature a dedicated student hub, a central student services centre, enhanced library and social learning spaces, as well as the wide range of digitally enhanced classrooms, seminar rooms, studios, and laboratories. The university’s in-house recording studios will also allow the creation of digital materials for a more engaging and interactive learning experience.

Meanwhile, a new business and enterprise locale will generate increased opportunities for students to engage directly with business and industry, providing graduates with unique learning experiences.

Racking up its next-gen credentials is the Robotics lab, a high-tech facility for robotics and artificial intelligence that will allow students to develop, design and interact with autonomous systems.

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“In line with the changing market demands, we now have new programmes such as data analysis and managing innovation, in addition to an engineering doctorate (EngD) in construction – a programme that has been launched in partnership with industry – which is one of the first programmes of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa,” adds Prof. Kaka.

In terms of overall academic quality, the Dubai campus has consistently secured an overall rating of five stars in the Knowledge and Human Development Authority’s annual Higher Education Classification.

“We were the first international university to bring in lab-based programmes, and we invested in opportunities for staff to learn, develop and progress in their careers,” says Prof. Kaka, citing reasons for its performance and popularity over the years. “Plus, we are a global university whereby students have access to global resources and can transfer between campuses.”

The focus moving forward, he adds, will be on achieving excellence in academic outcomes while prioritising health and safety.

“We will continue to add to our portfolio of programmes in response to market demands and refine the curriculum to equip students with real-life skills that will help them hit the ground running in the workplace.”

There are major plans for growth too, with the Dubai campus exploring the potential of countries that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes nations such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Uzbekistan.

These countries all have a large student population keen on exploring the possibility of higher education in the UAE due to the exciting lifestyle on offer, as well as its proximity to their home countries, a similar socio-economic profile, and no language barrier.

For more information on Heriot-Watt University Dubai, click here