What is your role at the university?
As one of the team who 'opened the shutters' at ZU in '98, I've worked in several capacities. I have taught in a number of subject areas and also served as senior educational technologist, training teachers and managing projects for technology in education.
I registered ZU's first educational .mobi site in 2008 and remain a committed advocate of mobile learning.
How important do you feel the use of mobile technology is in education?
The Gulf had 'gone mobile' years before even the US woke up to its potential. But since it is now a truly global phenomenon, local content providers need to ensure that they have offerings that will engage students and potential students across the age ranges in both Arabic and English. Young people today are constantly on games and websites that have been created by the most talented developers in the world, so getting the local youth to focus their attention and interact around the material that is relevant to them means raising the bar on design -as well, of course, as on content. And unless that material also works seamlessly on mobile devices, young people are unlikely to give it the time it needs to be effective; as they move around, they expect their learning opportunities to move around with them.
How have iPads been deployed at Zayed University?
Recently, tablets have become ubiquitous across the early years of UAE state sector higher education. At ZU, there has been an emphasis on iBooks for a number of preparatory and General Education courses. One thing to note is that much of the in-house material has been of a markedly higher standard -particularly in terms of interactivity- than any offerings that we have seen from the international educational publishers. So there seems to be huge potential to get way ahead of the curve in terms of the effectiveness of the material that is presented to students, at least for those institutions and local content providers who are able to commit the resources to development.
In your opinion, what impact have iPads had on teaching and learning?
What has been surprising to visitors and consultants from outside the GCC is that even before the iPads were introduced, 99%+ of our students already owned smartphones, particularly Blackberries and to a lesser extent iPhones and Android devices. So iPads perhaps did not have the quite the novelty value that might be experienced in some other places. At least this was the case for the students; many of the faculty, however, had never used a touch-screen before, so it has certainly been a great opportunity for any one of us who wanted to upgrade our technology skills. Also, to make the use of iPads seamless, we upgraded parts of our Wi-Fi network and web infrastructure. As a result, everyone now benefits, irrespective of the device they use.
What apps have been particularly well harnessed at the university?
Each academic unit has found apps and online services that go some way to meeting its own specific needs. In my department, apart from the iBooks mentioned previously (authored by my colleague, Fairlie Atkinson), there has been an interest in Edmodo, Citation Machine and Google Apps for Education (a perennial favourite of mine).
On a personal level, the only things I take to class these days are a few board pens and my smartphone, on which I run CamScanner and a Picasa uploader. The content then appears automagically in our course management system.
The students can capture whatever they want of the class on their iPads and smartphones and can subsequently use tools like Skitch and Adobe Reader to append their own notes.
Do you see gaps in the app market in terms of further education?
The UAE is presented with an opportunity to play a pivotal role in the education and development of the Arab world since the country is widely viewed as a beacon of modernity. So there is huge potential for anyone willing to dedicate the resources to developing content that is both engaging and culturally appropriate in Arabic and English. Personally, I would see ages 4-12 as being an initial priority; secondary schools need students who already feel confident about their own learning, and if the materials are right, for example taking advantage of the tactile and interactive experience of touchscreens, the work of teachers in the classroom is likely to deliver far better results. The K-12 and the home environment are clearly both growth sectors and would see a high educational return on investment.
Turning to the home learning, I also wonder what potential there might be for addressing the needs of adult learners. UAE higher ed. has graduated tens of thousands of women who are now entrusted with the education of their children. If we were able to use technology to reach out to those women, we could offer them the opportunity to maintain and raise their skills, both for their own benefit and, crucially, to pass these on to the next generation. It would be wonderful if this type of initiative could get onto the national education agenda.
What is next for the university in terms of iPad use?
My hope as an educator is that we continue to build creativity and interactivity into materials that meet the learning needs of our students across the length and breadth of the curriculum. In the spirit of openness, which is the lifeblood of the academy, access should not depend on the device that the learner holds in their hands, nor whether they choose to learn in Arabic, English or, more realistically, both.
Mark, thank you so much for your time and valuable insight into the use and impact of iPads in higher education.
FACETIME: Mark French