Book Review
Information Technology and the Future of Education in the United Arab Emirates

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The driving force behind a country’s formal education system is to enable individuals to become more intellectually and economically productive and therefore contribute to the cultural and financial wealth of the individual and subsequently the state as a whole. Furthermore, education also serves as a means to promote and foster innovative thinking skills, which lend themselves to creative problem solving, critical analysis ability and quite often greater entrepreneurial skills. More recently with technological advances and greater automation of traditional industries, the need for large workforces has significantly diminished. The rise in digital technologies, coupled with initiatives towards globalized trade policies in both the private and public sector has affected the development of the industrial landscape. This in turn has had an impact on the skills required by the labor force, the types of jobs that are available and how industry is likely to change in the future. The UAE has taken concerted steps in order to ensure economic diversification of its key sectors as a means to ensure that it is not entirely dependent on an oil/petroleum-based economy. Underpinning this diversification has been the commitment to the creation of a competitive knowledge-based economy, which, unlike agricultural and industrial economies, is not one that relies on natural/physical resources, but instead on a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities. All these requirements are dependent upon an effective education system.

Various countries around the world have had great success at matching their education system to the demands of industry and society as well as incorporating the latest technology to improve education. In the past 40 years, Singapore’s education system has proved itself to be very successful and efficient due to the strong foundation that has been laid for academic competencies and achievement. The Singapore government’s initiative to move towards 21st-century skills has become imperative for society’s growth and globalization. Generally, top-performing Asian systems such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea have societal and cultural expectations imposed by families to do well in examinations. However, the essence of the Singapore education system is in keeping a balance on both academic and cultural expectation.

The Singapore Ministry of Education has adopted a set of criteria to determine the amount of additional funding to be given to schools for supporting their ICT-mediated learning. Teachers throughout the system are encouraged to experiment with new pedagogies mediated by ICT. Examples of innovative teaching include conducting lessons where students from across classes use tools such as Linoit and Google Docs to collaboratively identify actual ‘problem areas’ in the school and then formulate collective solution proposals. Wikis such as Google Sites also enable students to work collaboratively for the project work in order to develop problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Schoolchildren often adapt very easily to the use of ICT in the school curriculum because such technology is used every day in social media. For today’s students, such technology is accessible, enjoyable and, most importantly, already familiar. The advent of social media and the contributing web has hugely raised awareness of technology as offering new forms of promoting interaction and participation, and at lending themselves particularly well to e-activities and learning groups. One good way of thinking about the wide variety of options is considering them all as environments for learning, offering different opportunities and tending to make easier or promote certain kinds of group behavior. Learning becomes more of a social activity, accessible from varying locations, and of course is particularly applicable to the advent of distance and e-learning. There are five main ways of designing online activity so that participants really benefit from portable resources and connections for learning. One is to provide regular learning resources and interaction for participants in such a way that they can access and continue to take part even at leisure. Resources can be downloaded and easily carried around if participants have intermittent networking opportunities.

Another design option is to have participants engage in reflection and communication with others at a critical moment of thought or learning. The third way is the juxtaposition of reality and ‘virtuality.’ Examples of this could include virtual visiting of ancient societies that no longer exist, journeying to the moon, taking part in rewarding activities or visits that would be unsafe or inaccessible in real life. In such ways we can maximize learning experiences. The fourth is to use the ever-growing number of excellent mobile apps available on Apple, Microsoft and Android devices as catalysts to promote dialogue and activity. These include applications developed for learning, plus many others meant for fun or business that can be harnessed for learning and teaching purposes. The fifth is augmented reality, which means supplementing the view of physical, real-world environments by computer-mediated sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

However, exploiting the digital revolution does not stop at secondary education and the tertiary level of learning can benefit enormously from such digital developments. As technology develops there are new ways to undertake learning and research and more flexible delivery of learning or faster and more sophisticated academic processes. The ubiquitous nature of the Internet means that the use of this technology is part and parcel of our everyday life both in our personal and working life. Therefore, it is an inevitability in education. Digital infrastructure can be defined as including technical services, technical standards, software tools, supporting policies, practice and regulatory frameworks. It allows for the appropriate creation, management and exploitation of information, resources and services to enable effective and high quality research and education. In the UK, the development of a digital infrastructure has quickly enabled universities and colleges to take advantage of technology in appropriate and cost effective ways at the national level. The essence of digital information and services, such as the Web, means a whole new mode of operation and production of information, learning and research. It means there are new possibilities and a lot is still to be imagined. Digital information can be replicated perfectly many times. If a network is added, it can be shared and accessed the world over; if a Web is added it can be viewed, annotated and linked to by anyone anywhere.

While people involved in the educational process are accepting ICT as part of our everyday life and recognize the value of ICT as an enhancer for teaching and learning, there is an increasing demand for educators with expertise in both their specific subject areas and competence in ICT. The majority of academics have limited expertise in integrating different types of technologies in their delivery of course contents or for interaction with students. To be truly effective, the use of ICT in education needs to promote the collaboration of academics with what are often considered ‘support staff,’ but who really are facilitators with an equally valid role in delivering education thanks to their specialist knowledge in delivery and access systems. These problems encourage collaboration between academics and technicians who work in the educational sectors and are usually familiar with various kinds of technologies. However, because of their limited knowledge about pedagogy, it is challenging to technicians to effectively integrate technologies in which they have expertise into the process of teaching and learning, and this phenomenon is usually caused by factors such as 1) technicians feel they are not expected or motivated to get involved in the education process that is not in their expertise domain, 2) they perceive that their responsibility lies in the good work order of equipment and devices and it’s not their job to deal with the integration of technologies in the teaching and learning, and 3) they are so occupied with the supporting tasks that they do not really have any time and energy for things that are not directly related to their job assignments.

In addition, to building a learning environment that best meets the needs of students in the information society, an effective collaborative partnership should be formed that engages academic teaching librarians and their academic colleagues so they work together to facilitate quality learning outcomes. Awareness should be raised among them so that they are expected to not only manage and provide resources, but also be equipped with the ability to ‘deliver’ the subject contents in terms of teaching skills and learning facilitation.

Information technology not only facilitates how information is imparted in the learning environment, but also alters the relationships between participants in schools, colleges and universities, whether they be teachers, technicians or parents. Not only can more exciting and innovative forms of learning be created, but also the inclusion of all stakeholders in the learning process can be encouraged, which leads to greater understanding, encouragement of other ideas to stimulate learning and ultimately a more rounded and educated individual and society.