HAMID M.K. AL NAIMIY

Northern Emirates | EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Hamid M.K. Al Naimiy, Chancellor of the University of Sharjah, about the role the university played during the pandemic.

This year has presented a particular type of challenge to the education sector. What was the University of Sharjah able to navigate the challenge presented by the pandemic?

This year has indeed presented challenges to the academic sector, but the University of Sharjah has effectively responded by pivoting to distance learning, virtual training and hybrid sessions to ensure the academic progress of our students. This is quite remarkable given the size of the University of Sharjah as the largest university in the UAE with 16,000 students currently enrolled from over 98 countries. Additionally, the University offers 110 programs in all fields of specialization and operates on four campuses, including our main campus in Sharjah and three other campuses located in Khorfakkan, Al Dhaid and Kalba. The challenges of the pandemic have not only encompassed how to continue education but also how to meet the needs of students in various programs and in different locations, both locally and abroad. The University successfully dealt with these extraordinary challenges and continued all of its programs by adopting online teaching and learning applications. Our programs continued without disruption and classes and exams were held according to the published academic calendar. We also continued our research activities, including our partnerships with international research centers and universities, and managed our administrative affairs through both in-person and remote work, depending upon the circumstances. Indeed, the University took immediate action in this regard as soon as we received instructions from the Ministry of Education in February 2019. By March 7, 2019, all of our academic programs were available online. Of course, this required a considerable amount of planning, which began with the formation of a central committee, which I chair and which oversees three subcommittees, including the Academic Committee, Health Affairs Committee and Logistics Committee. In this way, we managed the transformation from in-person classes to distance learning and developed policies and procedures for distance learning, online exams and health protocols, in addition to extensive technical training for faculty and staff. One of the major achievements of these committees is updating our policies and procedures to account for remote activities, especially in teaching and learning, where we have published several policies pertaining to online teaching and learning, exams, conduct and much more. I am very proud of our faculty and administrative staff members, who spared no effort to make the changes necessary so that our students could continue their education and graduate on time. This was no small feat since the University offers many types of programs, some of which require practical exposure in order to ensure quality education and achieve learning outcomes. For example, students in medicine, dentistry and nursing continued their clinical training, and some courses were enhanced through software simulation applications. Library and reference resources were provided through online portals, which can be accessed remotely by our staff and students. In addition, the library established pick-up services where staff and students can order hardcopy material online and arrange to pick it up from the libraries. For textbooks, the University established Digital Textbook Store, where students can purchase all of their textbooks online, including delivery. Exams presented a unique challenge, which required various technologies to ensure their integrity and proper student assessment. The University implemented new software applications and adopted online instruments to help monitor students and allow for online interviews when necessary. Master's and PhD theses defenses were conducted through videoconferencing platforms to meet graduation requirements. In the Fall 20/21 Semester, the University held many final exams on campus under proper health precautions and strict Covid-19 rules and regulations. Research activities, seminars and international conferences continued, oftentimes through webinar sessions, while some of our researchers contributed specifically to Covid-19 research in the areas of medicine and healthcare. To ensure business continuity through out the past months since the start of the Covis-19 pandemic, all business processes, services, and operations were offered through self-service portals. To ensure adequate support is available, the University established an on “Service Desk" that enable remote technical support to staff and students 24/7.

The health and safety of students is of course paramount. What steps were taken to ensure this whilst retaining the same high quality of teaching?

We took this matter very seriously since we consider the health and safety of faculty, staff, students and the community-at-large as a top priority. The Health Affairs Committee produced comprehensive guidelines on all health and safety protocols and arranged for the sanitization of all University premises whenever necessary. In allowing our senior medical, dental and nursing students to complete their clinical training to graduate on time, we took the maximum health and safety measures without compromise. We also implemented student e-portfolios to ensure proper monitoring and high-quality education for clinical and practical training. In terms of laboratory training, we utilized simulation software and hybrid labs whenever possible to achieve learning outcomes and objectives.

The University recently announced it is launching the Emirati Future Leaders Initiative. What is your perspective on the process of Emiratization and how are you engaging with it?

Emiratization is a top priority at the University of Sharjah, under the directives of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council, Ruler of Sharjah and President of the University of Sharjah, who chairs the University of Sharjah Board of Trustees, composed of local and international members from around the world. The Board approved an ambitious project called, “Emirati Scientists and Innovators." This multi-dimension project aims at preparing Emirati graduates to be leaders at the University and elsewhere. The program includes extensive preparation in teaching, soft skills, research and innovation. Participants in the program complete their graduate studies at prestigious international universities and receive logistical, scientific and financial support to continue successful careers and lead the UAE forward in its national agenda. In addition, the University established an undergraduate initiative “Future Emirati Leadership", which aims at identifying academically distinguished Emirati undergraduate students currently enrolled in various programs at the University and provide them with special programs that aim at enhancing their overall skills and place them in special training and development programs.

The key theme of this report is resilience. How would you characterize the university's ability to demonstrate resiliency, particularly during this period?

As an institution of higher education and research, the response of the University of Sharjah to the pandemic embodies the word, resilience. Generally speaking, the pandemic tested the resilience of universities and the entire system of education. The University of Sharjah demonstrated its resilience by responding immediately through taking all necessary health precautions and implementing new and innovative teaching/learning methodologies. Our success is indicated by many factors, such as our increased student enrollment, the continuous development and accreditation of existing programs and the introduction and accreditation of new programs. Additionally, our faculty members and researchers have continued to outperform in the area of research, such that the University ranks second place in the UAE for its number of research articles published in the Scopus database. The University also continues to see its progress demonstrated through its ranking by international institutions such as the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, which ranks UOS among the top three universities in the country, and UI GreenMetric World University Rankings, which ranks it number one in the country. We continue to tip the scale towards positive outcomes, irrespective of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

This past year has seen an acceleration in the use of digital technologies and the rise of EdTech. What is your perspective on how the University of Sharjah can or is making use of EdTech?

Fortunately, prior to the pandemic, the University of Sharjah had already established a comprehensive technology infrastructure. All University branches are connected, and all users, including students and faculty, use the same teaching, learning and support resources, which has made coping with pandemic much easier. The most important platform for the success of remote learning is the Learning Management System (Blackboard), which was acquired by the university of Sharjah back in 2006. To ensure proper utilization of the system, the University ran a professional development-training program that was led by the Institute of Leadership in Higher Education and Academic Computing Section at IT. Additionally, we fully and immediately utilized other IT platforms and applications, such as our Student Information System (Banner) and electronic portfolio system, and other tools and facilities such as recording studios, videoconferencing classroom, and other applications to ensure the smooth and efficient continuity of education and all administrative processes. For communication, meetings, conferences and special group events, the University offers unlimited licensing to its staff and students on Zoom, MS teams and Avaya. The University also made available an extensive array of learning resources, remotely accessible off campus, through its digital library. These resources have allowed faculty and students to use the latest e-books, databases, periodicals and other resources without disruption.

The UAE recently completed the successful operation of its space probe mission, the result of years of work across education institutions. How to perceive the role of education institutions such as yours in contributing to the realization of national objectives?

The University of Sharjah is the only academic institution in the UAE and region with an astronomy and space science complex, which is called the Sharjah Academy for Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology (SAASST). This area is actually my field of specialization, and I serve as the General Director of the Academy. The Academy offers a unique integration of education, research and services to students, researchers and the community-at-large. The experience of all participants is enhanced by the Academy's close collaboration with specialized space agencies and institutions around the world, including the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in the U.K. In fact, through the Academy, which is a member of the IAU, the UAE achieved member state status in this prestigious organization. An important priority of the Academy is to contribute to the ambitious UAE space program. We are currently collaborating with our partners involved in the Emirates Hope Mars Mission by receiving and analyzing information received from the probe. These activities, and many more such as summer space camps, offer tremendous opportunities for youth, students and researchers interested in these fields. Additionally, the University offers master's programs in astronomy, space sciences and related disciplines, which will undoubtedly contribute to building national competencies in these important areas.

2021 promises to be an exciting year. What are the University's goal and expectations for this coming year?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been preparing for the post-pandemic period by reflecting on our experience and developing our strategic directions and future plans. We believe the year 2021, and the following years, will witness continuing changes in education as a result of the technologies integrated during the pandemic. Overall, we are convinced that these changes will improve the sectors of education and research. The successful experience with remote education opens the door for many initiatives such as Hybrid learning, where part of the course can be offered online. In addition, the University plans to participate in joint online programs with other institutions locally and internationally, which allows institutions to tap into resources and expertise available in these institutions. Organizing conferences as well as research workshops and seminars can be held remotely jointly with renowned institutions. As an example, virtual webinars have made it easier to meet with our international partners and collaborate to develop our programs and research. Of course, we look forward to meeting again in person but realize the networking we have developed online will enable us to achieve some of our objectives more rapidly. Additionally, we believe our academic programs offer new advantages through the online platforms we have developed, and we feel better prepared to meet any unexpected challenges in the future. The University of Sharjah further looks forward to continuously collaborating with the local and international communities to develop its existing programs and create new ones to meet emerging requirements.