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In the era of digitalization and Artificial Intelligence, technology is at the core of any business, and preparing a workforce for the digital workplace has become the key mission of higher education institutions.
At a regional conference hosted by Prince Sultan University in Riyadh and co-organized with the UK-based Times Higher Education, universities in the MENA region acknowledged the vital importance of adapting to new technologies and the key role they will have to play in transforming the region and rising to the frontier of the digital economy.
In Lebanon, the American University of Beirut (AUB), the Lebanese American University (LAU), and the Lebanon branch of the Arab Open University (AOU) have introduced digital management systems and created new instructional models to enable major educational improvements and enhance learner and instructor experiences.
“We are embarking on a comprehensive transformation of AUB at all levels,” Youssif Asfour, AUB’s Chief Information and Innovation Officer, told This is Beirut on the sidelines of the conference. “This digital transformation will encompass administrative processes, services, and the way we teach, and research… It is an exciting and very challenging time.”
The greatest pressure on universities to change comes from the Gen Z students they are serving who demand a flexible, personalized, and real-time educational experience.
According to Asfour, students nowadays are highly digitalized and want their universities to operate like Amazon and Netflix. “This means I select the course; I click on it and I get it, I ask a question and I get answers immediately, I have a problem, it gets resolved. It is easy for me to pay, easy for me to get my grades, easy for me to talk to my advisor… This is possible only with digital transformation.”
Although universities introduced automation and IT management systems several years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed digital transformation, forcing colleges, universities, instructors, and students to shift online rapidly. Some were prepared for the sudden shift, while others had to catch up quickly.
At LAU, a digital transformation vision was devised to cater to the university’s stakeholders, primarily students, in addition to teachers, researchers and non-academic service providers.
Camille Abou Nasr, LAU’s Assistant Vice President for Information Technology, underlined the main purpose of turning digital. “It is to serve the mission of the university, which is about academic excellence. We aim to make the students’ experience as friendly and easy as possible so that they can concentrate on their studies and academic achievements, using the tools that we have in order to achieve a better outcome,” Abou Nasr told This is Beirut.
The university’s smart campuses in Beirut and Byblos, to the north of the capital, feature smart infrastructure and classrooms, connectivity between the campuses, high-speed internet access for everybody and flexibility in services.
“The same room can be used as a lab, a classroom or a remote lecturing hall. It makes the learning more attractive for today’s high-tech students,” Abou Nasr explained.
With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), higher education institutions have no option but to embrace it, though they will have to regulate its use.
Abou Nasr revealed that a special committee was set up at LAU to work on regulating the use of AI, notably generative AI such as Chat GPT. In the meantime, he added, professors are giving guidelines on how Chat GPT can be used, what percentage of an assignment can be based on AI, and in what areas of the subjects under study.
“There are tools to know how much and if an assignment is based on AI. We need to find the acceptable medium, but we just cannot ignore AI in higher education, and we won’t.”
For Asfour, the AI revolution is the equivalent of the industrial revolution of about 200 years ago, when machines came in and transformed the world.
“With the Industrial Revolution, universities started to train people to run factories and build machines. AI now marks another revolution. It is here to stay, and as humans, we need to learn how to adjust and to live with this new reality. That is why, we need to transform the way we teach, what we teach, and how we teach to take advantage of what AI offers us while keeping humans human,” Asfour contended.
The Ministry of Education and Higher Education created a six-member digital learning committee from different universities to set the rules for the use of AI in higher education.
Committee member and Dean of the Faculty of Computer Studies at AOU Lebanon, Ahmad Mikati underlines the importance of integrating control tools to police the usage of AI.
“At AOU, we have embedded many tools in our learning management system, such as the plagiarism detection tools which are very important nowadays. We have partnerships with Microsoft, including MS Teams and all the facilities of Office 365. All of these were made available for the faculty members and students alike,” Mikati said.
“Technology is also used to authenticate the production of our researchers. The authentication and forensic detection process is very important with the introduction of generative AI. We follow step by step the work of researchers and how they are doing things, because we don’t want to reach a point when a research paper would be paused or withdrawn,” Mikati stressed, adding, “Yes we will leverage digital transformation but we will keep in mind that our research has to be authentic.”
Universities in Lebanon have come a long way on the journey of digital transformation. But as Asfour puts it, “It’s an endless journey that keeps on evolving.”
“We started a long time ago, but we still have a long way to go,” he added.