Education for the nation

The UAE Higher Colleges of Technology is one of the leading educational establishments in the region in science and technology fields, at the same time as being a leader in the adoption of technology to improve and enhance learning.

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Education for the nation Saif Salem Bamadhaf, chief technology officer, Higher Colleges of Technology. (ITP Images)
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By  Mark Sutton Published  March 30, 2015

One of the most important points of focus for governments in the United Arab Emirates and GCC region of the past decades has been the creation of world class educational establishments, in order to empower local populations and create the highly skilled workforce necessary for economic development. With the emergence of the knowledge based economy, the demand for educated graduates to form the technical cadres for future growth has only increased, putting more and more focus on the role of higher education in creating the leaders and technology innovators of the future.

In the UAE, providing this technology education is the role of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), one of the largest educational establishments in the region. The HCT serves over 22,000 students on 17 men and women’s campuses stretched across the whole of the Emirates, with courses in areas such as communications, business, computer & information science, engineering technology, health sciences and education.

HCT is not just focused on technology education however, but also in developing technology as a platform for learning, to further improve education. The HCT takes ‘learning by doing’ approach, and aims to deliver a technology-rich, e-learning environment for students, as well as to provide the support framework for faculty to deliver learning, and for the College’s administration to manage the institution with the greatest degree of efficiency.

Responsibility for delivering the multi-faceted e-learning programs, and the underlying technology infrastructure to deliver them across the 17 campuses, falls to the HCT IT department. The wide ranging remit for the IT team has seen development of a number of award-winning projects, across the spectrum of e-learning, connectivity and support services, and according to Eng. Saif Salem Bamadhaf, chief technology officer of HCT, the IT team strives to deliver the best possible services.

“We are in line with the government initiatives to focus on innovation in the mobile sphere, to be one of the leading education institutes in the country and the Middle East. We also want to take a lead in state of art technology with regard to cloud solutions, Internet of Things (IoT), and big data analytics initiatives,” he commented.

One of the most recent large scale projects for HCT has been the provisioning of wireless networks to connect all student and faculty at each of the 17 HCT campuses. The HCT WiFi network covers a network with some 25,000 users and close to 2,700 access points, making it the largest WiFi installation in the country, Bamadhaf said. Providing WiFi across all facilities is a vital part of supporting mobile and flexible working practices, and the WiFi network underpins a number of learning initiatives.

Varghese PV, senior manager, IT services at HCT said: “From an infrastructure perspective, we have completely embarked on mobile learning platforms, all the infrastructure requirements of mobile learning has been accomplished, right from the infrastructure to the classroom, so a teacher can be completely mobile within the classroom, a teacher can sit at any student desk and project and present. For all of the students we are providing wireless access, a secure environment to access our learning management solution, and all other student activities within HCT and outside of HCT as well.

“To accommodate the huge number of students who are accessing the internet, we have the highest bandwidth within the country, two gigabit, to our knowledge that is the highest bandwidth that is available to external entities,” he added.

Administering the access, security and privileges of such a large number of users is no small task. The situation is further complicated by the wide range of devices in use, with around 40% of devices running iOS and the rest a mix of Google Android and Windows devices, and by the fact that many users have more than one device. HCT is using the 802.1x authentication framework, and WiFi solutions from Aruba Networks and Palo Alto Networks help to secure devices and access privileges.

While staff at HCT have their mobile devices provided, mainly iPads, laptops, Macs and so on, based on their teaching role, students are provided with a set of minimum requirements, and are then allowed to bring their own devices based on those.

One of the reasons for the importance of stable, ubiquitous WiFi network access is HCT’s shift to mobile learning platforms. HCT has deployed a learning management system from Blackboard, which provides a virtual learning environment where students can collaborate with teachers and each other and where all their course material can be accessed. In September 2013, HCT went live with an e-text book system, with all student text books available through Blackboard, eliminating the need for hard copies of books. With so much importance based on online access, it is perhaps not surprising that students have to have a connected device with them at all times in classes, or else be marked as absent.

HCT has also struck a deal with Microsoft, to provide its Office 365 service to give all students access to cloud based email and other solutions. The Office 365 service means that HCT can keep the mail network for students separate from the main Exchange server for its business users, and also relieves the burden of HCT having to provision mail storage for students.

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