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Every Learner Matters: Creating Alternative Models of Higher Education

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The American University of Bahrain (AUBH) is in the process of creating its 2022-2027 Strategic Plan. As such, it has an opportunity to do something new and possibly create an alternative model of higher education in Bahrain better designed to meet the changing educational demands of both learners and employers. 

There is growing global skepticism about the conventional model of higher education and whether its relevance and value proposition still holds in today’s context. Both public and private enterprises need graduates who are ready to add value immediately by having both the necessary high-demand technical skills as well as having badly needed qualitative skills.  Many argue that universities are too slow, tone-deaf, and non-responsive to the real needs of the job market and employers.  In many cases, this argument is warranted by universities that hold too tightly to practices and processes that can be argued are outdated and overly bureaucratic.    

AUBH has an opportunity to adopt the best in what higher education has to offer and leave behind some of the long-held assumptions about how universities ought to operate. To be clear, AUBH’s core education value is immovable: every learner matters, deserves individual attention and support, and it should develop the entire person and not simply provide siloed short-term skill sets.  We reject that Artificial Intelligence replaces faculty, that all education can be delivered through technology, or sideline the humanities. Let me describe how we are conceptualizing this at AUBH.

First, AUBH will place students at the center of all we do. As such, we focus on the science of learning with a faculty that is teaching-focused. There are plenty of research-focused universities, and AUBH feels that Bahrain needs a university that rebalances teaching and research and broadens the definition of research to embrace different types of scholarly contributions. Promotions and advancement will privilege high-quality teaching and learning over everything else.  The faculty at AUBH should be first and foremost master teachers with student learning taking up 80% of their focus.  We make it clear at AUBH that teaching and learning are related, but they are categorically not the same thing. We seek faculty that are not only experts in their fields, but passionate about their teaching, comfortable with digital technology, practiced in modern learning environments, and trained in the science of learning.

Second, we also believe universities cannot be ‘all things to all people’ and should provide a distinctive value proposition to their students. At its core, an American-style education strives for a more holistic approach to education to provide essential and transferable skill sets for success in the world today. AUBH believes there is a difference between education and training, between vocational skills and life skills, and between working and creating. American general education is unique in that it requires students to not only be deeply trained in a discipline, but also broadly educated by exposing them to natural sciences, humanities, arts, and social sciences. It is in these types of courses that students are best prepared in areas such as critical thinking, writing, and communication. 

We believe fundamentally in the importance of holistic education because it not only enables graduates to provide a higher level of value to their employers but also enables students to live more fulfilling and successful lives. Career and professional-oriented education is indeed the right type of education for AUBH for self-evident reasons.  However, industry-facing education with a strong general education foundation makes for a powerful and superior learning experience.  General education helps students better understand themselves, discover the important traditions and values of their past, and cultivate a sense of social responsibility to the present and future. 

A general education develops the capacities needed by every adult: analytical skills, effective communication, flexible tools for problem-solving, empowerment, and global thinking.  As AUBH seeks to realize its goals and mission, career/professional and general education combined with a conscientious applied research commitment is eminently important for this part of the world. AUBH is uniquely positioned to provide the type of graduates who have the well-rounded skills needed for one’s private, public, and professional success which in turn can translate into positive local, national, and regional development. 

Third, AUBH feels that certain degrees can and should be modularized with the conventional degree divided into micro-credentials (e.g., a certificate) that can be “stacked.” Each micro-credential is comprised of courses, with the courses fitting into themes that place students in a better position for employment for various specializations, particularly in Industry 4.0 fields (i.e., cybersecurity, cloud-based computing, data analytics, programming, etc.). A certificate can provide great value as it demonstrates specific skill sets but also offer marketable value to students who might leave the degree program without finishing. In this model, faculty would team-teach courses related to a micro-credential. For example, a robotics micro-credential might involve courses in mathematics, computer science, psychology, and ethics. Faculty from these fields would work together to create a rich interdisciplinary experience that reflects a more realistic view of the complex and interrelated nature of all fields.

Fourth, AUBH intends to provide opportunities to a broad range of learners, not just traditional-age students. Indeed, Bahrain has a great need to provide educational opportunities to non-traditional students: working learners, place-bound parents, those that have some college but no degree, etc.  These types of potential learners suffer because conventional universities expect them to adapt their schedules and lives around the operations of the university. AUBH wants to find ways to adapt itself and better accommodate the busy, complicated lives of mature students.  Technology can help in this regard with the appropriate design of hybrid programs (mixture of in-person instruction and online), and creative scheduling after hours and on the weekends.  Upskilling and reskilling working learners also means that what might be needed is not necessarily a degree, but a short-term certificate or micro-credential might be more appropriate to give them that ‘edge’ in the workplace.

I sincerely believe that the American University of Bahrain is positioned to be a well-spring of innovation and creativity and stands on the verge of shaping a new era for Bahrain and the region.  AUBH has the potential of becoming an extraordinary place with a distinctive mission.  The future is very bright for this young, but remarkable, university, and the 2022-27 Strategic Plan offers great promise in creating the distinctive, high-quality university it aspires to be. Now it is up to AUBH to seize upon this moment and convert it into reality.

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