Abu Dhabi University (ADU), already one of the UAE’s major educational institutions, is working toward an ambitious goal: by 2020, the whole facility will be a smart campus, using artificial intelligence (AI), data and information management, as well as working to improve energy efficiency and personalise services on offer.
In September this year, it was announced that the University has invested more than US$5.44mn (AED20mn) in expanding and enhancing its facilities across Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai. Improvements have been made to teaching facilities, such as specialised laboratories and classrooms, including the upgrading of internet connectivity forming a key focus on overall student experience.
The University currently has over 7,000 students of 70 different nationalities and as such must provide first-class facilities at an international quality, while catering to the needs and culture of the local community. As such, ADU is striving to become ever more connected and aims to improve student life through significant technology transformation – from a newly developed platform bringing together all the information needed by students and staff, to location technology helping students find their way around campus. All this and more puts students at the heart of ADU as it strives to compete in an increasingly competitive space.
The man behind this technology transformation is Director of IMTS (Information Management & Technology Services), Joseph Aninias, who has previously worked in Dubai for a prominent Australian University. Prior to the education sector, he has worked on a logistic group in Jebel Ali Free Zone and an Internet Service Provider Company in the Philippines. Through this experience, Aninias has developed a natural customer-centric attitude and a hospitable personality which positively contribute to Abu Dhabi (UAE) culture. “Coming from that background, customer interaction is always the top priority – in the Philippines for example, there are lots of service providers so competition is very high. If they don’t like your service, they’ll move to another,” Aninias explains. “Similarly, here in the UAE, there are a lot of universities offering the same programme so you have to develop a competitive advantage while keeping in mind the quality of service. Why would a student, or indeed a parent, choose your university?”
Across the UAE, internet connectivity is a basic service with the majority of commercial and business premises offering free internet access. ADU has four different campus locations, all of which are linked with a dedicated private network from ANKABUT, which serves a national private ISP for educational institutions. Many universities can benefit from a quality network connection at special educational pricing from ANKABUT. “Anywhere you go, there should be a wireless network,” says Aninias. “Even cafés or restaurants, if they don’t have wi-fi they’re seen as a bit backward. I’m exploring what a difference this makes when it comes to the university.”
One development reflecting ADU’s student satisfaction commitment is the implementation of an indoor navigation platform which will work like Google Maps to help new students find their way around campus. “This is something I’m exploring at the moment, at a proof-of-concept stage, to see if it gives added value for students.”
Student satisfaction runs through the veins of ADU, and its technology transformation is no exception. “The education industry is changing,” says Aninias. “If you put yourself in a student’s shoes, what they’re learning for those first four years is just a foundation.” He cites technology, economic factors and social media as elements impacting a future workforce which must learn life skills and sees this as an area in which a University must add value. “The services we offer should be aligned with what’s going on in the outside world, so we can prepare students for the challenges of adulthood.”
The significant developments Aninias has achieved thus far at the university have not been without their challenges. Since ADU is a renowned institution people remain at for a long time, it risks being one with a workforce set in its ways. “When an organisation is used to a process, it is a challenge to persuade people to adapt to changes. You need to walk the walk, as well as engage and educate. Present drivers from external factors are relevant and add value to your internal change drivers.” In managing this significant culture shift, Aninias points out that “awareness is a critical point – enforcing awareness and centralising communication”.
Communication is indeed being centralised across ADU, with Aninias and the team developing a single platform for student information. “There are so many piecemeal technologies all spread across departments – without a service catalogue, it is very difficult to track the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), SLAs (Service Level Agreements) or overall effectiveness of Information Systems and Technology. One project I’m working on is to develop the centralised portal for the University,” he explains. “This will present current information for ADU and will have a responsive interface, with a device agnostic as every individual has its own preferred gadget or device – this is by default now, not a choice. Discoverable interface and user experience should be the scope of every implementation: if this doesn’t run on mobile, tablet or PC, if I can’t present the information well on the phone or the user’s preferred device, it’s not a good investment. We have all these different types of platforms so you need to put this into a seamless interface, which is also a challenge – with cost being a significant factor.”
In meeting these various challenges, Aninias maintains student centricity is key. “When we implement any new project, we do so with input from the students. We have a student council which is part of the decision making. This strong representation from the student side is a critical strategy for ADU because every organisation claims to put students first, but some do not really involve them in the decision making.”
A significant focus for the IMT department is to bring all student information together. “Information System management is critical – especially in educational institutions, a significant component of the operation is managing the information of the student: prospective students, current students, alumni, classrooms etc. Everything that runs under the university processes, and revolves around student life.
“You have to consider the implication of the older, manual form in digital format,” he continues, and indeed moving from various legacy systems to a fully digital environment has been a challenge which involves flexibility. “Paperless, for example, was in discussion for ages – but how can you move to paperless if a significant number of users need printing services ‘I want print’? You still have customers who prefer, and are maybe more efficient at, doing things the old way. So that is a challenge not to fix, but to improve. The biggest point is to gain people’s trust on technology initiatives.”
The student information system, finance, HR and procurement are all united under one enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from Oracle. Again, as well as cost, student needs have been placed at the fore, with a student survey gaining feedback on how the improvements have impacted those who matter most. “After taking action on the IMT department capability assessment, all these technological changes in the classrooms, building governance and strengthening the overall IT infrastructure and behavior of the team, the total response was 75% satisfaction across ADU,” says Aninias. “Now the next challenge is to achieve 80-85% satisfaction for the next cycle. If I cannot measure the things I’m delivering, how can I implement them? How can I improve a service if I don’t have actionable feedback?”
In addition, ADU has segregation policies for the male and female students. “You have to duplicate every single technology on either side, both at the same quality but you cannot combine them,” Aninias explains. “If I have to build a lab with 20 or 40 machines on one side, I have to duplicate that. This is all part of a unique offering catered to the culture of neighboring countries. In Abu Dhabi that segregation culture is quite strong, so ADU attracts students who are more conservative and accustomed to this.”
ADU is currently in its 15th year of operation and working towards Vision 2022, which will involve student engagement and a holistic learning experience through innovation, as well as delivering an efficient, seamless experience for all stakeholders while improving collaboration. “We’re in a process of continuous improvement,” says Aninias, noting that in his two years at ADU he has inherited an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system which was adopted from an older process.
Collaboration and effective communication is also key, whether with other members of staff or vendors. “There’s a lot of collaborative effort here to get the best value – most IT projects are primarily driven by the value of the investment. The budget must be justified and preferably contributing to the bottom line. This requires a lot of planning and preparation to avoid project delays.” Currently, Aninias is in the midst of getting a number of projects he has inherited and which have been delayed up to speed. “I made sure certain projects were executed in an acceptable timeline and have to be prioritised, otherwise it would affect the future development of the university.”