This thesis is an exploration of the engagement of young Emirati tertiary students (aged 18-25) with digital technologies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). International research in recent years has documented the access to, and use of, digital technologies by young people in many parts of the world, largely in response to claims made at the turn of the century about posited characteristics of young people today, referred to in the debate as digital natives. In reaction, governments and educational institutions in many parts of the world have considered or accepted the need for a rethink of their educational systems, with an emphasis on increased integration of technology into teaching and learning, in an apparent endeavor to remain relevant to students of today, and the society of the future.
The documentation of the impact of technology on the young Arab population of the UAE, however, is an important contribution to this debate, where most research to date has been conducted in more developed countries. This research also considers the historical, socio-economic, linguistic and cultural context of the UAE within which technological changes have occurred, as well as the impact of digital technologies which in turn have continued to influence social and cultural change. Consideration of the inter-relationship between technology and the environment in which it has impacted has enabled a challenging of the determinist arguments put forward in the wider digital natives debate.
This research used a mixed-method approach involving multiple tertiary educational institutions in the UAE, and included students from a wide variety of geographical locations and academic disciplines within the country. Mixed methods research was eminently suited to this exploration, to enable both internationally comparable data on Emirati youth as a result of use of an adapted survey instrument (N=587), and insight into possible local implications and influences of cultural, educational and language factors by also using semi-structured interviews (N=15). This is the first extensive, multi-institutional research project to address this topic in a region which includes a very high population of young people, who are increasingly wired and educated, at a time of remarkable change and challenges in the Middle East.
The primary aim in this research project was to determine the extent to which Emirati higher education students were engaged with digital technologies, including the Internet, and whether this level of engagement was similar to patterns internationally. Six major findings emerged from the data.
Firstly, data confirmed that most Emirati tertiary students have almost comprehensive access to broadband Internet, both from home and their place of study, using mobile technologies such as tablets or mobile phones, as well as laptops or desktops. Educational improvements in the UAE have been pivotal as an impetus for technological changes, with digital technologies now ubiquitous within tertiary education institutions, as well as in the homes and communities of families with Emirati students. Secondly, while regularly using digital technologies, Emirati students involved in this research have usually engaged with technologies in a largely unsophisticated way, biased towards consumption and simple, regular access and use, rather than a high level of competence with a range of technology tools. In contrast, the third finding was that Emirati students self-identified their own skill and confidence level with a range of activities using computers, the Internet and mobile phones, very highly. This disconnect between the self-perceived high skill level and confidence of young Emiratis in their use of digital technologies, and their documented engagement with more basic technologies, is important to acknowledge if an overestimation of technological competence is not to be made, especially as students transition from school to tertiary education.
The fourth finding relates to the important issue of technology integration into education in the UAE, concluding that while Internet access and use is established at tertiary institutions in the UAE, in the majority of cases it is not widely available or integrated into the curriculum of Emirati students at school, making the transition from largely low-tech high schools to laptop universities and colleges with ubiquitous Internet provision a challenging one. A major finding in this research is a strong agreement by students on the need for more integration of technology into their tertiary education, although suggestions targeted enhancement of current directions such as an increase in mobile technology facilities, rather than radical changes to the education system. In this study, survey and interview results confirmed a diversity of use and engagement with technology across the Emirati student population, including significant diversity between students living in urban as opposed to regional areas. Surprisingly, younger Emirati students are using most technologies less often, and in a less sophisticated way, than students a few years older. These findings flag the inappropriateness of assuming homogenous levels of engagement when designing effective ICT programs for Emiratis in tertiary education. Further, marked variation in the technological capabilities of teaching faculties, although a smaller part of this study, requires recognition and active intervention if the goals of both tertiary institutions and the UAE government in moving towards a knowledge-based economy can be achieved.
The fifth finding in this research focuses on the substantial impacts of recent technological changes in the UAE, usefully contextualizing these with other changes to the social, educational and economic fibre of this fast developing country. Key social and cultural factors influencing the engagement of students with digital technologies have emerged from this research, including changes in the availability of education, the influence of language, the changing roles and expectations of Emirati females, and attendant changes to more traditional information and communication sources previously only available within the family network. This research concludes that most Emirati tertiary students frequently engage with many forms of social media, and that females are generally more engaged with digital technologies, are more active in their use of social media, and are often engaging with digital technologies at a more advanced level, than Emirati males. Contrary to a determinist viewpoint, this research contributes to the view that social, economic and educational changes in the UAE have strongly impacted upon the introduction and acceptance of digital technologies, especially for young Emiratis, and that these technologies, in turn, are likely to have an important and enduring influence upon the social, cultural, economic and political development of the country.
Lastly, comparison of these UAE research findings has been made to determine the extent to which Emirati tertiary students today reflect conclusions reached in other recent international research. Overall, Emirati students in this study demonstrate better access to digital technologies than in many other countries, but that they are less likely to be considered digital natives, as their engagement with these technologies has largely only been active since attendance at tertiary education.
In summary, the impacts of recent technological changes in the UAE are substantial, and engagement with digital technologies by Emirati tertiary students in this research is widespread, if at an unsophisticated level. These findings have been important to provide a snapshot of Emirati student engagement with digital technologies, to base possible implications for future integration of technology into higher education on empirical data rather than anecdotal evidence or sweeping generalizations.