02/08/2013 12:15 BST | Updated 24/09/2013 06:12 BST

Global Education Ambitions Led by Online Tools

Building a competitive higher education system is a focus for many parts of the Middle East. But developing an educative infrastructure takes time, even with significant and shrewd investment.

The question is, how to plug the time gap without compromising on the quality of your learning experience? Having visited the region regularly, in fact the ambition in the Gulf is not to compromise at all, but to use innovative modern methods to compete in education globally.

Examples of this include the annual hosting of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) and the multi-billion dollar investment in Education City in Doha, which fosters educational research and development from school age to postgraduate level, and includes branches of some of the world's leading universities.

The UK has a part to play in this race. With some of the world's oldest and most respected universities, we already attract thousands of overseas students from the Middle East.

But as institutions in the Gulf look to attract and retain local talent in future, the UK will be part of that solution, too. The building process isn't just about physical structures and events. It's also increasingly including a focus on online platforms and e-learning.

The race is on to develop tools and online content that help students to access the highest quality of learning anywhere in the world, from online lectures to new types of research.

Online platforms can be used to disseminate lectures - one of Harvard professor Michael Sandel's lectures has been viewed more than 4.5 million times online. You can also host full modules or courses exclusively online, effectively adopting something of the Open University model through the internet.

What is particularly interesting about this new trend is the way in which online platforms can unlock potential in research. The thrust of global education will play a role in pioneering new types of research, and that is where libraries and other cultural and research institutions will play a part.

The British Library is aiming to help Qatar meet that need. Our partnership with the Qatar Foundation will lead to a unique online research tool: a portal enabling students to view, contextualise and research archival material on Gulf history. We will digitise half a million pages of materials by the end of next year - helping the Qatari nation to lead the way in bringing new learning opportunities to students.

In practical terms, this means that researchers will face a plethora of unexplored materials with which to interact, and their location will be irrelevant. The Qatar Foundation understands the benefits of this, and aims to inspire future generations through exploring the Gulf's past.

Such projects bring real benefit not just to the region but to the region's partners, too, as global higher education heads towards internationalisation. This trend brings with it new investment in research, whether for commercial or academic purposes, as well as investment in education facilities for the next generation. It is happening now, and every major international institution with a vested interest in education is taking part.

The UK has great heritage in education. But we must embrace this journey to a modern, flexible, cross-pollinating and international system if we are to continue to lead in future.