(MENAFN - Arab News) IS online education the next big thing or will it remain a distant entity awaiting its large-scale acceptance in the higher education landscape of Saudi Arabia?
The image of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah launching the first phase of the university and higher education city projects on an iPad in a ceremony last week perhaps speaks more than the proverbial 1,000 words.
Educators believe the time is ripe for the full-fledged implementation of online programs into mainstream traditional learning to meet the higher education needs of the Kingdom's growing youth population as envisioned by a number of billion-dollar projects of King Abdullah.
However, the transition from a blackboard and chalk to a more efficient technology integrated education system may not be easy for teachers, students and administrators.
"Some of the issues that we face include: technology phobia, user training, technology support, right technology selection, and technology integration," said Hamzeh M.I. Al-Rjoub, ICT and Educational Technology senior consultant at King Saud University, Riyadh.
The university has adopted online-centric programs and uses technology such as the BlackBoard as LMS (Learning Management System) with plug-ins and tools, and Smart Classroom Automation (ePodium, Interactiveboard, lecture sharing, eAttendance, Video Conferencing, Digital Signage System, etc.)
"One of our major problems is that we consider email as the only official way of communication. Each student has his university email address, where we send notifications and important information. However, we found over 50 percent of students do not like this way of communication and prefer using their personal email accounts. So we are now looking at ways to link together both the accounts and there should be a way to solve this in the e-learning system," Al-Rjoub said.
A study, titled "Web-Based Instructions (WBI): An Assessment of Preparedness of Conventional Universities in Saudi Arabia" by Mohammed Saleh Albalawi, King Fahd Naval Academy, noted that the Saudi education system is shifting gradually from the traditional classroom to Web-based distance learning in higher-education.
The 2007 study said some administrators believe that creating education programs that make use of modern technology addresses the financial constraints and limited resources being experienced in the Kingdom.
"Researchers predict that the Saudi population will grow by one-third every eight years and as such Saudi Arabia cannot accommodate the rapid growth of the college student population. The number of students admitted to universities has increased by 62 percent in only 3 years: from 68,000 in 2003 to 110,000 in 2006," said Albalawi.
"The study thus proposes Web-based education as a way to reach the large number of expected students and one that can meet the demand for speed, flexibility and outreach when learners are dispersed in terms of time and geography."
Riyadh-based Knowledge International University (KIU) is Saudi Arabia's first virtual university that uses Blackboard Collaborate for its virtual classroom software providing students live sessions with their instructors with rich features such as live video and audio streaming, online presentations and group discussions.
The online university established in 2007 by Saad bin Nasr Ash-Shethry, a former member of Council of Senior Scholars, provides comprehensive education in the field of Islam. Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, imam and khateeb of Grand Mosque in Makkah, is the head KIU director.
"I enrolled because the availability of study material is such that the students can sit and study the lessons at any time appropriate for them. Navigation of the online student portal is easy and intuitive. Once you login on the website, you get access to all relevant videos and reading material as well as links to the live sessions and online forums," said Huda B., 23, a working woman in Jeddah. She said she particularly finds live sessions useful for learning Qur'anic Tajweed where the teacher, often separated by miles and time zones, listens to her recitation in the virtual classroom and corrects it.
Apart from the wholly online programs that generally target non-traditional students, more and more established universities are fast boarding the e-learning bandwagon by trying to marry the online experience to the brand of the institution.
Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd University (PMU) in Alkhobar is getting poised to enter the realm of e-learning and has proposed the building of a distance learning and e-learning center at its premises.
Des V. Rice, dean of preparatory programs and director of professional development, Academic Affairs Department, at PMU, said e-learning provides a "golden opportunity for all."
"Universities are spending much of their energy in attracting students to their campus for face-to-face learning, but in the process many are left out for various reasons including commuting difficulties, and the clash with their work schedules. E-learning is in its infancy here in Saudi Arabia, but I see it mushrooming and becoming a major force in reaching out to all Saudis, as has happened to the populace in North America and Europe," he said.
Especially in the context of Saudi Arabia, where religious and cultural norms make educational opportunities for women restricted, the concept of e-learning is bound to play a larger role. As such it cuts down on the need for transportation and drivers and allows women the opportunity of an education while pursuing the important responsibilities, such as those involved in parenting.
"This, however, exposes new challenges to institutions because these courses can be taught by either male or female instructors with special modifications needed in utilization of technology for male instructors, so that it does not violate cultural biases while still ensuring that there is a free flow of information between student and instructor," said Rice.
The PMU is also pursuing the possibility of "twinning" with a Western university in a partnership that offers complete programs online, thus enabling those who register and complete the program to get a dual degree from the Western university and from PMU.
Albalawi's study, which examined three Saudi universities: KSU, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, found that the overall faculty held positive attitudes toward WBI and believed that online courses are the future of higher education in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the faculty did not think that WBI would jeopardize their jobs or that WBI technologies are complicated. They did believe, however, that WBI would create more stress for them as instructors.
The paper recommended among other proposals that the Saudi government and the Ministry of Higher Education seek ways to increase faculty participation in developing more Web-based programs.
"On the one hand we have a generation of young adults who are technologically savvy, while on the other we have generally older instructors who are either not interested, or cannot keep up with the rapid changes. Additionally, private universities are more inclined to restrict their offerings to campus-based instruction in an attempt to generate higher enrollment and cater to the more lucrative market," said Rice.
"Moreover, there are many decision-makers who feel that since the people of Saudi Arabia have a heritage of oral communication rather than written communication, they do not know or will not accept instructions that place the responsibility on themselves rather than being able to sit in a classroom and have the instructor teach and answer their questions. What is not understood is that technology has advanced to such a degree that if conducted properly, the students get even more individual attention by the instructor through audio visual channels now available on the market. Studies have shown that student performance and retention tend to exceed face-to-face meetings held in brick and mortar facilities."
He said education about e-learning needs to be given to the decision makers so that they do not equate e-learning with the antiquated correspondence courses. Instructors also need to be educated that while the curriculum may be the same as that of the classroom, the lesson structure radically changes with much more teacher-student interaction. Assessment is of vital importance and needs to take on a much broader range of activities, as opposed to merely giving tests.
"I suggest the instructor to study the right and modern pedagogical way to deliver the lecture using the LMS considering the social media concept. Additionally, the logic and ways that all of the current LMSs rely on are traditional and perhaps do not fit the current need as a modern way," KSU's Al-Rjoub said.