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The Development of Online Distance Education in Saudi Arabia

By Uthman T. Alturki / November 2014

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The population of Saudi Arabia is estimated to be around 20 million citizens, with 9 million additional foreigners. Thirty percent of the population is between the age of one to 14 years, and according to a 2007 report issued by UNESCO, 2 million students are enrolled in Saudi primary and secondary schools [1]. In order to meet this growth in student numbers, Saudi Arabia needs a new philosophy in its approach to education, and as a result, distance learning must be considered. In 2011 the total number of high-school graduates was 360,000 students, however 54,000 of which (15 percent) were not accepted into universities because the Ministry of Higher Education had limited its capacity to accept only 306,000 students [2]. The problem persisted through 2013, when the total number of high-school graduates was 380,000 or 91 percent of all high-school students. In the same year, the Ministry of Higher Education announced only 360,000 students had been accepted , which meant there were more than 20,000 student who did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education [3]. Each year there are thousands of graduate students unable to enroll because of limited capacity. Distance education may be the appropriate solution for this dilemma.

Looking at statistical data on the number of graduates from secondary schools in Saudi Arabia, there has been an increase in the number of high-school graduates during the past 20 years. According to research from Altowjry [4] and El-Sultan [5], in the academic year 1992-93 65,670 students graduated from high schools in Saudi Arabia; this number then increased to 71,346 in the following year (1993-94). With a growth rate of 9.5 percent, the number of graduates reached 31,000 in the academic year of 2012-13. The number of graduates has doubled five times over the past 20 years. With the increase in the number of high-school graduates, the Saudi government established more universities, colleges, and institutes but it was unable to absorb all graduates. In the 1992-93 academic year, the number of students accepted to universities and colleges was 57,333 (87.3 percent of total graduates from high schools), while the remaining 12.7 percent did not find places in the universities and colleges [4]. This gap has continued to grow despite increases in the number of universities, colleges, and institutes.

It should be noted in the 2012-13 academic year, 228,000 out of 310,000 students (75.7 percent of total high-school graduates) were admitted, which means there is a gap in available places at universities, colleges, and institutions. Figure 1 shows the growing gap between the number of graduates from high schools and the number of admitted students to Saudi universities over the last decade.

It is predicted 370,000 of high-school graduates will be accepted to universities and colleges in 2020 [4]. But where will they learn? Currently there is a poor distribution of universities, colleges, and institutes within the country. The majority of higher education opportunities are concentrated in major cities, which may hinder access to universities due the geographical breadth of Saudi Arabia. And what about students who are unable to find placement in traditional universities, colleges, and institutes? Is distance learning the answer?

Figure 1. High School Graduates versus Admitted College Students.
[click to enlarge]

Distance Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has worked to modernize the educational process by introducing computers to the education field for more than a quarter of a century. In 1980, a project for education using computer technology began at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. Shortly thereafter, in the academic year of 1982-83, computer education was introduced to students in computer science departments within Saudi universities. In addition, the College of Education at King Saud University introduced the use of computers in education, with aims to give students a general idea about the computer and its role in the educational process. In academic year 2005-06, the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia started distance education in girls' colleges, lectures were transferred via satellite from different universities [6].

The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has continued to keep up with new developments in the field of educational technology. The government is also employed in the development of the educational process, supporting eLearning and distance education in the development of university education and launching committees such as: Committee for e-learning and distance education in the Ministry of Higher Education, and the Committee officials of distance education universities and higher education institutions of higher Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arab Gulf States. Many conferences, seminars, and workshops on distance learning have also been held.

The History of Distance Learning in Saudi Arabia

Gvernments in developing countries often start distance-learning programs without realizing what it means for students and educational institutions. However, the Saudi government took on the responsibility to overcome obstacles that distance-learning programs typically face. For example, some of the rural communities spread in different regions across Saudi Arabia do not have electricity; this means the government is responsible for delivering infrastructure for these remote areas so they are able to benefit from distance learning system [7].

Another aspect is the training of the lecturer so that he/she can deal with new technology. Additionally the government is also responsible for the development of legislations and policies that will ensure the success of distance learning. For example, the government must recognize certificates issued by educational institutions that offer distance-learning programs [8].

Presented is a detailed timeline of historical moments in distance learning.

  • In 1954, Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University started a distance-learning program in the Faculty of Religious Science, and then in 1965 in the Faculty of Arabic Language.
  • In 1978, King Saud University started a distance-learning program in the Faculty of Art and Faculty of Business.
  • In 1972, King Abdulaziz University started correspondence studies in some departments.
  • In 1976, King Saud University canceled correspondence studies.
  • In 1980, King Abdulaziz University established an independent unit for correspondence studies.
  • In 1987, Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University canceled correspondence studies.
  • In 1989, Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University resumed correspondence studies for female students.
  • In 2002, King Abdulaziz University began applying distance-learning programs and set up a separate department for distance-learning programs.
  • In 2007, Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University began applying distance-learning programs.
  • In 2008, the National Center for e-learning and Distance Education was established.
  • In 2010, the Ministry of Higher Education issued regulations and laws governing distance learning programs in Saudi Arabia.
  • In 2011, the rules governing the issuance of licenses for distance learning programs in higher education institutions were established.
  • In 2011, Saudi Electronic University was established [9].

When looking at the sequences of distance learning through the years, it appears Saudi Arabia was not in isolation from what was happening in the rest world. There were initiatives that began with the Faculty of Sharia in 1953, which was the nucleus of the Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University. Although correspondence studies at the Al-Imam University were suspended in 1987 for several reasons—including the high dropout rate, bad repetition, students' poor achievement, lack of seriousness of some students, and an increase of applicants wanting to postpone their study for years—in 1992 the university reconsidered starting correspondence studies again for female students and for limited majors because of the lack of female faculties.

King Abdulaziz University was one of the first universities to adopt correspondence studies in 1972 and is considered one of the more experienced universities in managing this type of studies. It established a separate department for enrollment in 1980. But the university canceled correspondence studies in 1988, and then established a special department for distance learning in 2002.

The Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia began to show interest in distance learning through the establishment of the National Centre for e-learning and Distance Education. It played a central role in the activation of distance education in Saudi universities, and works as a source of expertise and provider of distance education programs in Saudi universities. In fact, during the short period since its establishment of, the National Centre has seen a lot of achievements, such as creating system bridges for the management of the educational process and cooperating with the Ministry of Higher Education to issue regulations governing eLearning and distance education.

In 2011, Saudi Electronic University was established in Riyadh City as an educational institution offering distance education service in banking and financial sciences, health sciences, and computer science. Several branches were then established in other Saudi cities. Now, most Saudi universities offer distance education programs in different disciplines (see Table 1).

Table 1. Academic Departments Offering Distance Education Programs in Saudi Universities.

University Faculty/Department
Umm Al-Qura University College of Da'wa and Usul-ud-Din
College of Shari`ah and Islamic Studies
College of Arabic Language
College of Arts and
Management Sciences
College of Education
Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud
Islamic University
Sharia Department
Economic Department
Religious Science Department
Arabic Language Department
Business Administration Department
King Abdul-aAziz
Faculty of Social Science (Arabic Language, Islamic Studies, Sociology, Psychology,
History, English Language)
Faculty of Economics & Management (Public Administration Department, Business
Administration Department)
King Faisal University Faculty< of Social Science (Arabic Language, Islamic Studies English Language, Social Studies)
Faculty of Education (Special Education Department)
Taibah University Faculty of Administrative & Financial Science (Business Administration Department)
Faculty of Social Science (Quran Studies, History, Geography, Islamic Studies, Arabic language)
Taif University Sharia & Islamic Studies Department
Arabic Language Department
Business Administration Department
Gazan University Arabic Language
English Language
Mass Communication
El-Goof University Islamic Studies
Arabic Language
Tabuk University Islamic Studies
Arabic Language
Public Administration
Najran University Islamic Studies
Arabic Language
Public Administration

Distance Learning in Saudi Arabia

There are two types of universities in Saudi Arabia offering distance-learning programs: The first type are universities offering traditional education in addition to distance learning, such as Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University and King Abdulaziz University; the second type are universities offering only distance learning program, which includes Arab Open University, Knowledge International University, and Saudi Electronic University.

Dual-mode universities. Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University offers distance learning programs, and accepts Saudi and non-Saudi students for all disciplines. Lectures are posted and uploaded daily to the Internet, where they can be viewed online or recorded. Students can interact and debate with the lecturer through virtual classrooms or email. Its popularity is reflected in enrollment numbers; the number of students increased from 6,000 in 2008 to 12,000 in 2009 [10].

King Abdulaziz University began offering distance-learning programs in the academic year 2007-08 for humanities and arts, economics, and business administration. This system relies on eLearning management systems to facilitate interaction and communication between the student and the college. In addition to administration the university employs lecturers who have special qualifications for teaching in distance-learning environments [10].

Single-mode universities. Arab Open University offers all majors through its distance learning programs focusing on quality of service—making sure students are able to access educational materials and receive immediate performance evaluation from lecturers. This university was established in 2002 virtually spanning Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan; a branch in Saudi Arabia was established the following year. In 2014, it accepted 2,626 students, reaching a total of 11,000 students at the Saudi Arabia branch.

In 2008, the Knowledge International University was inaugurated as the first Saudi virtual university. It is a non-profit, Islamic university that offers bachelor's degrees in Islamic Studies, Shariah, and Qur'anic studies. It accepts students from all over the world, especially those who do not speak Arabic [11].

Conclusion and Recommendation

Distance education has become an important phenomenon in the educational system and will continue to be so as information technology continues to progress. The higher-education system in Saudi Arabia is gradually transforming from a fully traditional system to a blended learning system. However, distance education has not spread to all universities in Saudi Arabia and is limited to specific disciplines.

The implementation of distance education programs in Saudi Arabia aims to reach learners who live in remote locations and to employ new technology to promote effective learning and teaching, which may contribute to greater economic and social development. In order for this initiative to succeed, there has to be full cooperation and participation between teaching staff and administrative staff in educational institutions. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Educational institutions should endeavor to renew materials of distance education continuously.
  • Improve Internet connectivity, as it is very essential for the success of distance education.
  • Distance education programs should be easily accessible in terms of approach or convenience, availability, understanding, and suitability.


[1] 2007 EFA Global Monitoring Report. Strong Foundations: Early childhood care and education. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Paris, 2006.

[2] Ghamdi, A., Barakati, S., Adal, K., Jumaiah, S., and Soman, A. Students Outside the Walls of Higher Education. Okaz. July 2, 2011.

[3] Saudi Universities Preparing to Receive 367,000 Thousands Students from High School. Asharq Al-Awsat. June 24, 2013.

[4] Altowjry, A. Reforming Higher Education in Saudi Arabia: The use of telecommunications technology. Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology, 2005.

[5] El-Sultan, K. S. Educational Policy for Higher Education in the Future in Saudi Aarabia. Research and Strategic Studies Center. Ministry of Higher Education. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2012.

[6] Girls Colleges in Saudi Apply Distance Education and 38 Colleges Linked to the Center President in Riyadh.(tr) Al Riyadh Newspaper. June 23, 2006.

[7] Alrashidi, A. and Yahya N. E-learning in Saudi Arabia: A review of the literature. British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioral Science 4, 5 (2014), 656-672.

[8] Wright, C. R., Dhanarajan, G., Reju, S. A. (2009). Recurring Issues Encountered by Distance Educators in Developing and Emerging Nations. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning 10, 1 (2009).

[9] El-Sageer, A. Distance Learning in The Arab Countries. Paper submitted to International Conference in Education, Faculty of Education, AinShams University. 2012.

[10] Al-Khalifa, H. S. The State of Distance Education in Saudi Arabia. eLearn Magazine. (2009).

[11] Abouchedid K., and Eid, G. E-learning Challenges in the Arab World: Revelations from a case study profile. Quality Assurance in Education 12,1 (2004), 15-27.

About the Author

Uthman Alturki obtained his Ph.D. in educational computing and online learning from Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS, US) in 2004. He now works as an associate professor at King Saud University - College of Education within the Educational Technology Department. His main research interests are educational technology, educational computing, multimedia and hypermedia, e-learning and distance education, social networks sites, and cloud computing. He has published several research papers, and organized, participated and attended many national and international conferences.

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