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Online learning in the Arab world

By Nidhal Guessoum / October 2006

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Online learning in the US is prospering and becoming more entrenched each year. However, the situation is very different worldwide—particularly in the Arab world. Online education depends strongly on digital infrastructure, PC and Internet penetration, and connection costs, all of which vary hugely from one Arab country to another. The situation is most advantageous in the Arab Gulf and least favorable in countries like Sudan and Yemen. It is not surprising then to find various levels of progress in the implementation of the e-learning paradigm in the Arab region. Some Arab countries have made good starts in online learning while others remain at the concept stage.

Some reasons for this state of affairs are readily apparent. First, the region's population relies largely on Arabic as a learning language (especially at the primary and secondary levels), and Arabic has made limited inroads in the digital information landscape. Secondly, the educational system has not prepared students for an active, independent, lifelong-learning approach to education, a prime prerequisite for participating and succeeding in the online-learning world. Thirdly, although it is true that the digital infrastructure is well developed in some regions (the Arab Gulf, in particular), its actual penetration into homes and actual usage in workplaces and schools remain very limited.

Surveying the Educational Scene
Despite the varying degrees of digital readiness in different parts of the Arab world, a quick survey of the educational scene in the region shows substantial interest in online learning and several attempts at starting programs in this new paradigm. The e-learning market in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone is currently estimated at $14 million and is expected to increase to $56 million by 2008. In the Arab Gulf (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, in decreasing order of edu-economic importance) total spending on e-learning was estimated at $72 million in 2004. This figure is well below the average in the much of the world, but it's growing at a 27 percent compound average rate. Online education spending in the Arab Gulf region will thus reach $240 million by the end of 2009, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE representing about 80 percent of the total. With its large student population, Saudi Arabia dominates in academic e-learning, while the UAE leads in business e-learning services.

E-learning now receives more attention in the Arab world than ever before. The League of Arab States issued a Draft Declaration of Principles in 2003 endorsing e-learning as a tool that can help eliminate illiteracy, achieve universal primary education, and help improve both the training of teachers and the delivery of lifelong education for honing professional skills. But that declaration remained largely abstract and did not spell out any concrete programs to help achieve those goals; most importantly, the League of Arab States ignored the issue of budgets and costs of implementing such programs. And one must note that e-learning is still being confused with distance education, with the latter often replacing the former, particularly when the infrastructure and dearth of content (again, particularly in Arabic) prevent the actual implementation of e-learning.

Recent efforts in the field of online education in the Arab world can be divided into the following categories: governmental efforts to create structures for complete programs; online programs of professional development and training for employees; and higher education efforts, both individual projects and collective exchange efforts.

Governmental Efforts
Foremost among governmental efforts is the Syrian Virtual University (SVU), which was created in 2002 by the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education. SVU aims to serve the entire Arab region and market; its strategy is to partner with foreign universities that have strong experience in online education so that programs can be offered fully online, in either English or French. The program is envisioned to consist initially of courses already created by the partner universities, but later to offer courses devised by SVU faculty exclusively. These new courses would take into account the specific needs of the targeted student populations: Arab, Armenian, Iranian, etc.

It is perhaps paradoxical that such an ambitious project would surface in Syria, where the Internet was only introduced in 2000, and which by 2004 was still ranked 12th among 18 Arab countries in Internet penetration, though it has been quickly improving (overtaking Egypt, for instance, in the past year). Because PC and Internet usage in Syria are limited, and even enrolled students lack easy access to online programs, SVU quickly established telecenters across the country that allow free-of-charge access while serving as "Certified Testing Centers" where students sit for their proctored examinations during the year. SVU's progress has been very slow: It has reported 702 students, including 331 in the preparatory year (representing 13 nationalities) in its enrollment figures. The preparatory year is intended to help students develop language proficiency (English or French, depending on the intended international partner), as well as computer and Internet skills.

A similarly ambitious project is the Arab American eUniversity System (AAeU), which plans to provide higher education at satellite campuses across the region (and beyond to Asia and the Americas) by first establishing online programs as academic and business services. Later, the plan stipulates, blended (hybrid) learning will be made possible when physical campuses are erected. No documentation could be found on the progress of this project so far.

Another governmental project, although of much more limited scale, is the e-TQM college (electronic Total Quality Management), which was launched in September 2002 in Dubai by the local government in the aim of providing world-class e-learning programs to the community, as well as to public and private sector employees. e-TQM aims to offer two-year course programs in the field of total quality management; at present, however the project is focusing on "Executive Development Programs." No assessment has been made of this program yet.

Corporate Training
The utilization of online programs for corporate training is also receiving substantial attention and interest in the Arab Gulf, especially in the UAE. Businesses have begun to realize the cost-efficient nature of e-learning programs, as well as the need for continuous training in this globalized, fast-evolving (and in this region, fast-growing) economic world. This is also true for professionals looking to upgrade their degrees and salary profiles. One must keep in mind that this particular region is largely populated by expatriates; indeed up to 90 percent of the Arab Gulf workforce is comprised of expatriates, who realize that they must keep their skills sharp and their profiles high for when they move to another region of the world (once their contracts expire in the region). Large-scale programs that target this market specifically have yet to appear in the region.

Higher Ed
University efforts in implementing online education programs are also significant, even though one can discern no general trend or approach even within a given country. For instance, Sana's University in Yemen (one of the largest in the Arab world with 70,000 students and staff) has signed a deal with Microsoft to deploy the latter's Learning Gateway Solution e-learning platform, which includes course content as well as interaction and examination tools. It will constitute the largest such undertaking in the region. Another concrete sign of ebullient interest in online education in the Arab world is the fact that WebCT alone (until it became part of Blackboard) had more than 45 customers in the region.

Serious efforts have been made in recent years to train faculty for online education. The UNESCO Cairo office has been conducting training workshops for Arab faculty of the region mainly in collaboration with the University of Illinois Online Network (UION), one of the pioneering US institutions in online education. The latest such effort was the March 2006 Capacity Building Workshop for Teachers in ICT, which undertook hands-on training for 20 participants representing 12 Arab countries. The first EBEL (E-Business and E-Learning) International Conference, organized by the Princess Sumaya University for Technology (Jordan) in March 2005, was an event that clearly signaled the emergence of e-learning (and e-business) as a permanent archetype in the Arab world.

Online Learning in the UAE
With its state-of-the-art digital infrastructure, the UAE has set the stage for rapid advances in e-learning (not to mention e-business and e-government). Bi-annual "E-ducation Without Borders" conferences have been organized in the UAE since 2001; these global "by the students, for the students" conferences attract as many as 500 students from over 50 countries.

Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology have also held a series of semi-annual one-day workshops on e-learning over the past several years in the UAE, regularly drawing some 200 participants. The UAE's national University (UAEU), by far the largest university in the country, has also been making significant strides in the adoption and implementation of online learning. The number of active Blackboard users jumped from about 1200 in fall 2002 to about 4000 in spring 2003, and has steadily increased to about 8000 today.

In 2003, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) co-organized (with the UNESCO Cairo Office), a week-long hands-on interactive workshop on online teaching in which about 30 participants from Gulf universities were trained in creating, managing, and delivering online and Web-enhanced courses. Since then, dozens of AUS instructors have added online components to their courses, now making the hybrid (blended online and in-class) format of teaching the dominant paradigm across the university. In fall 2005, the university established "ilearn," a unified platform for online learning, where all university courses automatically receive space for pedagogical interaction.

The Big Picture
The only known study of faculty attitudes and experiences with online teaching in the Arab world was conducted by Abouchedid and Eid in 2004. The findings showed a general acceptance and disposition toward online learning as a tool, but two major concerns surfaced immediately: distrust of online examination schemes, and the likening of large-scale online learning to a "mass-production assembly line process, where a division of labor between educators and communications specialists replaces the more craft-oriented approach of face-to-face education." Critics also question the efficiency and effectiveness of online tools. And faculty often find themselves forced to handle large portions of online teaching operations, without proper support and assistance from technical and pedagogical specialists.

I personally have observed students who are completely transformed from passive to very active participants by the advantages of the online world, especially in places where students are brought up to accept whatever their wise and all-knowing teachers transmit to them. But ventures in online education ventures do not succeed easily, especially at the larger scales. It will be very interesting to observe and follow the development of e-learning projects in the Arab world in the years to come, particularly such ventures as the Arab American eUniversity System and the hybrid versus fully online schemes now underway at various Arab universities.

Thanks to UmmeSalma Mujtaba for providing a copy of the paper she presented at the Online Educa Berlin 2005 international conference last November "The Future of E-Learning in the Arab World" and to Walid Abdel-Hakim El Din for useful information on the volume of online teaching activity at AUS and at UAE University.


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