Driving e-learning

If the Middle East is to avoid falling on the wrong side of the digital divide, then schools, colleges and universities are going to have to rethink the way they use IT in education, to create the knowledge workers of tomorrow.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  April 2, 2001

I|~||~||~|The world of work may have been revolutionised by the introduction of desktop computing, but in the education sector, the ability and expertise to provide students with the skills they will need in the workplace, has struggled to keep up to speed with evolving technology. While the global IT skills shortage continues to get worse, professional certification and vocational training can only go so far to addressing the problem. The digital divide, the gap between those countries that are empowered by technology and those countries that lag behind is growing. It has never been more important to prepare the workforce of tomorrow for the high tech, networked environments they will be working in.

But getting technology into schools is not a simple task. For a start, cost conscious schools simply don’t have the funds to provide a PC for every child — even in the West there is just not enough money to make the completely networked school a reality just yet, let alone keeping technology up to date. Schools also lack the expertise to know what they should invest in, how to maintain it, and how best to use the technology in teaching. While computer labs are fairly common place in secondary schools, they tend to be dedicated to teaching IT, rather than being used for other subjects, and students have limited access to use PCs for other work. This leads to a situation where many pupils don’t gain enough hands-on experience of applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel until they get to University or the workplace, unless they are fortunate enough to have access to a PC at home. This already creates a microcosm of the digital divide — whether you are a fan of Microsoft or not, it is very difficult to avoid using Office or similar packages in any white-collar job, or many technical blue-collar jobs.

||**||II|~||~||~|Addressing this problem has troubled education departments and IT vendors alike for some time. One of the most proactive companies in this regard has been Intel. The company provides a wide range of services to schools, and is involved in a number of regional schemes to encourage the uptake of technology. One of the most important schemes, according to Ned Jaroudi, regional sales manager for Intel Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa, is the ‘Teach to the Future’ initiative. “Teach to the Future was launched at the end of 1999, the idea behind it is teacher training, so that teachers can then start delivering IT courses in schools,” he said. “Our goal is to reach half a million teachers in the EMEA region by 2003.”

Teach to the Future is a free, intensive training course run by Intel, with the aim of making teachers aware of the benefits and value of technology, and then teaching them how to introduce technology into the curriculum. Topics covered in the week-long course are applications such as Powerpoint and Word, and how they can be used by and for pupils, and how to use the Web for research and collaboration with other teachers. Teachers are kept up to date with refresher courses and web-based support.

For the Middle East, it is particularly important to take technology to students, Jaroudi believes. “Businesses have benefited [from technology], but schools haven’t. Students have to wait until they graduate from college and find themselves a job before they start using technology — when you do that you become just a consumer society — you are not fostering any innovation, any research,” he said.

“If you can start adopting technology at a young age, hopefully you can have scientists that can compete with the West. Unfortunately all the top scientists from the region are all either working for American or European companies, they are not benefiting the region.”

Jaroudi speaks from experience. While in high school in Lebanon, he says, he was put off IT by a course in BASIC that did not involve hands-on learning with computers for three months. It was not until he went to the US, where he worked for ten years, that he saw the benefits of technology. “A lot of my friends of Arab origin are still in the US. The reason being, technology has not been widely adopted in schools here, so these guys only know about it when they go to college in the US, and then they get recruited to work in the US. There are no high tech companies that are innovating here.”

But Intel has recognised the hunger for more IT among students. In 1999, along with Etisalat and Al Yousuf Computers, the company sponsored an Internet café as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival. The response from local students was very positive said Jaroudi, which drove Intel and Al Yousuf to decide to do something to further encourage UAE students. In October 2000, along with the UAE Ministry of Education, they launched a web site competition for public and private schools in the UAE. The prize is a fully networked PC laboratory for the winning schools, which will also be the first to have staff trained on the Teach for the Future curriculum. “Hopefully by having these schools adopt IT, and start teaching students about technology, the Internet, etc. then other schools will benefit. We want to properly train ministry personnel, so they can go and deliver the training to other schools.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Intel is not alone in its drive to take technology back to school. In the UAE, a major project is underway under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The project, part of Sheikh Mohammed’s broader vision of IT enablement of the UAE, will see state-of-the-art IT laboratories introduced into all of the UAE’s schools, serving 50,000 students. Schools will be networked, with a complete curriculum delivered via the Internet, together with support services. At present there are 21 secondary schools in Dubai that are up and running. The next stage is to prepare the secondary schools in Abu Dhabi by the start of the new academic year in September, with completion of the project due by 2003.

But the project is about more than just rolling out hardware. “We want to introduce the knowledge worker of tomorrow,” explained Refaat Kazoun, senior trainer with the Dubai IT Academy, the hub of the project. “We are aiming to bring up an e-generation in the UAE, using e-education, to produce what we call the e-learner. Traditionally the student absorbed what the teacher had to tell them. We are going against that, we want to shape these students to become learners, to facilitate lifelong learning, because this way they are always going to enhance themselves, to be looking ahead at what they need to learn and accomplish.”

The idea of e-learning, said Kazoun, is partly due to the rapid rate of change in skills that are essential to any profession. This means that workers will constantly have to learn new skills to stay up to date, so pupils need to learn now, how to use technology to find things out for themselves in future. “It is about what you research, what you become, and how you can enhance yourself,” he said.

The Dubai IT Academy (which will be followed by an Abu Dhabi counterpart) acts as a training centre for the teachers in the scheme. The first batch of 22 teachers were selected out of a field of thousands of IT and teaching professionals, said Kazoun, and have undergone over 250 hours of training since the inception of the project. “We are not only teaching IT, the curriculum at the moment is fairly basic for them as professionals, but we are teaching them the idea of e-learning, of becoming the facilitator of e-learning, and making the student aware of the opportunity that is being made available to them. We have been very successful, we have a very well educated teaching cadre,” he said.

Another key part of the project alongside the trainers is the curriculum. Jamal Khalfan Al Huwaireb, director general of the Sheikh Mohammed IT Education Project explained that although there were a lot of curriculum elements available aimed at Europe and the US, there was nothing there for Arabic speaking students. To this end, a complete e-learning curriculum for the UAE has been devised. “There are thousands of sites in English, but nothing in Arabic, which is where it was lacking,” he said. “Most IT is in English, but we want the students to believe that they can take the reins into their own hands, they don’t have to follow all the time, we want them to start thinking, ‘yes, we can lead.’”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Inspiring the student was vitally important to the project, said Kazoun. Particular attention has been paid to the décor of the IT labs to give them a different feel from their normal classrooms, and he says the students are treated differently too. A portal site allows students access to IT information and curriculum elements from home. E-mentoring will also be available, so that if a student is doing homework, they will be able to get an instant response to any problems they might have with the coursework. After the initial semester’s training, which covered the basics of IT, review weeks were held during the holidays, that proved to be very popular.

There are also plans for a voluntary summer ‘boot camp’ scheme, where students can chose a particular project of interest to them, and focus on it over the summer vacation, with one-on-one tuition. Overall, the feedback has been very positive said Kazoun: “The students showed a real hunger for IT, we find that they are extremely excited, and so eager to absorb this technology, it gives everyone an uplift.”

Along with the roll-out to the rest of the UAE, the project will co-ordinate with UAE universities on the needs of students. The project is currently rectifying the problem of ‘IT ignorant’ students going to university, which is taking time out of university schedules to correct. Once the secondary schools have been covered, the project will filter down to primary schools. Students will be encouraged to use their IT skills in other subjects too. There may also be scope to take the best students toward professional certification. The eventual aim will be to produce graduates of professional calibre. “We are trying to educate the students, from the beginning of school to secondary school, about IT,” said Al Huwaireb. “We are opening doors, giving them an understanding, and then university will complete this [process], and he will be close to professional.”

||**||V|~||~||~|In Saudi Arabia, another project is under way, for a potentially even further reaching project. The Watani Prince Abdullah Schools’ Net project aims to provide networked PCs for all schools in Saudi Arabia, an online curriculum and other educational material and school management systems. By the time the project is completed, 22,000 schools in the Kingdom will be connected.

At present, the project is finalising Request For Pricings (RFPs) for the various elements of the systems, according to Dr Abdullah Aldubaikhi, technical manager. The project, which was conceived in May last year, has looked at other schemes around the world to address the unique challenges that Saudi Arabia faces. “We released a Request For Information (RFI) in September 2000, and received around 37 responses from governments and companies around the world,” he said. “The response amounted to over 7,000 pages of information. Canada was the most suitable case we could study from a telecommunications point of view; for how to use IT in education we are following the Australian experience in Victoria State and we also looked at Malaysia and the USA.”

The project is also working with five different international consultancies to handle areas such as change management, telecommunications and project management. Unlike the UAE project, which is being funded personally by Sheikh Mohammed, the Watani project is relying on government funding, although private companies will be involved through contributions and an exchange of benefit program, that will allow companies to link to the Schools’ Net if they are involved in fundraising for the project.

The project is also looking to develop an Arabic curriculum, which Dr Aldubaikhi says is one of the main challenges facing the project. Also an area of concern is the communications infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Dr Aldubaikhi expects it to take the next three years to get 70% of schools in the Kingdom connected, but the remaining 30% will take another two years on top of that, mainly due to remote rural locations and problems with bandwidth. “STC is growing, but we don’t think they will be able, within the foreseeable future, to support connectivity for all the 22,000 schools,” he explained. “[So] we will be using terrestrial communications through STC, we will be using MMDF broadband wireless communication for some areas and we will be using V-Sat communications in rural areas.”

Because the project will be aiming to deploy technology across all subjects, Dr Aldubaikhi says that the teachers will need more support. “We are anticipating some resistance among the teachers,” he said. “When you have IT introduced to the classroom, it is not just using a projector instead of a blackboard, it is changing the way the education delivery system works, with the teacher becoming a facilitator, so we are trying to come up with a skills development program which will help us to reduce this kind of resistance.”

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