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Schools, colleges and universities are investing in hardware and software to enhance educational services, increase information transparency and create online comunnities capable of supporting students, parents and teaching staff.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  April 2, 2002

I|~||~||~|The educational process isn’t just about reading text books and passing exams, it is about empowering the individual to interact with the outside world, be that either in a business capacity or in their private lives. During the early years, such effective lifestyle engineering requires tying together the student, the school and parents or sponsors to ensure a balanced educational development. As the student progresses the community surrounding higher education plays a similar formative role.

In the past, any shared communication has tended to be reactive. However, IT is changing the dynamics of the educational process, making real-time collaboration a reality for students, parents and teaching staff. Regardless of the age of the student, whether or not they are in public or private education, the region’s schools, colleges and universities are investing heavily in information technology to enhance the education processes, streamline administrative procedures and create an unprecedented degree of transparency around educational services.

“Our web site is 100% about service,” says Adonis Nasr, Al Mawakeb School, a private chain of kindergarten to year 12 schools based in Dubai and Lebanon.

“We are not looking at any financial return. We cannot put an amount on the money we have invested in this. There is a continuous injection of change going on around [the web site.] This is a service that will define who is leading in the academic space,” he adds.
Al Mawakeb School has been building its web presence steadily for the last four years offering a number of services to both parents and students. Pupils of the school use its web site to communicate with teaching staff, download course work and collaborate with classmates. Parent services include web cams monitoring kindergarten (KG) classes, bulletin boards, account status and daily updated student academic records and course/homework schedules.

“Through the Parent’s Place [site] they can access numerous interactive services,” says George Akhras, head of IT department, Al Mawakeb School.

The school’s web site also plays an important community function, with in-depth reporting on all school activities and trips. The site is also used to support special events, such as the yearly graduation ceremony. Last year the event was web cast and the site experienced roughly five and a half thousand hits in just 30 minutes. With relatively common surges in web traffic the school has invested in nine locally assembled Intel-based servers to ensure uptime and site performance.

“The number of parents that go to the Internet and get this information is maybe 65-to-70%… Parents go online to follow their children’s performance. Also those 65-to-70% [of parents] that are using the site are not going to go to another school because they won’t find this level of service,” explains Akhras.
IT investment in education hasn’t been restricted to Internet development. Many higher educational institutes have been investing heavily in their infrastructure to enhance services to students, faculty, staff and to a lesser extent parents.
||**||II|~||~||~|Kuwait University has been developing a student portal based around Oracle Portal Framework for the last six months. At the time of going to press the last of the student services — which include desktop productivity applications and course content — were due to go online. Future plans include the incorporation of faculty and administrative staff services into the portal.

“There are a lot of committees and interested parties around the university and they all have the same trouble — extracting information,” says Dr. Anwar Al Yatama, director for information systems and assistant vice president for academic support services, Kuwait University.

“Through our portal we’re making information available, anytime, anywhere… But [return on investment] isn’t the top priority, especially as this is a public university… here services are important. This is about how many services we can provide to the students and the faculty,” he explains.

The manner in which higher educational institutions deploy technology to either improve internal procedures or external services to students, sponsors or faculty reflects on the prestige of an institute. According to Dr. Saud Al Semari, director, Information Technology Centre, at Saudi-based King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM), the university has a duty to invest in IT to enhance services because that is the only way it can fulfil its remit of excellence in teaching, research and community services.

“All over the world IT is being looked at to distinguish universities from each other. IT will position us to excel in teaching, providing student information services, excellence in research and community services… We cannot do this unless we have a solid IT Infrastructure and services in place at the right time,” says Dr. Al Semari.
There are numerous government sponsored programmes to increase the level of PCs within public schools. However, some higher educational bodies have gone further and incorporated IT into the very core of its teaching practice with the widespread deployment of laptops.

Abu Dhabi Men’s College (ADMC), and UAE-based Zayed University (ZU) have financed laptops for students thereby introducing a greater degree of flexibility and collaboration into their respective teaching environments.

ADMC initially migrated to a laptop environment to avoid the costs of hardwiring its campus environment. The college has deployed an Avaya wireless local area network that covers the entire campus, enabling students and teaching staff to use notebooks as learning tools within the classroom environment. “[Notebooks] give the students anywhere, any time access,” says Robin Stark, head of educational services, ADMC. “This solution also gives a greater flexibility to students and teachers. [For example,] teachers can reconfigure the classroom right through the lesson if they wish to for different formats.”

||**||III|~||~||~|The widespread adoption of notebooks within the college also serves an educational purpose in itself. Notebooks enable students to identify with the new skills and technology.

“They gain the skills by using the new technology [that] is going to pervade their lives from here on in. The best way to learn is to look at laptops as a tool to take anywhere, whether they are at college, work or play,” explains ADMC’s head of educational services.

By using notebooks the college is also able to reduce the cost of running computer labs. Currently, students buy their notebooks through the ADMC, which brokers the deal with the local vendor partners. “In terms of cost savings and efficiency, we have been able to reduce the cost of computer labs,” says Stark.

“Computer labs were the rage, but as you get more students you [need] more labs and that gets fairly expensive. With laptops [we] don’t have as many computer labs. We are looking to reduce those progressively,” he adds.

Furthermore, laptops are enhancing collaboration between ADMC’s students. With a wireless network students are able to easily download and exchange information. “We’re seeing students collaborate more and more. They are sitting in the [library resource centre] in small groups, each with a laptop, working on projects and sharing information,” comments Stark.

Laptops have also been in the front line of educational services at Zayed University since it opened in 1998. However, ZU is building on the collaborative benefits delivered through the use of notebooks and enhancing the functionality of its e-curriculum through the use of Black Board, an e-learning management application. Since the beginning of the current school year, teachers and staff have been using the web-based application to enhance collaboration and management of the educational process.

When teachers log on to Black Board they see a personalised interface, which lists all the courses that they teach, the pupils in their classes, the work that has been set and also an e-mail functionality. Through Black Board, the teacher can create work groups, set assignments and communicate with students.

Black Board also offers students similar personalised services, however, their level of collaboration is defined by parameters defined by the teacher. “Access and collaboration are the two main benefits of using this application,” says Mark French, educational technologist with Zayed University.

“The teacher might get some students to work together as a group. The collaboration — be it chatting, threaded discussion, e-mail groups, file sharing — would all be done within the bounds of that particular group,” he explains.
||**||IV|~||~||~|Collaboration features also enabling students to communicate more effectively between the university’s two campuses — one in Dubai and the other in Abu Dhabi — and with the ZU’s associate universities in the US.

“We have three sister institutions in the United States… they’re working in collaboration with ZU on an executive MBA programme. The [course] is for people already in the world of work, so they use this tool [Black Board] to collaborate with the faculty, local students and with the faculty in the United States,” says French.

Currently, Black Board is used in conjunction with traditional classroom training. There are no immediate plans to use Black Board as a full 100% e-learning environment.
“We’re not doing full blown distance learning here, what we are doing is basically classroom based learning, but using a toolset that will equally lend itself to distance learning,” comments French.

Last year KFUPM ran e-learning pilots with both Black Board and Web CT. The university ran two parallel courses on ‘data structures’, one using an e-learning platform and meeting just once a week and the other using traditional teaching methods and meeting three times a week.

“The class using [the web-based package] meet just once a week and the rest of their course was available on the Web where they could listen to the course instructor, read the course notes and learn from the web itself,” says Dr. Al Smari.

“The experiment was very successful. The students that went through the web averaged a better understanding than those that went through regular teaching. The university is continuing on this process,” he adds.

ZU intends to continue with its Black Board development, with plans to leverage on the portal capabilities of the package. User profiles are currently defined by the Sun/Oracle based Banner student administration and financial application. The student profiles are shared with Black Board to create greater transparency of student data. “[Black Board] is a tool to enable the university to achieve a lot of what it set out to do,” explains French.
ZU’s portal work will be further enhanced with the introduction of single sign directory technology later this year. Currently, the university is using both Microsoft’s Active Directory and Novell’s E-Directory to manage its multi-platform environment.

“Eventually we are going to get to the stage that each user signs on once, and the attributes for that [user] will be assigned when they log on. That will give us a secure environment and it will be easier to use,” explains Steve Kitching, supervisor, computer systems, with Zayed University.

However, as the region’s schools, colleges and universities integrate e-learning technologies and practices to the core curriculum, localised content is becoming an increasingly significant issue. Dubai National School, a private school teaching children from ages three to 16, is currently attempting to map software to its curriculum.
“If we want to put the PC at the core of the educational process, we need it to support Islam, the Koran and be sensitive to local issues,” says Lotfy Sabra Mohammed, IT manager, Dubai National School.

||**||V|~||~||~|“We have started selecting the software and mapping it to the needs of the schools… We intend to cover the curriculum for all grades with e-learning applications,” he adds.
Sheikh Mohammed’s IT Education Project, to put computer labs and teachers in all public secondary schools in the UAE, has developed its own course content. With the initial phase of the project to equip schools in Dubai being rushed through in just two months, much of the curriculum was originally developed step by step over the first semester. Since then it has matured, relying heavily on feedback from teachers and students.

“Most of the students in public schools [have] weak English… so we had to developed the curriculum ourselves because there is no way that they can use the same [level of English] that is being used in [other courses],” says Jamal Khalfan Al Huwairib, director, www.sheikhmohammed.co.ae, the organising body behind the IT Education Project.
“If we [brought] in the curriculum from outside, it may not be the right thing for the students. So we got all the feedback from the teachers and we developed the curriculum day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month,” he adds.

For the most part local educational institutes appear to be adding content provision to the list of teachers’ responsibilities. However, this has meant schools and higher education institutes embarking on extensive re-training and change management programmes. “It was a difficult processes,” concedes George Akhras of Al Mawakeb School.

“The president of the school called everyone together and said ‘listen the school is moving forward and those that will not keep up, will be left behind, and that would be a great shame.’ The school has supported its teachers… the biggest problem is not the new teachers but the ones that have been around for 20 years, and they are the ones with the most experience,” he adds.

Al Mawakeb has a rolling training programme for its academic staff that familiarises them with desktop productivity tools and the school’s internally developed content management system. Teachers are now expected to update class schedules and events on the web site before leaving at the end of the day.

Egypt-based Mansoura University and KFUPM have dedicated information technology centres, with the duel role of educating the students and the academic staff. As Mansoura University starts to post more content to the Internet, its Communications & Information Technology Centre (CITC) has begun training its staff in PowerPoint and other Office applications.

“It’s very important to use the very basic applications such as PowerPoint to teach them how to present their information, how to develop reports using Word, how to build simple databases using Access. We try and have the staff members acquainted with these technologies,” explains Professor Mouneer Abdul-Razzack, director of CITC.
KFUPM has been training its academic staff in IT for the last two years. Increasingly, academics are using more sophisticated applications, such as Web CT and Black Board. “Staff are really fighting to get on to the training schedule,” says Dr. Al Semari.

ADMC also has a full professional development (PD) programme to ensure its staff gain the necessary skills. Going forward, the Men’s College expects a greater degree of multimedia to be incorporated into classroom presentations. “It is not just like it used to be where you draw up a lesson plan with a pencil and paper and they go in to the lesson and teach... They need new skills,” says Stark.

“With laptops there is a higher level of preparation and there is a lot of skills that teachers needs to have. There is a lot of PD going on in the college in relation to staff professional development,” he adds.

With much of the region racing to implement e-government policies of some description, there is an increasing pressure on educational institutes to implement some IT education.
If the local schools, colleges and universities are to live up to their commitments to deliver valuable education services, they have little or no choice but to increase their investment in IT to enhance the teaching process and to deliver a full educational portfolio.
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