Back to school

When it comes to choosing the right computer for your child, there can be few better judges than a school – and especially when that school is about to allocate its IT budget. A look at the choices of a multi-million dollar IT customer — the education sector.

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By  Vijaya George Published  May 28, 2002

I|~||~||~|June 30 — the date signifies the close of one financial year and the beginning of the next for many organisations in the Middle East. And while IT vendors and resellers rush to move their existing inventory during this period so that they can wheel in new stocks, offices in the public and private sector cash in on the opportunity to get good deals on hardware and software. As a result, this is one quarter where, despite the apparent summer slump in the market, sale of IT products picks up dramatically.

One segment of the market that has seen a significant surge in IT spending, especially during this quarter and the last, is the academic sector; some of who close their accounts on June 30 and others on December 30. Current statistics show that educational institutions spend a substantial percentage of their budgets towards developing their IT infrastructures. This trend is, however, not exclusive to the Middle East region; rather it is a common phenomenon among academic institutions worldwide.

The difference, perhaps, lies in what different regions are spending on. In countries like the United States, for instance, hardware penetration within the educational sector is already fairly high. Work is in progress to set up networks, spend on communications products and also offer sophisticated e-learning methods to improve their distance learning schemes. Market research agency International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that 90 per cent of all U.S. higher education institutions will be offering some type of e-learning facility by the year 2005 to improve distance-learning schemes.

However, in the Middle East, we have been witness to mixed stages of progress in different segments within the academic sector. Much of the funding for IT deployments seem to have gone to the higher education sector, while schools have been largely neglected until recently. Schools are currently lagging behind with alarmingly low hardware penetration. Where PCs have been deployed, they have often not been effectively integrated into the learning system. However, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan are working hard to rectify the fundamental problem by pumping money into equipping labs in schools in the public sector with PCs.

||**||II|~||~||~|The public education sector of Saudi Arabia is currently involved in two massive projects. Saudi Arabia spent more than $29.3 million in a project started last July, to equip labs in the Kingdom’s boys’ schools with PCs. This project, due to be completed in July this year, will see 1,350 labs in boys’ schools equipped with 23,000 PCs. This was followed by another $26.6 million project, signed in February this year and scheduled for completion in September, whereby 1250 labs will be set up in girls’ schools and equipped with approximately 22,500 PCs.

“With this project, they would have put one lab in each high school in the public sector,” states Kolaiel Alghamdi, education manager, Microsoft Arabia, who has been working closely with Saudi’s Education sector to ease the process of setting up IT labs quickly and efficiently. “We found that teachers were having a difficult time setting up these labs and getting each system up and running. It was turning out to be a very time consuming process. So, we designed a special Microsoft kit with customised CDs that would allow them to set up each system in under 10 minutes,” explains Alghamdi, who was instrumental in designing the kit. But Saudi Arabia is not sitting back after these massive projects. Early May this year, the ministry issued a request for proposal (RFP) to set up yet another 14,000 PCs in the elementary and intermediate schools in the public sector.

Apart from these big projects, several smaller ones are being carried out simultaneously in Saudi Arabia. Salih Aluwaishiq, manager, Educational IT (EIT) Department, Ministry of Education for boys in Saudi Arabia states that 10 years ago, the government was focusing only on deploying IT infrastructure in high schools. “However, three years ago, this trend changed and we have developed around 500 media centres so far in elementary and intermediate schools, and we are working towards developing another 500 media centres,” he says.
Likewise, the UAE has in place the Sheikh Mohammed IT Education Project, which is run in cooperation with the UAE Ministry of Education, and is designed to bring the youth of the region into the information age. Initiated in Dubai, the project has been expanded to include Abu Dhabi. By 2005, the IT infrastructure to support the project will be in place in every school in the UAE, including private schools, and has been designed to involve an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 students.

In Jordan, where IT deployment is still in its infancy, the government is first focusing on equipping its universities before getting down to its schools. Jordan’s National Centre for Human Resources Development (NCHRD) recently awarded a tender to Dell to supply its eight public universities in Jordan with Dell computers and servers. The country’s eight public universities will be equipped with 44 Dell Power Edge Departmental Servers, 3,120 Dell OptiPlex Desktop Computers, 47 Compaq iPaq 2810 Multimedia projectors, 130 3COM Superstack 3 Switches and 140 Tally T9120 Heavy Duty Laser Printers. The universities now boast more than 2,000 servers and 9,000 PCs covering over 50,000 faculty members and students.

||**||III|~||~||~|Schools in the private sector are also quietly moving ahead and gradually equipping their schools with the necessary infrastructure. However, their IT spending is usually dictated by requirements and pre-determined budgets set by the management. The Varkey group of schools, a private chain that has over 18 schools in the UAE and two in Doha, has been working towards setting up IT labs in each of its schools. “Our IT investment is made as and when there is a requirement,” comments Sidney D’Rosario, assistant vice president, IT, Varkey group, who has overseen most of the group’s IT projects.

The group’s schools are classified on the basis of their fee structure, and this determines the facilities in each of their respective IT labs. Three-star schools will have IT labs with Internet access while the labs at the four and five-star schools have multimedia equipment such as projectors and smart boards. Currently, Modern High School has been the lucky recipient of one of the most modern IT labs in Dubai. The lab has more than 30 multimedia computers, connected to an IBM Server and a CD Server through a high-speed fibre-optic backbone. The lab is geared for DIPS (Digitally Interactive Presentation System) methodology for instruction. To achieve this, the centre has been equipped with an interactive board with touch-screen capabilities that permits a dynamic interactive learning environment and a multimedia projector. Moreover, a teacher-monitoring tool enables the teacher to sit at her desktop and monitor each student’s activity. A fibre-optic backbone connects all departments of the school, networking its other computer laboratories, the staff-rooms, the library as well as the administrative offices.

Meanwhile, the group will be implementing a school management system within the next couple of months, confirms D’Rosario, to keep the academic records of each student as well as maintain the back office work of the administration system. A longer-term project that the management is considering is networking all the schools with each other and inter-linking them with the group’s corporate office. However, e-learning, making tutoring available on the Web, using Web-based programmes such as those seen on egurukul.com and compassbox.com are still only remote possibilities for the group’s schools, irrespective of the fee structure.

Another group that is strongly focused on getting its IT infrastructure in place is Dubai’s Al Ittihad school, earlier run by the UAE government and now, part of a private trust. Ahlam Kalanter, head of Al Ittihad’s IT department and a graduate from the Higher Colleges of Technology, says the school, which has branches in Mamzar and Jumeirah, has an “open budget” for IT spending. “We have already spend hundreds of thousands of Dirhams on IT,” says Kalanter, who is currently focused on deploying the latest infrastructure in Al Ittihad, Mamzar. The school, like the Modern High School, has used fibre optics as the backbone of its network. “Four years back, we did the Jumeirah campus and we used a 6-core cable,” she says. “Now, a 12-core cable is available and this is what we are using in the Mamzar campus. When we are done here, we’ll upgrade whatever is necessary in Jumeirah,” says Kalanter, who admits that the school is still working hard to get the basics like the hardware and software set up. “Once that is done, the next stage will be to move the PC to the classroom,” she says.

The school currently has about 150 PCs, some of which are still running on Pentium 1 and 2 processors. But all that is due to change by September when students return from their summer vacation. New budgets have been approved to replace the very old PCs and upgrade the rest to the P4 processor, says Kalanter. Meanwhile, in anticipation of introducing future multimedia capabilities in the classroom and networking the school’s branches, the management has also paid careful attention to these factors while getting their new buildings constructed. Different schools in the private sector, however, have been paying attention to investing in different projects. While some have been attempting to provide basic infrastructure and set up PCs in schools, others have focused on making IT an integral part of their mainstream education and involving parents as well into the education system.

||**||IV|~||~||~|A case in point is Al Mawakeb School, a private chain of kindergarten-grade 12 schools based in Dubai and Lebanon. The School’s Web site, which was hosted four years, offers several services to parents, students as well as staff members. Students, for instance, can download course work, interact with classmates and consult teachers. Meanwhile, Web cams enable parents to monitor kindergarten classes, online bulletin boards help them to keep in touch with school activities and events, and they can also get daily updates on their children’s academic records and homework schedules from the site. The school claims that 65 to 70% of the parents use the school’s Web services to keep themselves updated. Moreover, the surge in traffic has prompted the school to invest in nine locally assembled, Intel-based servers to ensure optimum performance.

While much is being done in schools in both the public and private sector currently, there is no denying that relatively bigger contracts involving several millions of dollars are been signed by vendors with different universities in the region. Very often, universities also sign multiple agreements with different vendors, who offer them various levels of service on hardware and software. For instance, IBM might offer universities laptops at subsidised rates, Cisco’s certified course might be run as part of a University’s curriculum and a University’s entire administration and servers might be running on Microsoft technologies.

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s schools are only now being equipped with PCs, the scene at the University level is radically different. One instance is of the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM). The University has signed academic agreements with many major IT vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, CISCO, and Oracle, says Dr. Saud Al Semari, director, Information Technology Centre, KFUPM, who is also an associate professor of Electrical Engineering with a major in Wireless Communications.

The infrastructure that is currently available at the university is impressive. And there’s more to come. Says Dr. Semari: “The university has recently upgraded its infrastructure. We currently have a state-of-the-art backbone based on Gigabit Ethernet technology with very high-speed. Every PC has been networked with a switched speed of 100 Mbps. The university has about 50 PC labs across the campus. Many of them are used as an integral part of our courses. All faculty and administrative offices are equipped with PCs. Most of these PC are Windows based (with Arabic support) although we do have Linux-based labs as well.” The university’s server farm environment is based on different operating systems, from Unix and Linux to w2k and S/390.

||**||V|~||~||~|One of the university’s next major projects, however, is to replace conventional dial-up access and provide broadband access instead to student dorms and faculty housing on campus. In addition, two other major projects that are being planned include deploying wireless LANs within academic buildings and developing a technology acquisition program for students. “Both projects will allow students to use their notebooks in the academic building and be connected to the network. This will greatly support the university’s e-learning initiative,” explains Dr. Semari. “In addition, we are starting to transform our legacy applications to integrated Web-based applications that will help us greatly in building the university portal,” he adds.

Only two per cent of the KFUPM’s budget goes towards IT spending, and it is funded from the university’s annual budget. However, judging by the kind of infrastructure that is being set up annually in the University, it is clear that the percentage is not insignificant.

Moreover, the University has a very organised system in place by which “we have devised a PC upgrade cycle for the replacement of obsolete hardware,” explains Dr. Semari. Such efficient handling of budget has helped the University to allocate resources appropriately.
In the UAE, government universities have been signing several campus agreements, and taking on projects in co-operation with each other as well as individually. Recently, a landmark campus agreement was signed between the UAE minister of higher education and scientific research HH Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and Microsoft Gulf that will enable 25,000 students from the Higher Colleges of Technology, Zayed University and the UAE University to use Microsoft technologies such as Windows XP, Office XP, Microsoft Encarta, Microsoft FrontPage and Visual Studio. Under the agreement, students and staff will also be able to avail of an overall price reduction of up to a whopping 80% on Microsoft products.

Although the Ministry of Education does step in to fund universities in the public sector, the latter do not depend entirely on the former for this purpose. Rather, much of the decisions and budgets are thought to be decentralised. Dr. Hanif Al Qassimi, vice president of Zayed University states that the university “is not administered by the Ministry of Education and does not depend on this Ministry for its budget allocation. It is anticipated that the university will continue to have sufficient resources to maintain and advance its investment in IT.” Currently, 10 per cent of the University’s total budget is allocated to IT spending.

Last year, the University invested in developing the network backbone and security for the campus as well as setting up instructional workstations, administrative and instructional software and core servers, says Jim Morris, director of Information Technology at Zayed University. This year, he says the university has plans to implement a library management system, complete phase II of its network backbone & security, refresh faculty workstations at a faster rate, get licenses for instructional software products and implement wireless networking in the campus.

||**||VI|~||~||~|Likewise, UAE University has made significant strides in developing a digital learning environment for its students and staff to sustain the integration of IT into its learning and teaching methods. “In the past four years, we have developed a comprehensive plan to seamlessly integrate IT into both the learning and teaching processes within the university,” explains Dr. Ali Rashed Alnoaimi, deputy vice chancellor for Academic Affairs (DVCAA), UAE University. As a result, a program initiated in 1997 for the development and support of advanced teaching methods has been consistently improved upon.
Consequently, several projects are in progress simultaneously. After the implementation of two smart classrooms in 1996, the university today has 26 such outfits, some of which are mobile units. Video conferencing is used extensively for the university’s distance-learning activities. 60 Web-based courses are currently available on its Web site for students. And now, it is working with Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology to investigate the possibility of standardising on a course-management software.
Meanwhile, UAE University also recently signed a technology agreement with Microsoft, by which it will use the vendor’s platform extensively to streamline its administrative and education processes.

The Active Directory component of Windows 2000 will be deployed throughout the University to reach students and faculty members spread over the nine college and six campuses that it operates. Now, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Server Management System (SMS) will also be used to manage and provide remote technical support to the new environment. UAE University is said to be one of the first organisations in the region to go in for a large-scale deployment of Microsoft Operations Manager to further streamline its various educational and administrative processes within the University.
Meanwhile, Kuwait University bagged the country’s e-government award in May for developing an educational portal that will enable more than 20,000 of its students to register for academic courses and receive educational information through the Internet. Currently, services on the portal are restricted to staff and students, who will be able to check for new requests for proposals, track payments and submit online quotations as well. The university is also contemplating an online library component scheduled for completion by mid-2003.

Clearly, more schools and universities are jumping onto the IT bandwagon in their efforts to attract more students and stay current in computer technology, and this trend is not exclusive to the Middle East. IDC predicts that IT spending by colleges and universities worldwide will jump from a meagre $3.1 billion in 1998 to nearly $5 billion by 2003.
The research agency believes that spending on communications products will grow the most, rising 15.4 per cent annually to $693 million by 2003, while computer hardware spending should reach nearly $2 billion. The report also adds that spending will rise as more colleges and universities move content to the Internet to expand their distance learning programs.

While all this spending is a clear indication that the academic environment is in the process of an overhaul, few have ventured to undertake the daunting task of re-skilling their teaching staff. Much time and capital has been invested in hardware and software, networking and maintenance but little attention has been paid to the people themselves who stand at the core of the teaching process. The process will not be easy but unless this one additional crucial step is taken, efforts at revolutionising the academic environment will remain incomplete.
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