Networked knowledge

The Middle East’s desire to become IT leaders is becoming a reality. However, today’s efforts will mean little if the tomorrow's workers cannot capitalise on it. As such, the region’s governments are pumping millions into IT education.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  March 24, 2003

I|~||~||~|Free zones, funding and raw ambition are propelling the Middle East into the digital age. However, it can only secure its place there by developing the IT skills of local nationals and thereby ending its reliance on overseas skills. As such, the region’s governments are investing in a multitude of projects to boost the IT skills of today’s students who will become tomorrow’s workers.

In order to more cost effectively deploy IT applications and e-learning initiatives, countries are focusing their current investments on networking, as this allows them to share resources and curriculum between different universities, schools and collages.
For instance, Saudi Arabia’s General Organisation for Technical Education & Vocational Training (GOTEVOT) is connecting up the 90 different academic institutions and the 20,000 students that fall under its remit. This will then enable GOTEVOT to develop the IT skills the Kingdom needs to develop a national workforce.

“We feel we [Saudi Arabians] are a little behind in technical education,” says Dr. Ali Obaidy director of GOTEVOT’s IT centre. “We have about six million Saudis working here, but we need to educate them in technology.

The networking project is a key element in this drive, as it will allow the institutes to access the Online Campus, a huge e-learning project using Element K software, as well as GOTEVOT’s 30 odd localised administrative applications.

“Currently, we are funding the infrastructure for the LAN inside the building, inside the campus and wide area network (WAN) between institutions. Eventually, we will have the largest WAN in the Kingdom, and all of our institutes will be ale to share their resources,” says Dr. Obaidy

Phase one of the implementation is already complete, with all of the institutions in urban areas hooked up. The next stage of the project will be to connect institutions in more rural areas. “We have already connected 25 of our branches, and in the next two years we hope to connect all our 90 branches,” says Dr. Obaidy.

Jordan has similarly grand plans with its US$70 million Connecting Jordanians initiative, which will see 1.5 million students at over 3000 public schools, eight public universities and 22 community colleges connected to a private high speed network by 2005.
“The whole of Jordan is focused on the development of an information society,” says Emile Cubeisy, director of information & communications technology (ICT) promotion, Ministry of Information & Communications Technology (MICT), Jordan.

The MICT has initiated the nationwide networking project in order to ensure that all students have access to high speed connections. Previously, about 1000 schools were connected to low band internet services, but this was not considered sufficient for Jordan’s ambitious e-learning plans.

“If teachers and students are frustrated with the tools, they will never use them. This is why we decided that all schools and universities must adopt high speed bandwidth, which will give us an opportunity for interactive collaborative learning,” explains Cubeisy.

Deploying the high speed network will also generate long term cost savings for MICT, as it will be able to reduce its equipment needs. “Given the life cycle of equipment, cost of procurement and consolidating servers, the total cost of high bandwidth will be more cost efficient in the long term and we will see an ROI after five years,” says Cubeisy.

As the high speed network will only be used between the various educational institutes, it is being run and managed directly by the MICT. “This private network for schools and universities will be managed by the government… We are not buying 100 or 500 M/bytes from a telecommunications company. We are developing a private fibre network for the education sector and we are developing a programme network office for this,” notes Cubeisy.

In Saudi Arabia, however, GOTEVOT is forced to rely on Saudi Telecommunications Company’s (STC) infrastructure, which is both costly and unreliable. “Connecting 90 branches will be very expensive, and STC currently has poor infrastructure as well,” complains Dr. Obaidy.

However, GOTEVOT has no plans to move off STC’s infrastructure as it has received reassurances that the service will improve, and that prices will fall. “I have faith in them because we have had high level meetings with them and they have shown us their plans,” notes Dr. Obaidy.

||**||II|~||~||~|Students will access the network in e-learning centres, which are being built at all of GOTEVOT’s institutions. Two have so far been completed at Buraidah college and Madinah college. The centres act like classrooms, in that students need to attend them at specific times in order to take part in the lessons, which are led by a teacher, but the e-learning basis gives pupils the flexibility to study at their own pace. “Those who learn quickly need not get stuck in their class, they can move forward faster,” says Dr. Obaidy.

The deployment of specific e-learning centres enables GOTVOTE to access rich content through high speed connections. However, it does limit students to using computers in just one place, which is why universities in the UAE, such as Dubai Women’s College (DWC), have opted for more user-friendly laptops and wireless local area networks (WLANs). “In DWC, everything is driven by the adoption of laptops and every initiative is driven to make it more effective in the classroom,” says Brent Pienaar, IT coordinator of Dubai Women’s College (DWC).

The college is currently working on a three year project to roll its WLAN out to every classroom on the campus, and it has also increased its bandwidth in order to meet user demands. “Over the last two and a half years we have gone from four M/bytes/s to a 12 M/bytes/s connection for the internet,” says Pienaar.

Alongside networking, however, educational institutes also need content for their e-learning initiatives. In Jordan, a consortium of private firms and MICT is laying the foundations of an e-learning platform for the country’s education sector.
GOTEVOT, meanwhile, has been one of the region’s leading spenders on e-learning, as it has rolled out its Online Campus programme to 20,000 students. This project uses courses from Element K and its Arabised learning management system (LMS), KnowledgeHub, to instruct students on the IT skills needed to pass the International Computer Driving Licenses (ICDL) exams. It also intends to add on IT specific qualifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Engineer (MSCE) and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

Alongside the Element K material, GOTEVOT has also trained staff to create e-learning content, so that they can design courses specifically for the needs of its students. “We trained them on Blackboard, WebCT and Java… [and they have] designed courses exactly like Element K’s. By next semester, we will have 12 courses designed for our e-learning centre,” explains Dr. Dr. Obaidy.

Despite the expense of these projects, the region’s governments are convinced they are needed in order to boost IT skill levels and drive the local market forward. Furthermore, these investments should also act as a catalyst for IT-enabling the entire population, as children who have experienced using a computer in school will want to use one at home as well, which will then boost adoption rates across the region.

“Once students are exposed to PCs in their learning environment, it will gradually catalyse PC penetration in homes as well,” adds Cubeisy.||**||

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