Contemporary classrooms

While technology has been changing learning methods around the world, the Middle East has been lagging. However, things are starting to change as the region’s educational institutions realise the importance of using IT solutions in their teaching practices.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  November 30, 2004

|~|classroomtech.jpg|~|George Akhras, IT manager at Al Mawakeb. |~|Educational institutions in the Middle East have traditionally relied on blackboard and textbook teaching methods. However, the last two years have seen an explosion in the use of e-learning tools.

Much of this trend can be attributed to regional government initiatives to boost both IT literacy and educational quality. For instance, the UAE Ministry of Education and Youth has formulated a 20-year plan to develop the country’s education system. Among major concerns expressed in the plan is the development of teaching methods that adhere to international standards — with a specific focus on introducing the latest IT resources at all levels.

As a consequence, governments are injecting huge funds into their educational institutions in an attempt to offer state-of-the-art learning through technology. This is good news for technology vendors. Acer Middle East claims it has supplied 25,000 PCs to Jordanian elementary schools in the last two years. Within the next five years, the hardware giant expects to ship another 200,000 PCs in Jordan alone.

“The technology required to achieve [successful e-learning in the region] is readily available, however it requires a pioneering nature to customise technology, the commitment of a government to roll out IT solutions and for schools and universities to fully embrace technology,” says Phillip van Heerden, senior analyst at IDC Middle East.

Dubai’s government has acted as a pioneer of e-learning in the region by equipping its Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) institution and Zayed University with the latest technology, including state-of-the-art wireless infrastructures. In addition, Abu Dhabi Men’s College is currently piloting 600 Acer tablet laptops. The units allow students to take notes using an electronic pen and monitor notepad. The notebook also features a large 14-inch screen and an optical DVD drive for learning purposes.

Furthermore, Dubai Women’s College (DWC), which is part of HCT, boasts one of the most successful e-learning implementations in the region. The institution began its journey toward being a fully-fledged wireless campus five years ago when it first introduced laptop computers for its students. Today, each of its 2200 students and staff are equipped with an IBM Centrino notebook, and wireless access is available in 130 classrooms. As a result, productivity has risen across the board, with many students spending up to twelve hours a day online.

Results released after the first year’s pilot of the laptop initiative indicated that 80% of student stated that project based learning using laptops helped them to work to the best of their ability, while 85% of teachers also believed that the standard and quality of student project work was high. This is due to the fact that students were able to access resources on the internet and also work remotely. In addition, the college has recently rolled out a Microsoft (MS) Exchange upgrade to all its laptops, with a long-term view to extend internet and e-mail access to mobile devices.

Brent Pienarr, IT coordinator at DWC, says the college upgraded its e-mail server owing to the evolving education model of the college. “Learning has moved away from clearly delineated subjects in block lessons to a more project-based model,” he says.

“So subjects like English, Maths and Science that were formerly taught in a classroom are now integrated into multidisciplinary projects and require teamwork, which means the need for student and teacher collaboration is paramount,” Pienarr adds.

MS Exchange now enables students to arrange appointments online with lecturers and students arranging realtime meetings online. It also allows students to access the college’s course information from the network. In addition, students can now access their full e-mail set up over a normal internet connection from home, viewing sent items or accessing their calendars, for example.

In a parallel development, Dubai Men’s College (DMC) has recently opened a campus equipped with a state-of-the-art wireless IBM IT infrastructure. DMC now features some of the latest learning technologies, including a facility that allows students to download video clips of various classroom lectures through video-on-demand technology. Students are also provided with an option to run the lecture ‘offline’ after saving the file onto their computers.

DMC is also able to support video conferencing facilities that allow professors to conduct their lectures and interact with students without being physically present in classrooms. In addition, students can now access library books online instantly, whether they are in the classroom or outside.

The project’s IT backbone is supported by a Nortel-based networking environment, which includes over 35 IBM eServer xSeries systems, an enterprise management system using Tivoli enterprise software and Perigrine Helpdesk solution, an IBM TotalStorage storage area network (SAN), an IBM TotalStorage UltraScalable Tape Library (LTO) and IBM digital media technologies. The combined solution provides an open framework that can digitally manage, store, protect and distribute video, audio and images across the DMC network.

“The students [will] get the information they need — inside and outside the classroom — anytime they want it,” says Anas El Jamal, IT manager at DMC. “If a student knows how to [search] for information on the web, this knowledge will be superior to the teacher. They will create and invent their own knowledge,” he adds.

Jamal’s comment is key to the issue of technology in education. Technology is giving local students and teachers wider access to information than ever before and, in addition, the teacher no longer has to be the principal source of information. IT innovation means that teachers can now act more as a ‘knowledge guide’ instead of a ‘knowledge provider’. Students are now able to gain and create their own knowledge from the internet and online libraries, from peers via instant messaging and from field experts via technologies such as video conferencing.

Another local institution taking steps to transform its education delivery model is Dubai-based Al-Mawakeb private school. The educational institution unveiled 20 fully equipped digital classrooms this October for grades 11-12, which took two-years to create with the help of Intel, and Dubai-based project management company Interconnect.

“We wanted to transform the way of teaching in our school — and technology is the foremost enabler for new methods of learning. Nowadays, students don’t want to look at or use chalk — it is outdated,” says George Akhras, IT manager at Al Mawakeb. “Now we don’t have to kill a rabbit for students to see its blood system, for example — they can see it live in front of them interactively [on the screen]. Not only that, they can research, find and display their material in class using our new technology [via the internet].”||**|||~|Amna1.jpg|~|Amna Al Nakhi, Partners in Learning Initiative manager at Microsoft South Gulf.|~|Each of the wireless enabled classrooms features tiered bench desks so that students can see the interactive screen (smartboard), which is connected to the teacher’s laptop. The lecturer can then run specially tailored e-content on the screen, while also being able to manipulate the content on the board with an electronic pen. The advantage is that each presentation, complete with teacher annotations, is automatically uploaded to the web for the students after the lesson.

This means that learning is no longer restricted to the classroom — it can be an around the clock experience.
Technology has proven beneficial in keeping students engaged because it enables content to be dynamic, for example, through the use of PowerPoint presentations or video streaming. “Technology can make learning more compelling, by leveraging multiple senses and not just the student’s reading ability. It [e-learning] enables more active participation — and the result of this is that students get excited about learning,” says Andrea Emiliani, regional manager learning solutions, IBM Middle East.

Al Mawakeb’s infrastructure is based on Microsoft servers and incorporates wireless switches, digital ‘smart’ whiteboards and Microsoft learning management software. This IT network is the practical backbone put in place to articulate the school’s vision: which is, firstly, ‘to use PCs to deliver rich-media curriculum content and enable communication and collaboration between students, teachers and families’; secondly, the project roadmap outlines practical objectives — to create tagged ‘e’content and compile accurate student progress analysis and reporting.

It’s important to note that technology is only an ‘enabler’ of learning, and any IT implementation must be aligned to a clear set of curricular and performance objectives. If a school is headed in the wrong direction then technology won’t help it move forward.

“The first thing that needs to be understood about technology [in schools] is that it should be thoroughly aligned to academic objectives. This is why we employ PwC consulting in our education projects,” says Emiliani. “You also need to get the buy in of the teachers and parents first, or it won’t work. Only when teachers accept the technology, and are familiar with it, can IT transform the way they teach,” he adds.

Al Mawakeb wisely took a multi pronged approach. It started with a thorough analysis of school requirements and desirable outcomes, followed by training and awareness programme for teachers, parents and children.

Once feedback was gathered, it staged two pilot classrooms to train teachers and also to run dummy lessons to gain feedback — from all parties. Finally, the laptops were introduced into the pilot stage. The system went live in October this year, two years after the initiative began. And the results are already looking promising.

“Delivering content to the students is easier and in the past two months we think the quality of teaching has gone up. Initially, we thought we might lose some students as their parents may not welcome the change, but, paradoxically, our classrooms are quite full,” says Akhras.

“The full curriculum has been digitalised on Powerpoint with animation, so learning is much more flexible. Subjects that were extremely dry are now more interesting. Kids retain more information when it’s interactive. When a teacher just talks, the children will not retain the concept for as long as they do when teaching aids are used,” he adds.

The rage surrounding education is by no means limited to the Middle East. For example, Microsoft has poured US$253 million dollars into its new Partners in Learning initiative, which covers 76 countries globally, including Jordan, the UAE, Oman and Yemen. The initiative is designed to help students and teachers integrate IT into learning.

“Technology is a tool to help education, but for it to work, the teachers have be educated in IT. In return, IT can make teacher’s lives easier by allowing students to work out of class time,” says Amna Al Nakhi, Partners in Learning Initiative manager at Microsoft South Gulf. “As well as offering free workshops and seminars, Microsoft is offering free Windows upgrades to every school, plus a free electronic sharing portal for staff and students. In addition, the software giant is offering MS Office software to low-income countries schools for only US$5.”

Likewise, IBM has also ramped up its focus on the education sector. Big Blue made a slew of announcements at Gitex 2004 regarding its input to the local learning community — including the provision of a mobile technology solution at the Smart School in Kuwait and the implementation of a wireless infrastructure for the British University in Dubai.

“We are heavily investing in the development of the education sector and we have dedicated a team to work closely with private and public education institutes to enhance student capabilities” says Samer Shaar, general manager of IBM Middle East, Egypt & Pakistan.||**|||~|brentp.jpg|~| Brent Pienarr, IT coordinator at Dubai Women's College.|~|While tier-one vendors are investing heavily in education, it’s important that IT managers don’t get too carried away with the hype: technology, when not used correctly, can also produce adverse results. “We use a mix of technology and traditional teaching, because when the students graduate they’re going to require a range of skills,” says Larry Wilson, provost at Zayed University.

“It’s dangerous when universities go too far in their use of technology — especially in the so called distance learning area. [There is a danger that] students won’t develop the required interpersonal skills that come from face to face debates, discussions and oral presentations… Technology can greatly enrich what goes on in the classroom but it can also limit it,” he adds.

Another issue to consider is that while students now have online access to limitless knowledge, the quality and reliability of the data on the worldwide web is often untested or unproven. This is why IT managers also need to consider deploying software that restricts certain websites and only endorses proven and trusted information pages. “A lot of what you find on the internet has never been reviewed by anyone, so you don’t know how accurate it is,” says Wilson.
“You have to be skilful in sorting out what’s valuable and what’s not — so we run projects that entail students to become proficient in the detecting the reliability of information.”

If educational institutions take care to plan their e-learning strategies, introduce information technology to their education objectives, and avoid student alienation, results have proven that the benefits can be tremendous: happier students who learn more and teachers who can deliver rich, engaging content easily.

“IT should be utilised more effectively to alter the delivery of the education message. IDC further believes educators worldwide have not completely realised how the effective use of IT could utilise the education sector,” says IDC’s van Heerden. “Technology such as audio visual (AV) conferencing and mobile technology could allow any educator in any country in the world to give a lecture in the Gulf. What hinders a university to have a guest lecturer from France giving a lecture to local students via AV conferencing?”

Over four fifths of DWC’s students state that the project based learning with laptops have encouraged them to learn better, and that they have learnt a great deal in completing their various projects.

This viewpoint was confirmed by the faculty with over 83% of them agreeing that students had continually improved their research skills as a consequence of project based learning with laptops. In addition, two thirds of teachers also believed that students’ understanding, analytic skills, and ability to apply relevant skills and knowledge was promoted as a consequence of project-based learning.

Another key result was the student’s motivation to do more work — 83% of the faculty agreed that project based learning with laptops generally resulted in high levels of student motivation and personal initiative. This view was also strongly supported by the students. However, the college also used the project to learn some key lessons for the continuing use of IT in its curriculum.

“Concise and work-related graduate outcomes should be identified for all programmes so that the subsequent curriculum design and implementation is ‘process oriented’ — and does not focus on skills, content knowledge or simple applications,” says Pienarr. “Professional development is not simply a matter of providing technical skills for faculty to run laptops, rather it must be focused on enabling them to adapt to a major change in their roles — particularly in relation to the new curriculum and expected student learning outcomes,” he adds. ||**||

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