Electronic education

E-learning is gaining momentum in the Middle East. Academic institutions are deploying best-of-breed solutions for their online initiatives and enterprises are enlisting the help of specialist trainers to help their employees to embrace new technologies.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  September 21, 2005

|~|ELEARNB-BODY.jpg|~|The total spending on e-learning in the UAE will increase from US$14 billion to US$56 billion by 2008.|~|Statistics show the global e-learning market in 2004 was worth more than US$18 billion. Madar Research Group, for instance, claims e-learning projects are expected to exceed a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 32% by 2008, and the total spending on e-learning in UAE is forecast to increase from US$14 billion to US$56 billion by 2008. However, the e-learning market in the Middle East is in its infancy compared to Western Europe or the US, having only begun to grow in popularity in the last five years. While there may be some concerns about the region’s readiness for an electronic approach to education, especially in terms of infrastructure, the concept is nonetheless being well received in many GCC nations and many organisations are willing to try the new method of learning. According to Abdullah Hashim, senior manager for eCompany, "Bahrain and Jordan in particular have been making good progress in stepping up their e-learning initiatives. In the UAE, however, we have some ways to go and progress has been slow. However, efforts are underway to accelerate the process." Indeed, supported by a 3Com switching solution, the University of Bahrain’s (UoB) 20,000 students can now readily remote-access the university’s network from anywhere in the world. Students and teachers are able to access learning tools at e-libraries; engage in videoconferences with their professors and exchange papers and corrections over the network with minimum delay. “Emphasis on education has been an integral part of Bahrain’s rapid development in recent years and the university has been at the forefront of this progress, providing quality instruction to students for over fifteen years. Maintaining these high standards is our top priority,” says Dr Yousif Al-Bastaki, CIO of the institution. As the University’s student body has grown rapidly in recent years, the resulting increase in user traffic had been causing problems with the previous system, seriously decreasing network speeds and hindering deployment of e-learning applications. Now, however, in addition to converging voice and data, UoB intends to extend wireless systems to connect students in dormitories, cafeterias, and meeting rooms, enabling the e-learning services that, according to Al-Bastaki, are becoming a key differentiator for students selecting an institution of further education. “We knew that our existing network infrastructure lacked the scalability to meet UoB’s rapidly expanding needs and decided that we should implement a new solution. Now we will have the flexibility to offer the e-service and e-learning facilities that our student body expects,” he explains. To ensure students have access to comprehensive online resources, the American University of Kuwait (AUK) has also turned to online services, this time from SunGard SCT, to create a unified digital campus in which systems, individuals, and communities can interact seamlessly for learning, teaching, and administration. “24/7 accessibility is becoming standard practice at educational institutions in the United States and we were therefore looking to provide a campus solution that integrated all of our administrative and student services so that we are able to provide information to our students in a real-time environment,” Sean Dollman, dean of admissions and registrations at AUK, explains. In the fall semester, an online syllabus will be available via SunGuard’s Luminus portal and a wireless campus connection will complete AUK’s digital campus environment. Students anywhere on campus will then have access to the network, and Dollman believes the fact that AUK has a small student body and is reliant on, and supportive of, student technology, will mean that its deployment of e-learning solutions will benefit the student body. “While universities [in the region] may have these types of services, we believe by providing these types of services we will encourage active learning, making easy access to campus resources and services possible from a comfortable environment, wherever the students may be.”||**|||~|ELEARNB---PHOTO-1-BODY.jpg|~|Hashim: While there may be some concerns about the region’s readiness for an electronic approach to education, Bahrain and Jordan have been making good progress in stepping up their e-learning initiatives.|~|In Kuwait, the launch of the e-learning centre of excellence at the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) is the first at a private university. The initiative will not only provide e-learning programmes, but will also act as a research and development hub in the region when it goes live later this month. The main objective of the project is to provide qualitative learning techniques that utilise the latest technologies. According to Dr Salah Al-Sharhan, director of the e-learning centre, believes electronic learning is an efficient way of enhancing the traditional teaching methods. “The new e-learning methodologies implemented at GUST can play a key role in creating a creative learning- teaching environment. The new system supports delivery, management and monitoring of e-learning content and supports different tools for collaboration, such as discussion forums, chat rooms, document sharing and virtual classrooms,” he says. The e-learning project at GUST is being carried out in conjunction with Universal Knowledge Solutions (UKS), an education solutions provider and integrator with presence across the Middle East and North Africa region, headquartered in Dubai’s Knowledge Village. Jawad Sebaali, country manager for the UAE office of UKS, defines e-learning as “the electronic delivery of learning materials such as videos, presentations, simulations, texts, images, and any learning tool that can be transmitted in an electronic format.” Despite the many technological challenges that exist with this model of learning, such as bandwidth and speed, standards compliance and the compatibility and reusability of courses, Sebaali is adamant that e-learning is the way forward: “This method of teaching maximises flexibility, control and cost through blending the best aspects of traditional and online learning in order to leverage the potential of both learners and teachers, creating an interactive, dynamic, multimedia environment that enhances the learning experience,” he enthuses. It is this paradigm shift in the learning process, which combines old and new teaching styles that experts say is responsible for the success of the e-learning model. Indeed, in one survey, conducted by Saudi-based Al Bayan, 95% of teachers said they believe e-classes have helped in increasing the efficiency of the educational process. By invoking a more interactive approach than that of classroom-based lessons, e-learning drives students towards accomplishing a goal rather than absorbing information by rote, according to Sebaali: “It has already been established that learning is better accomplished when students are actively involved — the lecture-style model of teaching is not stimulating and does not engage learners, so they don’t take the material on board as effectively. Instead, if students are actively involved in tasks they develop a far better understanding of the subject and this is one of the biggest successes of e-learning.” The Dubai Department of Economic Development (DED) was looking for a highly interactive, customisable and task-based learning programme to educate its employees about basic principles of IT security. The department decided to adopt the Symantec Security Awareness Programme (SSAP), which is a comprehensive, measurable training and communications programme, designed as a web-enabled e-learning initiative. To effectively promote long-lasting results, the programme contains multiple security topics and can be modified to suit all levels of security understanding as the base level of user knowledge grows. The course syllabus includes narrative scenarios and testing to reinforce knowledge retention. “The programme is easy to use and uses attention-grabbing screen savers, ready-to-print posters, pamphlets and reference cards to promote learning and make the programme attractive to users,” enthuses Ali Ibrahim, deputy director for executive affairs at the DED.||**|||~|ELEARNB---PHOTO-2-BODY.jpg|~|Dollman: 24/7 accessibility is becoming standard practice at educational institutions in the US and we were therefore looking to the same level of service to our students in a real-time environment.|~|The DED’s employees can log on to the programme whenever they have free time, benefiting from the non-linear, on-demand style of an e-learning delivery model. While this flexibility was key in the DED’s decision to implement the SSAP, the department, like many organisations considering the e-learning route, still had concerns about whether employees would show the necessary commitment to maximise on the educational programme. While the SSAP is designed so that staff can log on to the programme any time, the training application also includes robust user administration, allowing managers to monitor how long individual employees are spending on the programme, enabling them to assess progress and determine when certain staff may need additional support. “We are keen that the staff start making the most of [the programme] right away and we will be keeping a close eye on the progress they make,” says Ibrahim. The DED performed its own customisations to the software package, making it available to the staff in both Arabic and English, as well as including specially-tailored questions designed by section heads to cater to the specific security issues and areas of concern for each of the departments. While many e-learning packages now allow organisations to customise the training, there are still some major challenges when it comes to content localisation. The translation of content into the Arabic language is only the first step in making any e-learning programme palatable to the local market, however, according to Sebaali, who acknowledges that all illustrations and examples must be relevant and appropriate within the local culture. He cites the Syrian Virtual University (SUV) as an example of how curricula can be successfully localised for optimal learning experiences. “SUV is keen on providing world-class education to all Arab students. In order to reach the greatest number of students, some programmes are already being Arabised from English-speaking universities so that the Arabic courses are up to date with the latest developments in the different fields of study,” he says. Through its Partners in Learning programme, Microsoft aims to improve technology in schools through partnerships between itself and national education ministries, thus developing a wide range of different long-term projects to develop e-learning solutions with greater regional appeal. Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen have also all signed up for the initiative, with the intention of improving the use of information communications technology in schools. The initiative will provide software and more than US$253 million in cash grants worldwide over the next five years to deliver ICT skills training, tailored curriculum development, technical support and research funds as well as resources for students and teachers. The scheme is being implemented in conjunction with government agencies, local businesses and local trade associations in each country to ensure the programme meets the needs of local communities. “Through feedback from our government customers and educators, Microsoft developed the Partners in Learning initiative, with emphasis on sustained investment in technology and training to help students focus on learning and teachers focus on teaching,” says Abdullatif Al Mulla, general manager of Microsoft South Gulf. ||**|||~|ELEARNB---PHOTO-4-BODY.jpg|~|Al Mulla: Microsoft’s Partners in Learning scheme is being implemented in conjunction with government agencies, local businesses and local trade associations in several.|~|Oracle is another vendor that is doing its bit to support the Middle East’s e-learning revolution. The vendor has a three-fold e-learning strategy, which includes work force excellence within enterprises, higher learning and university education. The Oracle iLearning is an enterprise learning management system that provides effective, manageable, integrated and extensible internet based learning solutions. “As enterprises transition to e-business, they are realising that they have to integrate e-learning into everything they do so that employees, partners and customers [can move] at the same pace and with the same [level] of understanding,” says Shan Mahendren, director of learning management for Oracle EMEA. Oracle's next wave of initiatives in the Middle East is to move to the higher education sector, which the vendor claims has enormous business opportunities. In addition, Oracle is working with regional universities to introduce e-university initiatives. "We are currently localising the e-university contents and customising it to meet the needs of the regional academic institutions,” Mahendren adds. One of the major benefits for these e-curricula is the content, once digitised, can be re-used and built on for many years without any additional expense for the implementing organisation. Despite the cost effectiveness of electronic models of learning, Professor Bassem Khafagi, president of Al Nahda Virtual University says the region should develop accreditation and certification standards for e-learning in order to raise public understanding and academic acceptance of technology as an enhanced training tool. “Even the concept of distance education that started 20 years ago has yet to be truly accepted on a large scale. In addition, the internet is still considered as an information or entertainment source and not as a learning tool," he explains. Corporations in the Middle East are now starting to embrace e-learning more enthusiastically. For enterprises that have a large number of employees, or have operations spread across the whole region, implementing an e-learning programme for the purposes of employee training can bring significant savings in terms of cost and time, according to Sebaali. "Several corporations in the region with more than 200 employees have found that implementing an e-learning solution delivers the necessary training in half the time," he comments and points out that because it cuts out the need for employees to travel for training, the costs are also massively reduced. "The internet is a tool for the dissemination of information, and this is exactly the principle of teaching, so it is only logical the internet and e-learning will come to play an even bigger part in all education and training. After that I am sure that it will only be a matter of time before we see devices such as mobile phones being used for educational purposes too," he enthuses.||**||

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