A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia
The purpose of my visit
I have just spent the last two weeks running workshops on planning academic programs using e-learning (for slides see Part 1 and Part 2) for faculty and staff in three Saudi Arabian universities, and a seminar on improving student learning through information technologies, which took me from Jeddah in the west on the Red Sea, to Dhahran in the east on the Persian Gulf, near Bahrein, to Arar in the far north, 300 kilometres west of Baghdad. The four universities I worked with were as follows:
- Umm Al-Qura University, Mecca (workshops)
- Northern Border University, Arar (workshop)
- King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah (workshop)
- King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran – KFUPM (seminar)
The workshops were part of a Ministry program on the development, creativity and excellence of faculty members at universities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, organized by King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. I had on a previous trip in 2008 run the same workshop at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and this time at KFUPM I instead gave a seminar on ‘Improving student learning with information technologies.’ The Powerpoint slides for the workshops and seminar are downloadable from here (the final version for the workshops is for King Abdulaziz University).
Two other Canadian consultants, Ron Owston, Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for Research in Learning Technologies at York University, and Sergio Piccinin, the former Director of the Teaching Centre at the University of Ottawa, were also participating in the program at the same time, although we never met, as we were in different cities at different times.
Experience in e-learning and technology infrastructure
Experience in e-learning varied considerably between the institutions.
King Fahd University in Dhahran has been working closely with UBC in Canada since 2003, with staff from King Fahd University visiting UBC for workshops a few times over this period. The use of e-learning at King Fahd University is widespread, both to support classroom teaching and in a hybrid mode, with a mix of reduced classroom time and online learning. However, there is still resistance at the senior management level to offering fully online programs, which would be popular, particularly for women students, who cannot access KFUPM on campus. KFUPM is clearly the leading institution in Saudi Arabia in terms of e-learning experience.
At the Northern Border University, which was opened only two years ago, and which is located in a relatively small ‘oil town’, there was almost no use of e-learning, not even to support classroom teaching (other than the use of Powerpoint slides).
The main use in Uum Al-Qura (Mecca) and King Abdulaziz (Jeddah) Universities is to support classroom teaching, although King Abdulaziz University has about 1,000 students taking fully online distance courses (out of a total of 26,000 distance education students). There are problems though with students accessing the Internet off campus, partly because many students do not have reliable and cheap Internet access from home, and because campus IT security makes it difficult for students off campus to access the servers on campus. There is limited wireless access on campus at King Abdulaziz, and only the two main campuses (out of five) at Umm Al-Qura have wireless access.
There was no wireless access at Northern Border University. None of the these three universities had a formal strategy for wireless access for students, although in general, the ‘backbone’ infrastructure for Internet access across Saudi Arabia and in the universities is quite good (for instance I had excellent wireless access from the hotel in Arar, in the far north).
On the whole, the participants were keenly interested in using information and communications technology for teaching and learning.
Learning management systems
In most of the institutions, there was no institutional policy regarding learning management systems. Some faculty were using a system designed specifically for Arab countries (EMS?), while a few individual particpants reported using Blackboard or Moodle. At King Abdulaziz University, the Distance Education division is developing its own learning management system from scratch. In other cases, faculty were developing their own web site for their course using html.
National strategy for e-learning and higher education
Saudi Arabia is expanding rapidly its university system. The new Minister of Education is the son-in-law of the King, and carries great authority, and a strong commitment to education. The Saudi government has set aside billions of rials (about US$10 billion) for education over the next few years (its population is about the same size as Canada’s). However, the universities are desperately short of well qualified faculty and are hiring many faculty from other countries such as Egypt and Pakistan.
The Saudi government has established a well-funded National Centre for e-Learning in Riyadh, and is encouraging the use of e-learning through programs such as the one that funded our visits. At the same time, there is still a strong resistance, especially in the national accreditation agency, to fully online distance education, because of concerns about quality. For instance, qualifications from the Arab Open University are not officially recognised in Saudi Arabia. As a result there is as yet very little fully online distance education in the country.
Women in Saudi universities
The three universities where I ran workshops on planning all had women students and women faculty. However, male and female faculty and students are kept separate. The arrangements for working with women faculty in the three workshops varied.
For Umm Al-Qura University, which is located in Mecca, both the male and the female faculty travelled to Jeddah, about 80 kilometres away, where the workshops were held in a hotel. The workshops though for men and women were on different days (i.e. I did the same workshop twice for Umm Al-Qura). My first workshop was for women faculty. The original arrangement had me with my computer and my Saudi male colleague sitting behind a screen at the end of the room, with the 25 women and the projector on the other side of the screen.
After about 10 minutes, some of the women complained about the arrangement and asked for me to come to the front. A vote was held and since none of the women objected I was permitted to move to the front, although my Saudi colleague stayed behind the screen, and the women would not allow me to take a photograph of the group work. From this point, the workshop went extremely well, with the women faculty extremely enthusiastic and engaged in the group work. Indeed the workshop went much better than the following workshop with the male faculty, who had difficulty in getting to the workshop on time. (The two Umm Al-Qura workshops started at 4.00 pm, after a day’s teaching in Mecca 80 kilometres away).
At King Fahd University, there are no female students or faculty, so my seminar was entirely with male faculty. At Arar, though, I was 20 minutes into the workshop with male faculty, when I was interrupted by what I thought was a woman’s voice. ‘Where did that come from?’ I asked. ‘Oh, the ladies are in another room, watching you on CCTV.’ This brought me to a complete stop, as I had no idea that this was going to happen. This arrangement proved very difficult for me and the women, as it was impossible for me to interact with the women effectively (the sound system was not good, they were working in a foreign language with often a strong accent, and I was getting no visual cues). If I had received prior warning about the arrangement, I could have made a special effort to have included the women more in the workshop, but it would still have been a difficult arrangement.
At King Abdulaziz University, there was a third arrangement that worked better. Here there was a T-shaped arrangement. I was seated at a table at the front, and the room was divided at right angles from the centre of my table by a screen, with the women on one side and the men on the other. I could see both groups and interact with them equally, and they could both see the screen behind me. In all three arrangements of course the women were completely covered in black burquas, but some women showed all their face, while others had only their eyes uncovered.
I believe the future of Saudi higher education, and especially the successful implementation of e-learning, will be driven by women faculty, despite the difficulties they face. The women faculty I worked with showed great determination and a commitment to change which was not always present with the male faculty.
There is almost no professional support base for e-learning at the moment, at least in the three universities I visited. For instance, there are almost no instructional designers in Saudi Arabia – indeed, educational theory or design is not a topic taught in the universities. There are educational technology departments, but their focus appears to be on media studies and production. Therefore a great deal of training for e-learning will need to come from outside. In some ways, e-learning is like driving in Saudi Arabia. The (technology) infrastructure is relatively good (like the roads), but the use of the infrastructure is poor (Saudi Arabia has one of the highest per capita road accident rates in the world).
However, there is money, government commitment, and above all the subtle pressure from women faculty for change. Also there is the leadership being provided by the excellent e-learning program at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. It will be an interesting next few years for e-learning in Saudi Arabia.
For another perspective on e-learning in Saudi Arabia, this time in the workplace, see Armit Garg’s: The Upside Learning Solutions blog
For an official view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia, see: Saudi Arabia (undated) E-Learning and Distance Education Riyadh: Ministry of Higher Education