IMG_0038A mosque in Arar, Northern Saudi Arabia. Arar is on the route for pilgrims from Iraq and Iran for the Haj in Mecca.

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

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.

The Corniche in Dhahran, looking south-east
The Corniche in Dhahran, looking south-east

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).

Arar Airport
Arar Airport

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.

Teaching through the wall
Teaching through the wall

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).

Workshop with male faculty from Umm Al-Qura
Workshop with male faculty from Umm Al-Qura

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.

A woman waiting for the plane at Arar Airport
A woman waiting for the plane at Arar Airport


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.

And yes, there are still camels and desert in Saudi Arabia - but Lawrence is long gone
And yes, there are still camels and desert in Saudi Arabia – but T. E. Lawrence is long gone

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

See also: Workplace elearning in Saudi Arabia: first-impressions



  1. Nordic European Countries are leading within within eLearning.
    We have had LMS systems with blended learning and learning carried by eLearning plattforms. But the most crucial thing is the angle of the learning. Is it teacher or a book or is the students learning in focus. The method is another important issue: are we asking and waiting copies from the pages of the litterature or can students seen as persons who can work and applicate the theories even in the future. Education is fostering for the future ?
    Thank you for your report

  2. An insightfulo observation and perspective on elearning in that region.

    Your thought on the catalytic role that women may play in advancing elearning there is both intriguing an encouraging.

  3. Thank you for sharing your report. Really useful stuff. I loved reading it as I visited Saudi Arabia for Hajj. We at CommLab work for some companies in Saudi were we develop product training material. I think companies are using elearning more than universities.

  4. Thanks Tony
    I am doing my PhD in E-learning in the Saudi Arabia higher education in an Australian University. What you mentioned is very true. Also, there is a great lack of Professional development for faculty. I wish I can meet with you there and exchange ideas and probably workshops or seminars.

    I will be happy if we keep in touch

    • Dear Dr. Mohammed Salah Albalawi

      I hope my email finds you well. I am doing a story for Arab News on the trend of ‘E-learning in Saudi Universities.’ The story will discuss the various online tools and methods being employed in universities, attitudes of students and teachers, challenges and the potential of online study. For this, i would like to interview teachers, students and experts on e-learning. It would be great if i can interview you. My email is

  5. Thanks, but it is not ethically appropriate to expose to everybody what is the bad thing about the country you have visited.. yes it can be in special report for the university or to the sector who might need it to make the correction, but not in the net
    You were brought to train and teach people who are seeking knowledge and improvement so when you see some weakness or shortages, I think you just give the help and assistance without telling everybody some bad stories, viewing or feelings.
    You are just like the physicist who brought to cure some patients, is it ok for them when they finish examining them to go to the public and say to everybody that those patients are so and so,,,,
    In my opinion it is not a scientific neither ethical behavior
    Thanks again for giving the training

  6. You are an e-learning experts so talking through the wall or even through the cyberspace should not be an issue. And I am really surprised when you said “it was impossible for me to interact with the women effectively “, you said that while you are training them about e-learning and distance learning .
    May be they are trying to give you one example or distance learning
    Anyway, thanks for giving the training

  7. Hi, Adel

    I am sorry you are offended by this post, but on re-reading the post I still have a good conscience. I do not believe I have acted unethically. I was paid to deliver three workshops, which I did. I did not sign a contract restricting my reporting on my experience in delivering the contract. The posting is a factual account of what transpired. I think it is fair and informative of the actual e-learning situation in Saudi Arabia, as best as can be determined in a short visit. If it is not, I would welcome corrections.

    I recognize that there are cultural differences here, which is why I am sincerely sorry if I have offended you. The difficulties I encountered were mainly because of communication difficulties, since regrettably I don’t speak Arabic. I try to communicate as well as possible during my workshops, but it is difficult if I am not told or am unaware that there is another group in another room. This would have been more manageable if I had known, but translation was not always available. As I said, I am partly to blame for this, not speaking Arabic, and not adjusting sufficiently to the culture. And certainly, if I was going to do it by distance education, I would not design it this way.

    The general response to my blog shows that there is a great deal of interest about elearning in Saudi Arabia, and the post shows that there is good development going on. I think it is valuable for people to know that.

    I do appreciate your taking the effort to tell me about your concerns, and I am sorry if you are still offended,


  8. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for exchange your experience with us. I am Egyptian, I worked in Saudi Universities a year ago, I can admit that Suadi women are very keen and have strong motoviation to achieve promosing goals.


  9. Thank you Dr. Bates for this cross-cultural post. I am Egyptian professor, and one of the earlier researchers who applied your ACTIONS Models in their dissertations (1998-).
    First, overall, I am wondering about using the term e-learning in face-to-face/on-campus/traditional universities in Saudi Arabia universities, and others in the region. Always these universities have no full distance education or e-learning programs. You may find DE programs at the Arab Open University and the Gulf University.
    Second, undergraduate educational technology programs in KSA, almost, graduate IT teachers, and learning resource center specialists rather educational technologists who learned about instructional deign, e-learning strategies and development, distance education, and multimedia applications. You may find the only program in the region at
    Third, and last, an international DE and e-learning expert, like Dr. Bates, should NOT provide such a training or workshops at teacher-level, with my respect to all teachers inside and outside KSA, even if this kind of activities was not a priority in your visit.
    I personally appreciate your contribution to the science of open learning within the last 30 years.

    • Thank you very much for your comment.

      There is no agreed definition of e-learning. Different people use it to describe different activities. I use it in a broad sense, to cover any use of information technologies for teaching and learning. This would include use on campus. I see e-learning as a continuum from classroom support through hybrid learning to fully online learning (i.e. distance education). In the case of KSA, it was being used mainly to support on-campus teaching, although they are moving towards fully online learning in some contexts.

      In the last two or three years there have been major developments in KSA in e-learning, including the formation of a National Centre for e-learning, and the development of e-learning courses in several universities, especially King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and also at King Khalid University, to mention just two..

      I’m not sure if I understood your last remark, but I take it to mean that you disapprove of my working with universities in Saudi Arabia. I did think carefully about this before I went there. However, I have very good working relationship with faculty at some of the universities, and I believe that contact and discussion is better than isolation. I could be wrong of course.

      • Thank you for feedback Prof. Bates. I like your broad definition of e-learning.

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  10. Prof, I did not know that there were kutchi ( kuchi in your post) families in Afghanistan, dressed the way the picture showed. Kutch is a region of India in the state of Gujarat. Is that picture a picture taken in India?

    • Hi, anonymous.

      Yes, the Kuchis are a distinctly different ethnic group from the Kutchis in Gujarat and Pakistan. The photo was taken in Bamian, in Afghanistan in 1977, passing the feet of the statues of Buddha several years before they were blown up by the Taliban. There are seven million Kuchis in Afghanistan, with at least 60% remaining fully nomadic, mainly of Pashtun origin. They do travel into Pakistan.

  11. Great post Tony. Perhaps it’s time for a return visit. A lot can happen in three years.

    I was interested by your prediction that women will be the driving force in e-learning in Saudi Arabia but am left wondering, again, what e-learning is and how the women you met might define it. My experience is that women are especially committed to traditional approaches to education and so they may tend to see e-learning as simply another avenue by which to deliver traditional educational experiences. I feel they may tend to focus more on the technology and production side – as you noted in your post – and less on instructional design and on shifting our focus away from teaching and onto learning. Or, am I now defining e-learning in my own way?

    • Hi, Mark

      What impressed me on the visit was the seriousness and commitment of the Saudi women I (indirectly) met to using technology to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their country. There was a collective spirit and enthusiasm that was different from those of the males I taught. I know it’s dangerous to generalize or stereotype gender differences, but these do become clearer or starker when the genders are separated. I think for the men, e-learning was just something new to be learned. For the women, it was seen as a way of changing the system, to make it more responsive and individual – but I could be wrong,


  12. […] Aldilà dei petro-dollari, che a livello didattico tutto sommato hanno una valenza relativa, la parte più interessante, che giustifica in pieno la lettura del post, è quella che riguarda il ruolo delle donne all’interno delle università arabe. Vera formazione a distanza, anche in presenza. 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. A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia – Tony Bates […]


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