February 24, 2018

More developments in e-learning in Saudi Arabia

Photo: Tony Bates, 2009

Albalawi, M. (2012) Web-Based Instructions (WBI): An Assessment of Preparedness of Conventional Universities in Saudi Arabia” Hershey PA: IGI Global

This recent study by Mohammed Saleh Albalawi of the King Fahd Naval Academy provides some up-to-date information on e-learning in Saudi universities.

A pdf copy of the study is available for downloading at a cost of US$30.

See also:

Quraishi, A. (2012) More Saudi universities boarding e-learning bandwagon Arab News.com, May 13

A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia

Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No. 1 ( #oeb11 )

Why I’m here

This will be the first of several posts on this year’s Online Educa Berlin conference. This is the first time I have attended since 2001, and I am here for three specific reasons:

1. to see what the public post-secondary education sector can learn from the use of  online learning in the corporate training sector

2. to identify interesting developments in European online learning, and in particular the individuals or institutions driving change

3. to re-establish connections with European colleagues, since it is five years since I last worked in Europe.

I need to write up my experience anyway, so I thought I would share it with those who are interested but unable to attend.

Who else is here

2,000 participants from over 100 countries, with 360 speakers. The mix of participants is particularly interesting (figures from last year):

41% from the public education sector

38% from the business sector (including both corporate trainers and e-learning suppliers)

21% from other sectors (government, NGOs, not-for profit organizations).

This is a unique mix and one of the few places where both public and corporate e-learning come together on a roughly equal basis.

It was announced yesterday that the three countries with the largest number of participants were as follows:

Netherlands; UK; and Finland. This is interesting because both the Netherlands and especially Finland are relatively small countries in the European Union. This is a crude but helpful indicator of where the e-learning action is in Europe.

One interesting development was a relatively strong presence from Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt, for instance).

The program

The conference program is 158 pages thick! Wednesday there were pre-conference workshops (which unfortunately I was unable to attend). On each of the other two days there are the following:

  • plenary sessions (more on this below)
  • three time blocks of 15 parallel sessions each day (nearly 90 sessions in all), most with three speakers, arranged under 10 themes (e.g. assessment, business, policy)
  • a bewildering range of special and interactive sessions (e.g. hands-on labs, interactive discussion groups, best practice showcases)
  • a very large exhibition area with just under 100 companies or organizations with stands. Pearson was the conference platinum sponsor, and its Learning and Blackboard were gold sponsors. The National Centre for e-Learning and Distance Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of several silver sponsors.

I describe this in detail, because in two days it is possible to participate in only a small part of the conference (less than 7%) so you have to be very focused. Thus my reports should be read in this context.

The main plenary session

There were four speakers in a 105 minute session, introduced by Talal Abu-Ghazaleh.

Talal Abu-Ghazaleh (Jordan): president of a business school in Jordan

  • There is no world crisis, only a Western crisis (so much for globalization)
  • we have to move from being teachers to being learning facilitators
  • we don’t need educational reform, but new education systems
  • we need to educate for citizenship
  • Saudi Arabia spent $35 billion on education last year, 25% of its overall budget

Neelie Kroes: (Netherlands), Commissioner, the Digital Agenda, European Commission

  • Digital education is important. We must do more, and do it better. Over to you.
  • Memorable quote (from a 16 year old she interviewed designing apps): ‘Sharing makes you a better competitor.’

Peter Novak: (Canada), a journalist and author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers

  • despite Occupy Wall Street, the world overall is getting richer; poverty (defined as income of $1.25 a day or less) is dropping dramatically world wide
  • this means a massive expansion of people demanding education: 8 million more teachers needed by 2015
  • demand can’t be met by the traditional classroom model
  • entrepreneurial learning is needed; adults teaching each other; learning is in our DNA
  • memorable quote (illustrated by Lady Gaga): ‘ ‘Quality is not a pre-condition for self-expression.’

John Bohannon: (USA), a journalist and writer for the journal Science

  • Google Books now holds copies of 15% of all the books ever published;
  • this is a gold mine for large-scale analytical research, e.g. analysis of names suppressed or promoted during the Nazi period, or during Macarthyism in the USA (providing you can get access)
  • Wikipedia is messy, often dangerously misleading, but still extremely valuable if used properly (i.e. checking sources): examples:
    • civilian casualties in Afghanistan; reliable sources not taken account of in commentary although listed in sources
    • the sections on psychology were very poor, until a US university professor got his students to do research and update the entries.
    • arguments between just a couple of ‘unqualified’ contributors can seriously distort entries

Jeff Borden: (USA), Senior Director of Teaching and Learning, Pearson

  • formal education needs learning frameworks to help organise teaching, e.g. tell, show, do, ask/review
  • use of social networking for solving problems, e.g. InnoCentive
  • learning analytics will be BIG, e.g. analysing who is talking to whom in online class discussions

Video recordings of the keynotes can be downloaded from here.

Comment on the plenary session

Yes, you have to have a European Commissioner and you have to have a speaker from the platinum sponsor, but I can’t express how disappointed I was with the plenary session. There must have been over 1,500 people present, and almost all the presentations were shallow and only barely on target for the audience. What a missed opportunity.

It would have been better to have had two or at most three speakers with more time to bring depth. Jeff Borden in particular was rushed because the session was late starting and running over time, and as a result, he came over more as a preacher (as the chair of the session noted). As a result his session was just very short ‘images’ of what looked like really interesting e-learning applications but there was no time to explore any of them. If you are going to bring speakers in from outside the field, they must have something very special to say, and all must have sufficient time to say it.

Peter Nowak’s arguments in particular need to be challenged. I think Western commentators should be very careful in suggesting educational solutions for the rest of the world. Suggesting radical changes to education for new economically emerging countries is not  a good idea when we are unable to make such changes in more economically advanced (but maybe declining) countries. There is a danger of suggesting solutions that we ourselves are not prepared to implement on a large scale. There is a good deal of innovation in e-learning in Africa these days and economically emerging countries will find their own solutions, as have South Korea, Singapore and increasingly India already.

So, in summary, a few good ideas and points were made, but it could have been much more.


Don’t despair – I attended some excellent parallel sessions, which I will discuss in the next blog.

For a more comprehensive and detailed set of notes on the presentations, see Hans de Zwart’s Technology as a Solution…

Going to Online Educa Berlin

Online Educa Berlin begins next week. I will be attending for the first time in many years. If you are also going, I hope to meet you.

There are many interesting sessions at the conference. Some of these are highlighted in the Online Educa news service:

The Saudi Arabian Digital Library. The National Center for E-Learning (NCeL) of the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education was launched five years ago. Of its many projects, the Saudi Digital Library (SDL) is perhaps the most impressive. Launched in November 2010, the SDL holds more than 114 000 e-Books and reference works spanning various academic disciplines. It also manages the Maknaz repository which provides interactive learning objects in different formats such as photos, instructional movies, illustrations and so forth. Dr Abdullah Almegren, Assistant Professor of Education at King Saud University and the general manager of NCeL, will be speaking at the conference.

Research on the effective of virtual patients in the teaching of medicine. Martin Riemer and his co-author Martin Abendroth have spent the past year studying the use of virtual patients by hundreds of students at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany, and their findings shed light on how best virtual patients should be integrated into the curriculum.

OEB session CUL38, Learning Cultures: An International Perspective brings together speakers representing universities in Brazil, Russia and India in a panel discussion exploring theoretical discourse, technology implementation and factors supporting and hindering developments in open and distance learning.

In session VIR05, The Best Kept Secrets of Game-Based Learning, distinguished speakers will offer insight into how virtual environments and game-based learning can be integrated into school [and college] curricula seamlessly in order to increase learner motivation and enhance collaborative learning.

Lieve Van den Brande, a Principal Administrator at the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission will present a paper entitled EU Policy for ICT in Education: A New Initiative on Creative Classrooms/Creative Learning Environments. The Europe 2020 strategy is an intricate ten-year plan to revive employment and stimulate the economy of the European Union. Such a plan requires educational goals that are simultaneously ambitious yet tenable. Lieve Van den Brande will discuss these in her presentation.

Pasi Vilpas, a biology teacher at the The Sotunki Distance Learning Centre in Vantaa, Finland, is presenting Teaching Genetics in The Second Life with a Large-Scale 3D-Model of DNA”. Pasi invited his pupils to enter the three-dimensional online virtual world of Second Life and walk and fly inside the crucial molecule.

These are just a tiny sample of the 400 presentations at the conference. The main challenge will be working out what I really must attend from all the range of options (and also to handle the bierkellers). Hope to see you on the Kurfurstendamm!


A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia

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