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Mon 27 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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E-learning curve

E-learning is gaining momentum in the Middle East, with academic institutions deploying best-of-breed solutions for their online initiatives. While the move is a step forward in embracing new technologies, do these organisations have appropriate IT infrastructures to successfully embrace the new trend?

|~|Abdulla-Hashim1-Body.jpg|~|The future of e-learning looks bright. It is well received in many GCC nations, says eCompany’s Hashim.|~|The advantages of e-learning can be enormous provided organisations that are introducing the concept have the appropriate delivery vehicle. Technology plays a crucial role when it comes to online activities and if learning institutions do not have appropriate IT infrastructures, chances are their online initiatives may not provide the expected return-on-investment (ROI). However, end users should not view technology as the ultimate solution, they must find ways to utilise technology to the advantage of students and teachers.

E-learning can be cost-effective because it has flexibility in time and pace, has the ability to reach many students and provides standardised course materials. However, there some limitations as well. These include a high-initial set-up cost, acceptability, computer illiteracy, attitude towards new technology and poor IT infrastructures.

Statistics show the global e-learning market in 2004 was worth more than US$18 billion. 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. Dr Tarek G. Shawki, UNESCO's regional advisor for communications and information in the Arab States, has reservations about the region’s readiness for such an approach to education.

Shawki believes the Middle East is not ready for online learning. “Buying a piano for someone does not guarantee he or she will become a pianist," he says, suggesting that while the infrastructure in the region may be able to support e-learning, attitudes may hinder its acceptance and viability. "E-learning is a concept that requires user input in order to leverage it to effectively meet specific needs. It should be adopted because it solves problems, not because it is the latest fashion in education," Shawki asserts.

Regional governments are keen to support e-learning, promising to provide the necessary resources. Professor Bassem Khafagi, president of Al Nahda Virtual University, says the average amount of financial resources spent on education in the Middle East is considerably higher than the international average, and anticipates this will be an area of rapid growth for the region.

"Government support is significant and so is the support from international bodies dedicated to online education. However, the main challenge to wide-scale acceptance of e-learning is a social issue for institutions in the Arab World,” says Khafagi.

IT has been a businesses enabler for public and private enterprises for sometime. E-learning allows organisations to customise their training services for senior management and executive staff, while also providing a cost-efficient alternative to face-to-face training.

However, online learning still faces major challenges when it comes to content localisation. The Middle Eastern educational system includes both didactic and pedagogic models of learning, but is based on the oral tradition predominant among the traditional culture. This results in an eclectic, but still essentially conservative approach to teaching.

Dr. Khafagi 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.

In order for e-learning to be effective and be able to offer a return-on-investment (ROI), teachers need to be IT savvy as well. This will prove beneficial to the e-learning cause, enabling the region’s institutions to exchange success stories and share experience with one another.

UNESCO’s Shawki says applications his organisation receives from different Arab universities have similar requests. “I do not understand why these universities prefer to work individually instead of investing in a pan-Arab virtual university," says Shawki.

The Arab Open University (AOU), which is based in Kuwait and has branches in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, has been an exception to the current approach to projects, although when Prince Talal Bin Abd El Aziz presented the plans to the Arab education ministers at the beginning of the project he did not get an encouraging response. It eventually fell onto UNESCO to come to the university’s assistance, providing the institution with a learning management software solution.

Last February, in an address to the British House of Commons on Education and Skills, Sir Howard Nioby commented that, "The first lesson learnt from the failure of the e-UK university after spending more than US$100 million in four years, was that e-learning should be launched out of students’ interests and needs, not out of technology availability."

Dr Ahmed Tantawy, director of technology development centre for IBM Egypt, believes the Middle East’s major obstacle in adopting e-learning is its acceptance. "E-learning has to be viewed as a tool, not as an alternative to traditional learning," says Tantawy. “We should never think e-learning can replace teachers,” he adds. Tantawy also believes that enterprises should pay attention to the content and the deisgn. “Designing a book page is different than a web page, where information should have three dimensions.”

Since teachers are important for future method of education including e-learning, software giant Microsoft has established a worldwide teacher's network, where teaching professionals can share best practices with their peers not only in the Middle East, but also around the globe.

"The network enhances teaching experience and promotes e-learning culture among teachers," says Khaled Abd El Kader, academic program manager for Microsoft Egypt. “Teachers can learn so much by sharing their experiences with their colleagues in other parts of the world via the network,” he adds.

Dr Yousri Zaki, committee member at the Applied Technology Online University (ATOU), emphasises the importance of e-learning solutions for graduates who are seeking jobs. Since its launch last February, ATOU has enrolled 209 students from all over the Middle East, including the war-torn Iraq. "Due to the security situation in Iraq, e-learning may be a more suitable for Iraqis because anyone can register for any course at the university without paying any fee,” says Zaki.

Oracle is another vendor that is exploiting the region’s lucrative education market. The vendor has a three-fold e-learning strategy, which includes work force excellence within enterprises, higher learning and the university education.

"At the beginning, we focused on the human capital management in the enterprise sector. Oracle iLearning is an enterprise learning management system that provides effective, manageable, integrated and extensible internet based learning solutions to anyone, anytime, anywhere, with the added benefit of optional integration with our e-business suite,” says Shan Mahendren, director of learning management for Oracle EMEA. “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,” he adds.

Oracle's next wave of initiatives in the Middle East is to move to the higher education sector, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, 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,” comments Mahendren.

Meera Kaul, managing director of Dubai-based Learning Zone, says two major challenges facing her company when it comes to online learning include cultural and language barriers.

"Bridging the cultural and language gaps should be done through consultants," advices Kaul, who has been instrumental in driving the development of internet-based applications including e-learning and knowledge management systems across India, Europe and the GCC nations for the past nine years. Kaul, who believes e-learning will not replace the traditional method of learning, says combining traditional and electronic methods of learning is more suitable for the Middle East.

However, she believes virtual universities are the highest level of e-learning. There will always be difficulties when new technologies and concepts are introduced and especially if a change in thinking is required. “However, we try to [showcase] the positive impacts of change and of adopting e-learning, keeping in mind that we are not trying to replace any old methods of learning. On the contrary, we are trying to enhance learning by providing a new method with a new solution to help enhance the learning process of individuals," Kaul explains.

Learning Zone is working with enterprises in Kuwait and Oman to turn their induction trainings into reusable, highly retainable modules that can be accessed by employees at all times. ||**|||~|hassoun1-Body.jpg|~|Local corporations with more than 200 employees have either implemented or are in the process of implementing an e-learning solution, says HumanSoft’s Hassoun.|~|Dr Mohamed El-Nawawy, an instructor at Georgia State University, advises Middle Eastern teachers and professors to modify and customise online contents to meet the requirements of their students.

El-Nawawy concedes that e-learning is a new concept for an emerging market like the Middle East, but believes it will take off if introduced the right way. “E-learning should not be seen as a western concept. It should be customised to meet the needs of educational institutes,” he asserts. “The content has to be localised if we want e-learning to succeed in the Middle East.”

Dr Yousuf A. Al-Oraifi, e-learning services manager at Harf Information Technology, says universities and schools, which are looking at adopting e-learning, should not do it for the sake of it. These institutions should identify if there is a need for e-learning rather than following the global trend. “The education system has to find out if students want such a concept,” says Dr Al-Oraifi. Perhaps this was the reason for the success of Harf's projects at two major universities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

King Khaled Bin Abd El Aziz University, which has 50,000 students, decided to adopt e-learning because it did not have enough teaching resources. The university deployed Harf’s Tadaros solution because it was written in the Arabic language. “The solution’s success was due to the fact that it was written in Arabic whereas others were simply translated,” says Al-Oraifi.

MGD Computer Systems, which has helped Saudi-based Al Bayan, to establish a robust IT platform in order to introduce a complete curriculum of e-classes, says e-learning is quickly gaining momentum not only in KSA, but also in other parts of the region. “The project leverages the latest technologies to provide a better and effective method of e-learning. The project is an initial step towards converting Al Bayan to an e-school environment,” says Maher Ragaa, general manager of MGD computer systems.

“Tablet PCs, whiteboards, digital contents and educational software packages were used instead of the traditional educational resources such as books and blackboards,” he adds. According to a survey conducted by Al Bayan, 95% of its teachers believe e-classes have helped in increasing the efficiency of the educational process. The Saudi Ministry of Education is also playing its part in helping educational institutions adopt e-learning. Three months ago, it established a new department to look after e-learing projects.

In Kuwait, the Ministry of Education has launched a campaign to end technology illiteracy as a step towards embracing e-learning. HumanSoft says e-learning has started to take off in the Middle East. Schools and universities have started embracing e-learning as an alternative solution in order to expand their audience, reduce operational costs and provide better service.

"Even enterprises are embracing e-learning. Corporations in the region with more than 200 employees have either implemented or are in the process of implementing an e-learning solution,” says Mohamad Hassoun, vice president and general manager of HumanSoft.

Although the penetration of e-learning in the region remains low, industries, academic institutions and enterprises are aware of the benefits of e-learning and are keen to exploit online opportunities. "The future looks bright where people are becoming more engaged because of the advancement in technology and communication. I can see a big window for m-learning (mobile learning) where people will start using their mobiles for e-learning," enthuses Hassoun.

HumanSoft launched the first e-learning portal more than two years ago in the Middle East. In addition, the company has provided e-learning portals for enterprises in Kuwait, KSA and the UAE. "As the regional partner for Thomson NETg covering the Middle East and North Africa regions, we try to work closely with assigned partners in the 22 Arab countries. We have worked with universities, schools, corporations and governments to help them work with e-learning and embrace it," says Hassoun.

"Since we partner with the leading e-learning provider we are able to provide the best solutions. In addition, we do not only depend on the NETg product. We provide our own learning solutions as well, which meet customer requirements. In addition, we go further than that and work closely with their IT departments to help develop their IT infrastructures.”

Madar Research Group claims e-learning projects are expected to exceed a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 32% by 2008. The total spending on e-learning in UAE is forecast to increase from US$14 billion to US$56 billion by 2008.

Abdullah Hashim, senior manager for eCompany, says the future of e-learning looks bright. It is well received in many GCC nations and organisations are willing to try the new method of learning. "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," says Hashim.

The company has just started offering e-learning contents to schools.The initiative will serve as a supporting learning tool for public as well as private school students in the UAE. The initial course content is in Arabic and based on the UAE curriculum. The online company provided the solution in partnership with of Menhaj Educational Technologies.

“We are committed to helping schools across the UAE use information technology to help students learn better and provide teachers with a powerful teaching tools,” adds Hashim. "Difficulties from our overall experience of e-learning — infrastructure in schools, the inability of teachers in terms of their training to impart e-learning and lack of awareness on part of parents — affect the overall e-learning scenario," Hashim points out.

Mehhaj Educational Technologies says e-learning solutions do help students in their academic life. The younger generation is eager to use technology in their everyday activities. “Menhaj proved to be effective in enhancing the academic level of students across the Arab World, as the academic achievement of students increased by at least 18% through our solutions," claims Ghassan Al-Lahham, CEO of Menhaj Educational Technologies.

There are many factors as to why universities and schools are introducing online capabilities. However, flexibility in terms of time and location and reduced cost are the major incentives.

Dr Tawfik Abd El Moniem, director of technology centre at Misr University for Science and Technology, considers e-learning as a huge opportunity for students form all walks of life. “For example, there are ambitious employees wanting to develop their careers, house wives and mothers who want to study while carrying on their home responsibilities,” says El Moniem.

Egyptian companies working in the e-learning sector have formed an e-learning and business solution union (ELBAS). The union protects the interests of its 23 member companies. Wael Nawarah, secretary general of ELBAS, says an e-university will help meet the growing needs of increasing number of students who are joining Egyptian universities to further their education.

E-learning is suitable for students who live far away from local universities. However, it is different to distance learning. "Students in e-learning have the chance to join virtual classes and interact with professors and fellow students. The investment in e-universities can initially be more than that of a traditional university. Yes, it takes time and money, but it is a one-time investment,” explains, Nawarah.

Mohsen Rashwan, CIO of Research and Development International, says e-learning companies in the Middle East are faced with the challenge of low demand and the issue of piracy. "E-learning is relatively new in the Middle East, which means regional governments need to help companies, especially the smaller ones, by providing appropriate IT resources,” Rashwan summarises.

Dr Mohamed Abd El Hamid Sheirah, consultant for the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, shares Rashwan’s sentiments. He says regional governments have to assist those organisations, which are interested in adopting e-learning. "Public universities cannot be left behind. If we do not develop these resources, private universities will overtake us," says Dr El Hamid Sheirah, stressing the importance of co-operation between the Ministries of Education and Communication and Information Technology in order to revive the education system.

Currently, the two ministries are in a process of building a digital library and establishing an e-content centre. "We believe public universities need e-learning capabilities more than the private ones," adds Sheirah.

“The increasing number of students enrolling at universities demands such initiatives. This is why the minister decided on a strategic plan to turn 10% of the current curriculum into e-content within three years.” The decision comes along with other government initiatives such as the PC for every home initiative. "We are connecting all our universities so that internet can easily be available to staff and students,” Sheirah notes.

Saint Ann School has also introduced online leaning capabilities in order to motivate its technology savvy students who prefer working with computers.

"I have noticed that my students do not like doing their homework on paper. They prefer using computers and like interacting with other students online, and for this reason we have launched e-learning initiatives,” says Sister Christine Mosely, director of Saint Ann School. “Now that we have e-learning capabilities, the performance of our students has improved tremendously,” she enthuses. ||**||

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