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Thu 1 Apr 2004 04:00 AM

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Learning curve

Despite being evangelised as a medium that has the power to revolutionise corporate training in the Middle East, the adoption of e-learning by the region’s large organisations has been ponderous and mainly restricted to the education and government sectors. Now, as companies begin to realise the cost saving potential and flexibility of the model and course content improves, the uptake of e-learning looks set to improve.

|~|pink_M.jpg|~|E-learning promises to deliver education solutions to the office or home.|~|In recent years private sector education companies have been investing heavily to promote e-learning in the Middle East. Believing they can cash in on a boom that is widely predicted to revolutionise public sector education and corporate training, millions of dollars has been spent on purchasing and Arabising course content, overcoming the region’s patchy connectivity and marketing courses to potential users.

The model promises to liberate organisations from the expense and logistics of sending their personnel to traditional training centres and allows them to study from the home or from the office at a time that suits them. But, apart from a few notable exceptions, companies in the region have been slow to sign up to the training revolution.

“It is an area that has not grown as anticipated. Reports by IDC say it will represent 35% or 40% of the training market, but that has not happened yet. Hence instructor-led training is still the preferred method in this region,’ says Alwaleed Aldryan, president of Saudi Arabian-based Al-Khaleej Training, owner of the New Horizons franchise for the Middle East.

What growth there has been in the region’s e-learning market can largely be attributed to the public sector. Academic e-learning has been at the forefront of the model in the region, with universities and schools, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, signing up for extensive online education programmes and inking major deals with e-learning providers. HumanSoft Learning Solutions, for example, provides online training for several large public sector organisations across the region and E-Arts Consulting has developed and implemented e-learning content for more than 100 Saudi schools and colleges.

Further examples of this public acceptance of e-learning comes from Dubai Police Department, which has a stake in the E-TQM College, a provider of online total quality management (TQM) courses. Dubai’s e-Government project has also invested heavily in e-learning solutions designed to provide education to public sector employees and Dubai citizens at reduced rates.

This government involvement in e-learning accounts for much of a market that, in Dubai, Madar Research says was worth US$6million last year. But the eagerly anticipated uptake of e-learning programmes by a large number of private companies has yet to happen. Furthermore, many believe it will be some time before corporates rely heavily on online training to educate their staff.

“I disagree with those in our area that predict e-learning is going to boom in this year or even the year after, I think as more people get educated in training centres and classrooms, then e-learning will help these people to review and prepare for exams. But real benefits to employees from e-learning as a tool by itself are not happening,” says Aldryan.

These claims are backed up by a United Nations study published last year. Entitled the Regional Profile of the Information Society in Western Asia, the report concludes that in relation to the amount of computer-based distance learning available in the Middle East, the number of companies and organisations using e-learning is small, which suggests the region is reluctant to adopt the concept.

But e-learning seems to be an ideal solution for the Middle East, overcoming cultural barriers that make it difficult for women to continue their studies, meeting a need for language training and providing up-to-date content to remote areas where a dearth of technical information has hindered traditional training. Also, the model makes good business sense. A study by analyst house, Taylor Nelson Sofres, found that companies implementing e-learning programmes noticed a 67% increase in workforce effectiveness and a 60% reduction is workforce training costs.

Initially, the slow uptake of the model was largely attributed to the region’s poor infrastructure. This claim was backed up by the fact that the model has achieved most success in countries like the UAE, where PC penetration and internet connectivity rival, and in some cases improve upon, levels achieved in many western countries.
In response to this, e-learning providers attempted to overcome these issues and 48% of Dubai’s e-learning spend last year was spent on delivery solutions. Companies such as HumanSoft, E-TQM and Element K have made their course content available in a variety of forms, so students with the slowest connectivity speeds can access pared-down versions of the same courses that those with high speed connectivity can enjoy full video streaming and sound.

This spend on large delivery solutions had a negative effect on course content, as companies had significantly less revenue in this area, which only accounted for 22% of e-learning revenues in Dubai last year.
||**||The importance of Arabisation|~|khaleej_M.jpg|~|Arabisation is key to cracking the Saudi e-learning market, says Al-Khaleej’s Alwaleed Aldryan.|~|In addition, the vast majority of online courses aimed at the Middle East have still not been Arabised. While this is acceptable in countries like the UAE, where the vast majority of workers speak English, experts believe it is a major stumbling block when promoting the model in other important Arab countries, where conventional courseware and teaching is available in Arabic.

“Without Arabisation the Saudi e-learning market is going nowhere,” says Al-Khleeej’s Aldryan. “The way we see it, you need to push the low end, whether it’s IT or management courses, in order to get e-learning moving. Sophisticated users may accept English, but they are few and they are normally educated enough. For most, Arabic is essential,” he adds.

In line with this train of thought, HumanSoft, which supplies New Horizons with courseware from US company Thompson NETg, has Arabised much of the mass-market content, such as Microsoft XP tutorials and the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) course. In addition, New Horizons provides accredited Arabic language exams for these subjects.

However, the e-learning industry faces problems when it comes to the Arabisation of higher end courses, such as those that cater for IT professionals. Because fewer students sign up for these courses, and they are so frequently updated and modified, e-learning providers are reluctant to go through the trouble and expense of Arabisation.

In addition, e-learning is being pushed in a market where great faith is placed in traditional classroom training methods. Indeed, education providers are finding that instead of demand for traditional courses waning in the internet era, the reverse has happened. New Horizons has witnessed between 15% and 20% growth per annum for the last five years and is aiming for 20% growth in 2004.

In the UAE, Etisalat Academy, which provides both e-learning and traditional training in a wide variety of business, education and management skills to the public and private sector, has found that demand for its classroom-based courses is larger than ever, and its three on-campus hotels are often fully-booked.

“We have a big plan for e-learning and we have started the deployment of e-learning, but all our studies and all our analysis of the sector that has been done recently shows that while e-learning is good support, and it reduces the costs of some training. It will never replace classroom training, it is a complementary function,” argues Dr Doaa Fares, the academy’s general manager.

Despite these issues there are some cases where companies in the region have invested heavily in e-learning. As with many new concepts, the charge is being led by large enterprises, financial services sector companies and the oil & gas sector.

Emirates International Bank, Mashreq Bank and the Dubai Petroleum Company are now all successfully training their staff online in a variety of technical and soft skills. The region’s hospitality industry has also adopted the model, with Jumeirah International and Hilton International both rolling out programmes locally.

One of the earliest Middle East companies to invest heavily in e-learning was Emirates Airline. Now into its third year of operations, Emirates’ has invested nearly US$10 million in its e-learning unit, which teaches staff about its frequent flyer programme, Skywards. Because all Emirates’ staff are multi-lingual, the courses can be taught solely in English. E-learning also allows the airline to retain course consistency around the world.

“The rationale behind creating the unit was simple. The organisation is growing and expanding in terms of geographical locations covered as well as in fleet size and numbers of employees. The need to develop our workforce effectively while maintaining customer focus and business competitiveness means that e-learning is a perfect addition to our existing investments in training and development,” says Linda Al Ansari, Emirates manager for e-learning design and delivery.||**||Market forces|~|aghi_M.jpg|~|U21’s Mukesh Aghi says the market will grow slowly.|~|Also, the market in the Middle East is being pushed from global corporations, with the likes of Aramex International rolling out its e-learning programme here. Aramex’s solution, developed in partnership with Rubicon and based on Lotus Learning Space, supports an internet chat service and whiteboard teaching plus video and audio conferencing.

Despite these arguments, the companies that have invested heavily in e-training methods for their employees are of a sufficient size to be able to devote resources to tailor their own e-learning solutions. Unfortunately, most companies in the Middle East must rely on content produced by the mass market and rarely tailored for Arabic speaking students.

Some e-learning professionals believe that the timeliness of mass market technical courses will prove to be the killer app of e-learning, as corporations strive to maintain well informed technical personnel. “One of the main benefits of e-learning is that it is very much up to date. The companies that provide the course content and the companies that provide the systems work closely to produce timely information,” says Motaz Salameh, sales manager of E-Arts Consulting.

Supporting this, Madar Research believes uptake of e-learning by the corporate sector will drive the Dubai e-learning market to achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32% over the next four years to reach a value of US$24million by 2008.
Such growth rates are attracting more e-learning businesses to Dubai’s Knowledge Village, such as Universitas 21 (U21), an online university that recently opened a Dubai training centre.

But the model proposed by U21 differs greatly from the e-learning companies that have so far dominated the marketplace. Whereas the likes of Element K and HumanSoft offer thousands of courses covering a range of diverse topics, U21 has developed just 18 courses in partnership with 16 brick and mortar institutes in the United Kingdom and the USA.

Mukesh Aghi, U21’s CEO, argues that many of the e-learning companies that have targeted the Middle East corporate sector to date have not provided enough of a value proposition to companies wanting to invest in the long-term growth of their staff. He says their smaller number of core courses facilitates this. “When you ask corporates what they are looking for [from training], they tell you their main priority is to find ways of maintaining their talent, their core players,” Aghi says.

“We have to win over corporates slowly. The only way the strength of these courses is going to be realised is by alumni being placed in good positions. So our focus is on quality,” he adds.

Al-Khaleej is also ignoring the short term hype surrounding the online training model, and is maintaining investment in the traditional learning centres it has throughout Saudi. The group believes that while e-learning is proving useful for teaching support, it will be many years before companies in the region are prepared to use it to entirely replace their existing training schemes.

“In the Middle East training is mainly instructor led. For Saudi even more so. Students have been pampered, the whole education sector is built on students being fed information by an instructor, so for the majority of them all of a sudden to sit at a PC and learn on their own is at least five to six years away,” says Aldryan.

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