National center makes e-learning easy
The Saudi Ministry of Higher Education has established the National Center of E-Learning & Distance Learning known as NCEL to implement a national plan to develop information technology in the Kingdom.
‘The move comes on the heels of a call made by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to adopt information technology across Saudi Arabia.
The national plan recommends the implementation of e-learning and distance learning and their prospective applications in higher education.
Drawing up the national plan comes in the wake of an expected major transformation of traditional education as most universities in the Kingdom are likely to switch to a system of e-learning next year.
Nine universities have already agreed to implement the system.
The Higher Education Ministry has set up a repository for e-learning material to help universities adopt the system. Initially, e-books will be available for engineering, computer science, humanities and medical courses.
“Academics in the universities who have agreed to adopt e-learning are being offered training. Saudi Arabia is taking the lead in e-learning and distance education in the Gulf region,” professor Curtis J. Bonk of Indiana University said.
Bonk was one of the 44 international keynote speakers who addressed the four-day 2nd international conference on e-learning that concluded in Riyadh on Thursday. He spoke on “E-Learning: Nature (technology) and Nurture (pedagogy).”
Speaking at the NCEL, Bonk said that the event organizer had invited some of the leading international experts in the field of e-learning and distance education from different countries such as the United States, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan.
NCEL, established in 2005 through a directive from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is a branch of the Ministry of Education.
“I think, Saudi Arabia’s efforts in e-learning are very significant because the field is mature, the skills are being blended and are unfolding on the online format which has now become familiar turf with people pursuing degrees and certificates through online courses,” Bonk said.
He added that “this shows that there is the possibility of life-long learning which is an important development.”
However, Bonk said that there are still some challenges and constraints that the Kingdom has to address on a number of issues relating to e-learning and distance education.
He added that Saudi Arabia needs to develop a strategic plan and vision to address the issues relating to e-learning and distance education.
For instance, Saudi Arabia, Bonk said, needs to develop infrastructure in the field of e-learning and distance education in areas such as an interactive mobile curriculum, e-books and the logistics of how e-books are infiltrating here and who is going to develop e-books platforms and evaluate the effectiveness of e-books.
“The people of Saudi Arabia have mobile phones but not a mobile curriculum,” Bonk pointed out.
He also said that the Kingdom is required to take a multipronged approach with a combination of applications and recommendations since emerging technologies such as electronic portfolios, blogs, podcasts, e-books, digital object repositories, computer games and simulations, wireless and mobile computing have been generating waves of new opportunities in higher education, schools, corporate training and other learning environments.
Bonk said that he had visited the Kingdom five times in four years, during which he had seen qualitative change with lots of people looking to participate in e-learning and distance education.
He said that the Prince Sultan Grand Hall at the Faisaliah Hotel, the venue of the conference, was crowded with enthusiastic people who wanted to know more about e-learning.
“Over 11,000 people including 2,000 women participants registered for the four-day e-learning conference. The quality of papers presented in the conference was superb,” Bonk said.
The national and international experts on e-learning, Bonk added, took into consideration not just the local needs but also adopted a comprehensive approach showing what the next steps should be.
“I was impressed with the level of awareness and knowledge of women participants who had good understanding of the literature. The papers presented were not just research-specific but also took into consideration the whole aspect of e-learning and distance education,” he said.
He also said that there is awareness in Saudi Arabia about e-learning and distance education at the academic level with professionals engaged in publishing articles, doing research studies and holding conferences which did not exist five years ago.
However, there is still need to create awareness at the general public level, Bonk added.
Abdullah Almegren, director of the national center, told an Arabic daily last month that the new system would bring about dramatic progress in the Kingdom’s higher education system.
“A team of experts from the ministry recently visited a number of international universities that have successfully adopted the e-learning system to know how it works,” Almegren was quoted as saying.
Experts from the ministry visited Australia last month and held talks with senior academics in universities with significant e-learning programs as well as with the Australian Universities Quality Agency.
Almegren told the newspaper that the ministry was investigating the prospect of reducing class attendance hours for university students after shifting to e-learning.
“Once the system is implemented, students need not have 100% class attendance as they can keep in touch with faculty members through modern electronic communication methods,” he said.
The need to adopt a new system, he said, was essential as the traditional model would not be appropriate or adequate in preparing students for the complexities of a rapidly developing society.
“E-learning truly enables students to tailor their education under the guidance of teachers serving as mentors,” Almegren said.
The daily reported that the universities that have signed memorandums of understanding with the ministry to introduce e-learning are the King Saud University, King Abdulaziz University, Baha University, Taiba University, Qassim University and Madinah Islamic University.
Almegren said that under the agreements, his center would provide technical and consultative support to universities to use e-learning, facilitate the transition to this type of education and set out the basic rules for its application.