By Rob L. Wagner
4 December 2015
Jeddah – When Professor Assad Jawhar gives his petroleum economics class at King Abdulaziz University in the Saudi Arabian commercial hub of Jeddah, he teaches students he has never met and has never seen. His students are just names on a roster.
It is the downside of blended classroom instruction at Saudi Arabia’s universities in which professors use web-based software, such as Blackboard, to teach online courses and combine those classes with face-to-face instruction.
“There is no charisma from the professor, no eye contact, no interaction,” Jawhar said. Yet he is a fan of blended classroom instruction. “I’m a believer,” he said.
The lack of interaction between professor and student almost sank online instruction programmes when the King Abdulaziz University e-Learning Deanship introduced online courses in 2005. Student participation was underwhelming.
According to a study by Sulaiman Alshathri and Trevor Male for the London Centre for Leadership & Learning, online courses and traditional classroom instruction were initially separate programmes in Saudi Arabia. The programme received a poor reception from students who preferred face-to-face classes.
Jamil Ahmed, general manager of Image Systems Est. for the Middle East region, has been focusing on implementing e-learning programmes in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade. He said Saudi education officials attempted to fully immerse online learning into the curriculum, but met with little success. Those initial struggles with online courses, however, gave birth to blended learning.
“There were initiatives in Saudi Arabia to have 100% content delivered on e-learning portals starting in 2005 under the King Abdulaziz University e-Learning Deanship,” Ahmed said. “The success of these initiatives were not encouraging and hence the shift to blended learning… but its effectiveness is something that has to be measured.”
Ahmed said that strictly taking online courses is not practical. “Blended learning is a more effective method,” he said. “E-learning cannot be the only solution to multiple modes of learning.”
It was not until about 2009 that blending learning emerged in Saudi universities. In 2011, growth exploded worldwide making the programme “the new normal in higher education”, according to the London Centre study.
Jawhar said the online bug has bitten him because e-learning classes streamline his schedule and give students easier access to his classes. Online classes are convenient for students and instructors and there is no loss of classroom quality if one puts aside the lack of human interaction. Students still must be disciplined enough to complete their assignments but the only time they need to be on campus is to take final examinations.
Jawhar noted that although blended learning has progressed at Saudi universities over the last five years, the programme remains in its infancy. Only five out of the 200 students the professor teaches take his online courses. For now, he sees online learning as a supplement to live classes.
In the United States, the number of online degrees offered to students has mushroomed with virtually every major higher education institution, including the California state university system, offering some version of an online degree. About 62% of US universities offered online degree programmes in 2012, up from 32.5% in 2002.
Saudi universities’ blended learning programme requires students to also take live classroom instruction. Universities employing the twin-course approach include Al- Baha, Taibah, King Khalid, Qassim and King Abdulaziz universities. Medina’s highly regarded Islamic University also uses a combination of online and live teaching. Many more, such as Umm Al Qura University in Mecca, offer distance-learning programmes, including Islamic studies.
While blended instruction is becoming more common across the Middle East, it is particularly popular among Saudi women who struggle with transportation issues. It is also important to students living in rural areas, such as the Qassim and Tabuk regions where universities may be hundreds of kilometres from students’ homes.
Ahmed said another important benefit to blended learning is that online instruction is more cost-effective for the student.
“The best resources can be made available to both genders from a central or remote location,” he said. “The e-learning mode will be the best fit. However, it has to be coordinated with a good learning methodology.”
Marwa Al-Asmari, 19, a student at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, said transportation to the campus is always a problem because she does not use taxis and her driver is not always available.
She is taking only one online class but said she wants to add more to her schedule.
“I download my online courses on my iPhone and do my reading from anywhere,” she said. “Sometimes I will be at a coffee shop waiting for my friends, so I will read the assignment on my phone and then follow up at home with the actual work.”