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December 4, 2015

Blended Learning Finds a Home in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

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.”

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