ISLAMIC WORLD: New network of virtual universities

Ministers of higher education, science and technology from member countries of Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) last week announced that they will set up a network of virtual universities, based in Iran and financially supported by the Islamabad-based OIC and the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah.

The funding will be from the OIC's Standing Committee on Science and Technology, COMSTECH, which held its 14th meeting in the Pakistan capital Islamabad on 13 January.

The Inter-Islamic Network of Virtual Universities, IINVU, will be established to strengthen and improve scientific, instructional, research and technological collaboration among Islamic countries.

The virtual universities network will be based at Payam-e-Noor University in Tehran, a state-owned distance education university with 3,500 academic staff and 1.1 million students.

Making universities ready to confront the information society is a necessity in modern times, Hassan Ziyari, Chancellor of Payam-e-Noor University, told University World News.

"The network of virtual universities would facilitate the process of learning and teaching, [overcome] time and space limitations and equip students in OIC member states with the educational facilities of universities everywhere and at any time via an Intelligent Tutoring System," Ziyari said.

The proposal to set-up the network was first made at the last COMSTECH meeting in April 2008 in Islamabad, which put the decision on hold until a feasibility study was completed.

The network will promote distance learning through open universities in development projects in Islamic countries. Apart from revolutionising existing distance learning systems in OIC countries, the network will offer new educational programmes including multimedia and web-based educational content, virtual laboratories and virtual research spaces.

The network also aims to facilitate the exchange of students, scholars and academics among member countries for virtual knowledge sharing.

The network of virtual universities is expected to help bridge the digital gap among OIC member states. Some countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia have made breakthrough progress in distance learning. Their experience and facilities could assist other countries of the OIC through linking with the network.

"It would not only bridge the gap between them but also would save on their resources", Naveed Malik, Vice-Chancellor of Virtual University of Pakistan, Lahore, told University World News.

The Virtual University of Pakistan is the first distance learning university in the country using modern information and communication technologies including two satellites, its own television and radio channels, along with learning and examinations via the internet. Pakistan's Allam Iqbal Open University is another distance learning university in Pakistan but uses paper correspondence methods.

The Islamic world, at present, has a number of universities offering virtual learning facilities. They include the Syrian Virtual University, Lebanese Virtual University, Open University in Libya, Open University in Sudan and a programme of distance learning at Cairo University in Egypt.

A number of projects are in the pipeline such as a Moroccan Virtual University in Agadir, a virtual Islamic University to be headquartered in Morocco and an International Virtual University of Medinah in Saudi Arabia.