MIDDLE EAST: Online education is vital for the region

With economic imperatives rising and the demand for a more skilled workforce, now is the time for expansion of online higher education courses in the Middle East. However, there are still some challenges and perceptions to overcome.

What is it about the present and future of the Middle East that creates a specific need for online education? I would argue that there are many and varied needs.

For one, there are economic factors. Dubai, for instance, has recently attracted 342 projects requiring US$21 billion of capital investment. This will create 58,000 new jobs. There is a great need, therefore, for investment in higher education that is geared towards professional careers.

Can existing bricks-and-mortar universities meet these needs and reach the kind of students who need to be reached? This includes expatriate talent that may be imported. Expats will one day need to be reintegrated into the employment market they came from and will not wish their skills to stagnate.

Online education may not suit all students and subjects, but can traditional universities cope with increasing enrolment levels and the need for continuing professional development?

Countries in the Middle East are beginning to recognise how online learning can serve these needs even if they are still not entirely comfortable with it.

The largest university in the United Arab Emirates, the United Arab Emirates University, for instance, is increasing its online learning. More than 300 decision-makers and leaders from the Middle East attended the Hamdan Bin Mohammed e-university annual congress exhibition in January on excellence in e-learning.

Online higher education courses offer something extra - they reach a varied and complex community of learners who need the flexibility and accessibility that they provide. According to research, they also promote self-reflection and are more conducive to deep learning than face-to-face education.

Moreover, many chief academic officers believe that the quality of education offered by online courses is as good as or better than that offered by face-to-face learning. This flies in the face of some public perceptions of online education as being a poorer quality alternative to traditional learning. The fact that the likes of Cornell, Harvard and Yale are offering online courses is helping to build the credibility of online education.

Key figures in the Middle East recognise the value of online learning. For instance Dr Ayoub Kazim, Executive Director of the Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village, said in 2008: "Distance learning is in many ways a welcome phenomenon as it holds enormous promise for enriching education." Such statements act as a significant stamp of approval for online learning in the region.

Some of the major benefits of online learning are flexibility and accessibility, which allow students to fit learning around their busy lifestyles. Online learning is also more affordable than traditional learning, which is not the same as saying that it is cheap. Quality online degree programmes can cost $70,000 plus. Masters degrees can cost $30,000 plus.

The key is value for money - the fact that the courses can be tailored to fit around students' individual needs. It should be remembered, however, that online courses lend themselves to particular types of courses, such as business, rather than practical hands-on courses like medicine.

What makes for quality online higher education?

At the University of Phoenix we put the quality and popularity of our courses down to several factors: asynchronous learning, small class sizes, the promotion of shorter courses, high levels of interactivity and a high level of student support - not just at the enrolment stage but throughout the online experience. Our courses are also taught by academics who retain a foothold in the world of work and remain practitioners.

In times of economic problems, all the statistics show that rising unemployment and uncertainty leads to a boost for education. People, particularly older adults, turn to education to increase their chances of finding employment.

Online education provides a high quality but possibly more economical form of education and has the ability to link people internationally.

Online education also offers broader opportunities to people and expands the reach of education more than any other method of delivery. It is not just about course delivery, though. Students want more from education nowadays. They don't want to passively absorb education. They want to be taught in an active format.

There are, however, challenges to overcome to the expansion of online education in the Middle East.

There is still, for instance, the perception that the standard of education is poorer than in traditional universities. This is fuelled by media reports of 'diploma mills' where you can buy a qualification cheaply.

There are concerns that online education is impersonal and that students feel isolated. But this is not the case for quality online providers who keep in regular contact with students. Partly this is about ensuring that instructors are properly trained to promote interactivity. Partly too it is about ensuring that online courses are properly accredited by the relevant ministry of higher education. This will in turn persuade employers of the acceptability of online qualifications.

In the US the case for online learning is clear. Some 90% of US institutions with more than 15,000 students offer some online courses. Nearly four million learners in the US will study towards online-only degree programmes by 2014. This is up 44% on 2009 figures. The future of academia is online.

Finally, there is one last benefit. At a time of upheaval, in the Middle East and worldwide, when you have an online offering in place, courses can go on as normal.

* Raj Kapoor is Centre Director of the University of Phoenix - Dubai.

* This is an edited version of his presentation at the 1st QS-Maple (Middle East and Africa Professional Leaders in Education) conference held in Dubai from 1-2 May 2011.