Governments commit to mass digitisation

Arab governments are investing heavily in the widespread adoption of e-learning in the education sector by implementing specific policies to digitise schools, an international conference in Dubai was told last week.

Digitising has contributed to the rapid growth of the e-learning industry as a whole in the Middle East and opened up the possibility for further technological advancement in the region. This was one of the key topics discussed as part of an e-learning excellence section at the Innovation Arabia 8 conference.

The conference was organised by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, the first of its type in the United Arab Emirates. The university was established in 2002 as a response to the aspirations of a new Arab generation, with an emphasis on e-learning as the future of education and empowerment in the region.

Delegates to the conference were told that by next year, the e-learning industry in the Middle East would be worth more than US$560 million, with an 8% annual growth rate.

“This is outpacing the global e-learning market as a whole, which has an average annual growth of 7.6%,” said Professor Abtar Darshan Singh, chair of the e-learning excellence section at the conference and a Canadian-based academic.

Policies to promote e-learning

“This quick and widespread adoption of e-learning in the region owes much to specific government policies aiming to promote e-learning in schools and digitise the entire education sector.”

Singh said the United Arab Emirates government was exemplary in having invested in supplying 425 state-run public schools with e-learning technology in a bid to ensure that nearly 300,000 students had access to e-learning methods.

Kuwait had digitised all school textbooks and deployed e-learning in all schools as part of its ‘e-education’ plan. Turkey had said it would provide more than 15 million students across 40,000 schools with tablets in the next four years as part of a US$1.4 billion education initiative, whilst Qatar had provided each student with a personal learning device as part of a series of ‘e-education’ initiatives.

“Due to the dynamic growth in online learning and technology improvements in schools, the rate of acceptance and implementation of big data technologies will be far easier in the Middle East and North Africa region as opposed to other less well-established e-learning regions,” Singh said.

He said a well thought out structure of e-learning programmes in universities with the involvement of industry in the planning, development and delivery of courses, and a focus on high-quality products, would ensure their sustainability. Governments had a role in ensuring that the appropriate standards were upheld for e-learning.

Social aspects

“The one issue that is glossed over in the debate between face-to-face learning and e-learning is the sense of community that face-to-face learning provides to learners. Schools and colleges are the hubs of social life for learners, preparing them for life’s social challenges,” he said.

“E-learning provides a different sense of community engagement to the learner by opening up opportunities for interaction across borders and cultures seamlessly. These human stories need to get out more.”

Singh said the advent of social media and allied technologies has the potential to be a game changer in fields such as architecture and agriculture, with many agricultural courses being developed and taken directly “to the masses”.

“The key to this will be to see if the social media invasion into rural communities gets transformed into learning by the masses. If this happens, the transformation will be enormous.

“But here the role of researchers is paramount. We need three things: a cross-country, large-scale research project similar to the World Health Organization study in health; a meeting of minds of e-learning developers and the industry that drives the demand; and government-sponsored research into the key drivers for change.”

Conference key issues

The three-day conference provided a platform for masters and doctoral degree holders from 37 countries to present a total of 188 research papers and 38 presentations on key issues related to the four topics of the conference.

The event featured 75 research papers and five presentations on ‘Smart Learning Excellence’, 57 research papers and 13 presentations on ‘Quality and Business Management’, 26 research papers and 18 presentations on ‘Health and the Environment’ and 30 research papers and two presentations on ‘Islamic Banking and Finance’.