E-Learning Programs in Saudi Arabian Universities

Literature Review

This section of the paper attempts to explore the delivery of e-learning programs in Saudi Arabian universities. In addition, it aligns past research materials with the aim of the study and the research objectives formulated. The different theories adopted by e-learning programs and the risks associated with it have also been discussed in detail. According to Al-Shehri (2010), e-learning is a subset of distance learning and can be defined as the process of delivering content through electronic media. Examples of electronic media adopted in e-learning include CD-Rom, interactive TV, audio and videotape, satellite broadcast, extranets, intranets, and the internet (Al-Shehri 2010). E-learning can either be asynchronous and synchronous.

Asynchronous is a mode of e-learning that facilitates learning to be carried out in real-time (Aboulfaraj, Jomoah & Hassan 2009, p.3) because it is largely interactive. Some of the real-life applications with regard to e-learning include discussion groups, online chats, questions and answers mentoring, video and audio web-streamed web presentation, videotaped classes, and self-paced classes (Aboulfaraj, Jomoah & Hassan (2009, p.3). On the other hand, synchronous learning uses a real-time platform, which is usually an instructor-led exercise. All the participants are “logged in” at the same time in such a way that they can communicate simultaneously. Examples of synchronous learning as noted by Aboulfaraj, Jomoah and Hassan (2009, p.3) include virtual classrooms, internet telephony, video and audio conferencing, and two-way live satellite broadcasts whereby lecturers can communicate with students in a classroom.

Over the past decade, e-learning has emerged as a new learning method. This has been made possible by the emergence and advancement of information communication and technology. Saudi Arabia is among the largest countries in the world in terms of population and levels of consumption of telecommunication products and services. Universities based in Saudi Arabia are also ranked among the largest users of e-learning programs. This statement has been supported by McIntosh (2012) who observes that Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leader in the adoption of e-learning in the GCC region. The country is also one of the largest supporters of e-learning and distance learning in the Middle East. Despite the adoption and advocacy for e-learning in Saudi Arabia, there is a variation regarding the capabilities and experiences of different universities with e-learning. In spite of the challenges and resistance that some of the universities in Saudi Arabia are faced with, this has not deterred them from offering e-learning programmes. In spite of the high levels of risks in e-learning in Saudi Arabia, the ministry of education and other stakeholders have been on the forefront to ensure that the concept is fully embraced.

According to Aljabre (2012, p.132), technology-based education has led to a new realm of higher learning and education in Saudi Arabia. This has been as a result of the emerging telecommunication industry and acceptance of new information systems as well as the establishment of National Center for E-learning and Distance Education by the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia (MOHE n.d).

E-learning in Saudi Arabia

According to the MOHE past regulations, in order for a degree earned through e-learning to be accepted, one has to prove that they indeed spent their time undertaking the course. However, such outdated rules are being changed in order to be at the same pace as the rest of the world. In 2005, the MOHE established a National Center for E-learning and Distance Learning. The new paradigm shift in the Saudi Arabian universities is believed to condense both time and space in order to continue developing education (MOHE n.d). The establishment of the centre is the core of e-learning and distance education in Saudi Arabia. The centre was established with the aim of facilitating the delivery of e-learning to Saudi students and coordinate efforts by education institutions as they seek to adopt e-learning programs. The centre will be able to support the adoption of educational processes at the university levels and make it available to all students without any prior restriction. The new education policy will also ensure that all universities in the kingdom are coordinated via the Center, thereby laying a foundation for distance education and e-learning. This implies that the Center will work closely with other stakeholders in ensuring that e-learning in Saudi Arabia is fully embraced (MOHE n.d).

In order to ensure that e-learning is well implemented to deliver e-learning programs, the NCEDE has carried out some a number of projects that includes the Tajsir E-learning Initiative, the Jusur system for the administration of e-learning, Saudi Digital Library, and Saudi Center for Support and Counseling (MOHE n.d). The Tajsir e-learning initiative was developed in order to modernize traditional education and bring it to the same level as modern educational methods. This is to be achieved through the adoption of modern applications in the field of e-learning. The initiative will also ensure that the transformation processes on education in Saudi Arabia are achieved. The Jusur system for the administration of e-learning is an integrated software system for carrying out administration tasks of the e-learning process. Its main components are registration, scheduling, delivery, monitoring, communication and testing.

The registration process is used to enter and manage information pertaining to students. Scheduling is used to schedule courses and devise teaching plans (MOHE n.d). Delivery is used to deliver the contents to the students and to also monitor the progress of students. It is also used to provide feedback. This also facilitates communication between the students and tutors. Lastly, testing is used to evaluate students via examinations and tests. Jusur also entails a learning content management system (LCMS) which offers storage of the learning objects and aids in developing teaching materials. The instructor is able to offer exams using the learning management system and at the same time, allow students to view their grades and assignments (MOHE n.d).

In order for e-learning to be successful, the National Center for E-learning and Distance Education has initiated the Saudi Digital Library with the aim of improving the skills and helping students in the field of scientific research. It also provides students with the required course materials and ensures that students can exchange materials and information. The Saudi Center for Support and Counseling offers academic and technical support to teachers and students who are part of the e-learning process. This is facilitated through the use of fax, chat, e-mail, direct voice communication, and text messages (MOHE n.d).

E-Learning Theories and Models

In order to understand the risks associated with the implementation of e-learning programs in Saudi Arabia universities, it is to understand some of the educational learning theories associated with e-learning. This is because learning does not occur in a vacuum and theoretical concepts are necessary. Some of the common theories include map learning theory, response theory, psychological theory, and the constructivism learning theory.

Item Response theory

According to Baylari and Montazer (2009), item response theory (IRT) “was first introduced in order to provide a formal approach to adaptive testing” (p.8014). The IRT model is a strong theory that provides effective web-based personalized e-learning services. This has been supported by Baylari and Montazer (2009) who add that its main purpose is to estimate an examiner’s proficiency or ability based on the student’s dichotomous responses test items. According to the IRT theory, the relationship between test items and the examiner’s responses can be explained via the use of the ICC (item characteristic curve). For a normal test, the curve is S-shaped. ICC has been described as the backbone of the item response theory, and all the other IRT model constructs depend on it. Some of the IRT features, as noted by Baylari and Montazer (2009,) include “the examinee group invariance of item parameters and item invariance of an examinee’s ability estimate” (p.8014). IRT based model has been modified by Chen et al. (2005) to form their personalized e-learning system-item response theory model (PEL-IRT).

Constructivism learning theory

Koohang, Riley and Smith (2009) have defined constructivism learning theory as the active construction of new knowledge based on the experiences of past learners. In a learning setting, a student should be in a position to decipher what he/she is learning based on the content material provided by a teacher/instructor. The constructivism learning theory has been elevated to a model that finds application in the e-learning environment. The model is based on three categories, namely, the instructor’s roles, learning assessment, and the design of learning activities (Koohang, Riley & Smith 2009). In the instructor’s role, elements like student assessment, provision of feedback, acknowledgement, mentoring, guiding, and coaching are provided. With regard to learning assessment, elements such as self-assessment, collaborative assessment, and instructor assessment are worth of consideration. Lastly, the design of the learning includes such activities as social negotiation, multiple representations of ideas, self-reflection, and scaffolding (Koohang, Riley & Smith 2009).

The theory is necessary for e-learning as it focuses on the construction of knowledge which relies on past knowledge of the learner. The most important aspect of this theory is that it allows learners to get the same learning platform thus making it suitable for e-learning. According to Koohang, Riley and Smith (2009), the designed model is based on collaborative and fundamental design elements. Learning assessment is made of such elements as facilitators’ assessment, team assessment, and self-assessment. As a result, the e-learning environment should be given the priority that it requires. The model has found application in designing online websites and company websites that finds application in knowledge management.

Map learning theory

Novak and Canas (2008) have defined concepts maps as the graphical tools used to organize and represent knowledge to learners. Information mapping learning theory utilises concepts maps as an evaluation tool as well as a learning tool. Their application ensures that learners are able to easily identify invalid and valid ideas held by the learners (Novak & Canas (2008). With regard to e-learning, Novak and Canas (2008) note that tools like CmapTools and CmapServers can be used to construct concepts maps and store the outcomes on internet-based servers. The concept maps can be edited synchronously. Different users can comment on the concept maps constructed by different partners in their groups. Through concepts maps, students are able to learn using the features available whereby different pieces of knowledge are constructed based on their understanding and levels of knowledge.

Psychological theory

This theory is based on a psychological perspective which acknowledges that learning is represented in different aspects such as cognitive, situational and associative perspective (Mayes & Freitas 2000). In addition, these perspectives allow learners to understand learning more clearly. The cognitive perspective acknowledges that learning entails the attainment of understanding. Bellsle (2008) notes that the associative perspective views learning as an activity while the situational perspective sees it as a social practice. Additionally, learning is defined as a dynamic and purposeful socio-psychological process that brings change to an individual’s thoughts and thinking process (Mayes & Freitas 2000)

Risks associated with the adoption of e-learning

Operational risk is regarded as the main risk in e-learning (Patomviriyavong, Samphanwattanachai & Suwannoi, 2006, p.2). Operational risks involve risks associated with processes, people, technological elements, and content. This has been supported by Alwi and Fan (2010, 143) who add that despite e-learning being exposed to operational risks, it is also exposed to content risks as a result of security breach or issues. Content risks are those risks that occur during the preparation of coursework. This leads to the risks of having low content which could not be enough to cater for the increased number of students in Saudi Arabia.

In most cases, the internet is relied upon to enhance communication. According to Patomviriyavong, Samphanwattanachai and Suwannoi, 2006, p.442), internet speed is necessary, and a decline in internet broadband risks the connectivity. In some cases, a decrease in internet connectivity may cause loss of content, damage of program reputation, and monetary losses. Human beings are employed to run e-learning facilities. Humans are also prone to mistakes, not to mention that different people have different levels of knowledge and skills. Therefore, it may be hard for an instructor who is not well trained to conveniently address over 40 students if by any chance, they ‘log in’ simultaneously. Lack of skills can jeopardize full execution and implementation of e-learning in Saudi Arabian universities.

Although e-learning has been regarded as a major breakthrough in learning, especially in higher education, there are however numerous costs which may hinder its full implementation use, application, and delivery not only in Saudi Arabian universities but on a global level. Cost is one of the major barriers associated with the implementation of e-learning. Aboulfaraj, Jomoah and Hassan (2009, p.8) note that e-learning is perceived as costly because high upfront cash is required to maintain the system and purchase the learning management system. High costs increase the risk of its implementation the management staff at most universities see it as wastage of financial resources. Therefore, universities can go ahead and implement e-learning services without the guarantee that full support on the required costs will be covered. In a study that was carried out in Saudi Arabia universities on the perception of the students and faculty members found that some of the major constraints to implementation and delivery were high cost of internet connection in Saudi Arabia compared to other Arab nations (Hussein 2011, p.51).

According to the Centre for Education Research and Innovation (2001), universities are faced with risks such as offering state- of-the art technology in order to compete favourably. While implementing these new technologies for e-learning programs, a lot of risks and large sums of money are usually involved. This can be reduced by hiring a team of technicians that is well versed technologically. Hussein (2011, p.51) notes that there is a risk associated with the lack of a support team that is well trained on students and faculty staff before, during, and after the use of e-learning services. These risks are necessary for the e-learning process. Lost competitive advantage, lost opportunities to deliver training at low costs, and challenges faced while training employees and students have been considered as possible risks experienced while delivering e-learning (Lytras, Pablos & Avison 2010). In addition, there are other risks associated with the effectiveness of e-learning with regard to deliverance. According to (Aboulfaraj et al. 2009, p.9), the expectations of the management determine the effectiveness of e-learning through the measurement of the learning outcomes.

The high cultural values and beliefs among the Saudi Arabian nationals have hindered the full implementation of e-learning in Saudi Arabia. Aljabre (2012, p.133) notes that there has been an increase in the number of students who are dropping out of distance learning classes in Saudi Arabia. Most of the students have withdrawn from distance learning as well as e-learning courses in favour of the traditional classroom setting. Although there is no profound and well founded reason why students are withdrawing from online and distance learning classes, it has been suggested that culture has played an integral role.

Societies characterized by close social relationship prefer collective learning style which is based on holistic approach. The absence of an instructor with physical touch in e-learning has been suggested as another reason for the students’ trepidation towards this new form of learning (Aljabre 2012, p.133). In this line of thought, the above statements can be viewed as risks since implementation of e-learning will be shunned away by students because of their culture and its nature. The government of Saudi Arabia may be willing to invest in e-learning programs but there is the challenge of its adoption, thereby risking the implementation and delivery of the services. Hussein (2011, p.51) is in support of the above argument and has noted that there is the risk of community resistance on e-learning programs in Saudi Arabia since most of the community members consider it as a western culture as opposed to a mode of learning.

Security is a major risk involved in the implementation and delivery of e-learning programs in universities. According to Kritzinger (n.d, p.3), ICT opens major doors for security which have thus far compromised the whole e-learning environment. This is because e-learning highly depends on the internet as a platform for communication thus contributing to high security risks. The presence of hackers, malicious software, and viruses pose a threat to the implementation of e-learning at the universities. The problem is evident in the Saudi Arabia universities since they also use the internet to offer e-learning services. Kritzinger (n.d, p.3) adds that students can access examination marks from the main database and have them changed. In addition, some students may also intercept assignments and coursework of other students while being delivered and resubmit it before the owner has done so. However, this is a matter of proper implementation of security measures in information systems. Because of the posed security threats, issues of integrity and confidentiality become compromised (Alwi &Fan 2010, p.151). Human errors like accidents or mistakes done by employees could also jeopardize the implementation of e-learning.

Countermeasures to associated risks

The risk associated with security can be countered through technical countermeasures which would also prevent students and instructors from falling victims to potential security accidents. Some of these measures include proper authorization so that only approved users have access to the facilities (Kritzinger n.d, p.5). This can be achieved through the use of passwords. In addition, identification and authentication tools could be adopted for the same purpose. The identification and authentication tools include the use of message authentication codes, access control lists, and encryption codes. In other words, having control over the e-learning environment is very important. However, Alwi and Fan (2010, p. 153) note that technical measures are limited since information systems neither nor designed to fully secure. Therefore, proper management and application procedures are necessary to ensure security levels are boosted. Some technical researchers have advised that to reduce security risks, controlling access is very important.

Operational- related risks can be managed through building expertise among individuals so that they are able to tackle any unforeseeable events (Patomviriyavong, Samphanwattanachai & Suwannoi, 2006, p.4). Other solutions include changing the number of students enrolled per semester and under the same program. In addition, management could classify any problems brought about by students in order to categorize them as content, internet, and speed risks. Instructors should be fully equipped with the latest technology and knowledge on the newly implemented information systems. Furthermore, this could be improved by allowing employees to specialize in certain fields (Patomviriyavong, Samphanwattanachai & Suwannoi, 2006, p.4). In order to avoid the risks associated with malicious software and virus, an institution of higher learning can adopt desktop virtualization. This allows the technical team to carry diagnostic measures as well as protect the databases from any malicious software and virus.

The issue of cultural risk could be solved by creating awareness among Saudi Arabian students. This would ensure that high turnover is realized thus reducing costs related risks. University members according to Ghee (2005) can adopt the latest technology to minimise the risks associated with e-learning. This would allow the university staff and students to run e-learning programs easily and smoothly without the risks associated with technology and content. Proper strategic risks management should be developed at university level to address any form of risks associated with e-learning (Wills & Bowles 2009).

Cost as a result of connectivity has been identified as a major risk which may hinder delivery of e-learning in some of the Saudi Arabian universities. This can be solved by having subsidized internet broadband and connectivity to allow connection in universities and even at homes. The government through the collaboration with mobile service providers could come up with more affordable internet connections. Most of the major risks can be solved through the use of learning management system (LMS). According to Hussein (2011, p.44) LMS facilitates the effective delivery of e-learning as it enables students to be well attended to and their performance recorded as well. In addition, the Content management System (LCMS) implementation has the potential of reducing content loss and increasing content availability (Abouzahra 2011; Willis & Bowles 2009).

Benefits associated with e-learning in Saudi Arabia

Hussein (2011, p.44) notes that the use of e-learning is an effective means of delivering education to students in the 21st century. This has been necessitated by the presence of internet connectivity in the region. Aljabre (2012, p.133) note that distance learning offers students the possibility learning while working. Tech savvy students can easily apply for e-learning courses and be examined on the same because of the platform offered and its reliability. However, there is need to ensure that all students and staff are well versed with the latest technology to ensure that e-learning is well implemented.

Technology- based training has a higher learning rate of 60% compared to other traditional instructions (Kapp n.d, p.1). Furthermore, the retention rate in the use of e-learning programs is considered to be as high as over 50%, thereby making it the most effective and preferred mode of teaching at the universities. Consistency is a major benefit associated with the use of e-learning programs since a well connected LMS and LCMS facilitates the availability of content and the integration of other programs which support the sustenance and availability of learning materials over the internet (Willis & Bowles 2009). Time is saved when a student is taught through e-learning programs thus rendering it cost effective. This can be supported by Kapp (n.d, p.3) who adds that past studies show that subjects covered through e-learning and online environments use 40 to 60 percent less time compared with the traditional classroom environment. This is because the traditional classroom environment is prone to administrative details, students’ interruptions, and distractions from breaks which are not present in an online environment. Aboulfaraj et al. (2009, p.4) notes that e-learning allows the use of the online services that helps to save time without affecting the benefits derived from the learned materials.

Students under e-learning are more likely to perform better compared to those on traditional classroom setting. This is because it offers more personalized instructions and a student can easily interact with their tutor and ask any question compared to a traditional class environment that is often overcrowded (Aboulfaraj et al. 2009, p.4). Alwi and Fan (2010, p. 150) note that advances in information technology offers students a platform that enable them to learn from anywhere. The concept of its availability at anytime eliminates the problems associated with distance. In addition, the use of technology in higher learning improve access to education, quality of education, and costs associated with education thus enhancing cost-effectiveness in education sector (Alwi and Fan (2010, p. 150).

E-learning has the capacity of ensuring that students save on transport cost as well as the cost of purchasing reading materials. This is because all the necessary reading materials are available online (Alwi and Fan (2010, p. 150). Students can also save on printing costs. In addition, e-learning increases access to learning materials. Since all reading materials are offered on an internet platform, it is possible to eliminate barriers associated with socio-economic status, distance, and time since learners are able to take charge of their learning (Wills & Bowles 2009). Using of the latest technology, it is possible to enhance communication links between students, lecturers and their peers as well. This enhances two- way communication between students and instructors thus increasing its reliability, dependability and consistency in disseminating information.

Through the use of e-learning, assessments and coursework are easily delivered. This can been attributed to the fact that instructors/lectures can easily give feedback compared to the traditional method that takes a lot of time (Alwi and Fan (2010, p. 151). In addition, students can contribute to feedback thus increasing their participation towards e-learning. E-learning is a flexible mode of learning compared to the traditional mode of learning. This is because students can have arrangements with instructors on when to undertake their classes. It is also learner centred, well designed, interactive, easily accessible, efficient, and the e-learning environment is well managed and facilitated. The implication made is that embracing e-learning is cost effective compared to the traditional mode of learning. According to Abouzahra (2011), e-learning uses ICT which has the capability to improve the educational process as well as increasing the interaction between teaching staff and students. Alghamdi (2012) notes that the use of e-learning improves the access of education by students whose health might be compromised. Moreover, it makes it possible to access education at the comfort of your home thus reducing the challenge of geographical location.

Summary of Literature Review

Based on the literature review, different theories as discussed on the importance of determining the benefits, costs, and risks associated with the implementation and delivery of e-learning programs in Saudi Arabia universities. Some of these theories such as IRT, constructivism learning theory, psychological theory, and map learning theories are vital. Costs, security, cultural beliefs and operation risks have been found to be some of the major risks associated with either implementation or delivery of e-learning programs. They can be countered through the use of technical countermeasures, proper management, awareness creation as well as subsidizing the internet broadband charges. Lastly, some of the benefits associated with the use of e-learning include cost effectiveness, consistency, saving time, better performance, and presence of well designed and facilitated e-learning environment.

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