A rapidly rising student population has resulted in growing pressure on educational infrastructure. One response to this challenge seen in other jurisdictions is an increase in the provision of e-learning, a diverse sub-sector that encompasses activities including web-based training and teaching systems, learning management software, discussion boards, computer-aided assessment, simulation and online conferencing. In Oman, e-learning services is at an early stage of its development, but a number of institutions have embraced the concept and developed capabilities in this increasingly prominent facet of the nation’s educational system.
Sultan Qaboos University (SQU)
As Oman’s premier higher-education establishment, it is not surprising that the state-run SQU is at the forefront of the adoption of technology in learning. Its efforts in this regard are spearheaded by the university’s Centre for Educational Technology (CET), the body that has historically charged with supporting teaching and learning through the provision of a range of centralised audio-visual services. More recently the CET has turned its attention to the field of e-learning, and taken on a support role for faculties in the development e-learning materials, training, consultancy and the provision of technical expertise.
The results of the CET’s efforts are visible throughout the university’s nine colleges. All SQU teaching rooms have been provided with internet connections, and faculty members are granted access to the popular online course management software package Moodle, which is installed on an SQU internet server and managed by the CET. The software platform represents the single largest factor in the rapid take-up of e-learning courses at the university over the past decade: SQU implemented its first e-learning “courseware” packages in 2001 and by the end of the year had established eight online courses with 981 users; by the autumn of 2010 online learning activity had expanded to 1400 courses and the enrolment of almost all of the 17,000-strong student body. The majority of these courses combine e-learning with face-to-face teaching, although some – such as a study skills course for first-year students – are administered completely online.
With a decade of e-learning activity behind it, SQU is in a good position to assess the effectiveness of its online learning programmes. Ali Sharaf Musawi and Ahmed Yousif Abdelraheem, associate professors in the university’s department of instructional and learning technologies, have published informal feedback which suggests that students are in general favourably disposed to the concept of e-learning, preferring it to traditional instruction in many cases. Respondents also cited concerns, however, in particular with regard to technical hitches, such as internet delays and other interruptions of service, and the difficulty of using onscreen materials when it comes to independent learning.
A Widening Sector
Recent years have seen the uptake of e-learning across the state-run higher education system. The Colleges of Applied Science, located in the nation’s regional cities, have all adopted e-learning technology, although in some cases services are offered a single point of entry model, usually located in the college library. On the vocational education side, the Higher College of Technology in Muscat has operated an e-learning portal for some years, through which it can also disseminate information to the country’s six technical colleges which offer programmes in similar areas.
The private sector, meanwhile, has been slower to adopt the concept of online courses, instead concentrating its efforts on providing online access to digital information for students.
The Caledonian College of Engineering, for example, grants its students access to global online content repositories via a number of platforms, including ProQuest, CRCnetBASE and SpringerLink. The seven private universities which have been established in Oman over the past decade offer similar services. Sohar University, the oldest such institution in the country, offers a number of online resources, including a subscription to Infotrac Gale/Thomson, which grants students access to works of reference, journals, newspapers and books 24 hours a day.
The University of Nizwa meanwhile, has adopted the same Moodle platform as SQU, to which students and teachers can log in from any location, as well as EduWave, the e-learning and educational management platform.
Dhofar University offers its students access to the multidisciplinary “e-brary”, journal archive JSTOR, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Muscat College has similarly inaugurated a “self-access centre”. The centre is equipped with a high-speed internet connection and includes a library, skill-based self-study e-books and exam-training software.
Sharqiyah University utilises EBSCO Publishing’s Colleges and Universities Package, which offers access to academic research across a wide range of disciplines. This includes more than 375 full-text and secondary research databases, as well as some 300,000 e-books and audiobooks.
The global, online solutions which many of Oman’s private sector educational institutions have turned to have enabled them to set up virtual libraries for their students far more efficiently than would have been possible even a half-decade or so ago.
Primary & Secondary Provision
The proliferation of e-learning activity is taking place at all levels of the education sector. While higher education colleges are breaking new ground with the expansion of online programmes and data access at the tertiary level, the Ministry of Education has likewise developed an online educational portal that is aimed at primary- and secondary-level students.
The platform is made up of two main components: the virtual classroom system and the self-learning system. The virtual classroom allows teachers and students to interact through sound, video, direct text and an electronic whiteboard. Users are able to participate directly in exercises through an application sharing tool, send and share files, watch video clips and PowerPoint presentations, propose written questions, take part in online surveys and browse the web under the teacher’s control.
The self-learning component, meanwhile, allows students to access web-based content independently of teachers, from any location and at any time of the day. The system allows students to learn at their own pace, but also provides a degree of oversight by tracking activity and data access information and maintaining it in a student record accessible to a tutor.
The increasing e-learning capacity within the education sector offers obvious advantages to the sultanate. The ability to offer educational services beyond the traditional campus-based model, for example, is especially useful to a population dispersed across a wide geographical area.
At a more practical level, the provision of e-learning services by educational institutions addresses a number of issues, such as those outlined by the University of Nizwa’s e-learning strategy. The private education provider enacted its e-learning programme as a response to five main challenges: overuse of photocopies as learning material; misused textbooks by students and faculty; the difficulty of establishing consistent, efficient course delivery; a lack of student engagement with their learning materials, facilitators and peers; and the desire to create “edgeless classrooms” by expanding course enrolment through the use of virtual classrooms.
Creating capacity for increasing student numbers while dispensing with the need for large infrastructure investment is of particular interest to Oman’s private sector educational institutions in particular, and a possible future phase of development in the sector will be the provision of distance learning courses or the increasing prevalence of programmes which combine face-to-face and online learning similar to those being utilised by the state-run SQU.
However, as online learning continues to expand in the domestic market, some concerns demand attention. The perception that e-learning courses are less effective than traditional programmes is common in developing e-learning markets, and still persists where the practice is more established. Universities in older and larger markets, such as the UK, are investing in multimillion-pound e-learning enterprises which provide tutor feedback to students through devices as small as mobile phones. Others, meanwhile, resist what they see as a potentially damaging trend towards off-campus education. E-learning in Oman has yet to reach this level of development, but as more private colleges and universities follow SQU down the online learning path the question of location with regard to education will become more pertinent. For now, early feedback from SQU suggests the concept is being received as positively there as it has been elsewhere.
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