ICT is viewed by the Omani government as essential to improving the quality of education. The Ministry of Education (MoE) employs a comprehensive set of recommendations for technology-assisted instruction across the entire national curriculum at all grades and levels of education.
First-cycle and second-cycle basic education – grades 1-4 and 5-10, respectively – incorporate high levels of integration of technology-assisted instruction supported by infrastructure, including basic hardware and internet connectivity. Learner-to-computer ratios are relatively low in Oman, at roughly 9:1, indicating that few children share a computer in primary and secondary school. Internet connectivity and access follow a similar pattern.
In higher education, schools have introduced blended learning and virtual classrooms as resource add-ons to traditional learning techniques. Students use electronic databases and take advantage of proprietary platforms offered by schools or institute affiliates to access additional resources, submit assignments and engage in telecollaboration.
School employees, too, are commonly provided with access to workshops focused on technology efficiencies. Training for primary-level teachers includes courses and workshops organised by the MoE and delivered either centrally or regionally, while secondary teachers of ICT, who have already had use of Microsoft Office and courses in computer science, are offered a cascading model of professional development courses, whereby regional core teams attend workshops in the capital and then return to the regions to pass on knowledge and skills.
The MoE has introduced relatively high rates of ICT access into the first 10 years of schooling in the country. Beginning in the first grade, students use computers to complete integrated learning tasks in learning resource centres. Online activities through the first cycle include exploration of new concepts, content-related games, practice exercises and reading comprehension.
Internet-assisted instruction is common at the primary level (71%) but is more frequently available in secondary schools (87%), where computers are used by teachers and/or pupils to present instructional material, perform tasks for learning, and help in selecting and accessing additional learning material.
In the second cycle of basic education, students begin to have more formal classes and access to computers is quadrupled. Students are not only encouraged to explore traditional personal productivity tools such as word processing, databases, spreadsheets and slideshows, but they are also encouraged to use laptop computers and LCD projectors to make presentations in the classroom.
In support of these objectives, the government and private school systems are increasingly turning to tablets as learning aids. In March 2016 the MoE signed a memorandum of understanding with Omantel to provide 3500 Huawei tablet devices for distribution to a number of schools across Oman. Private schools have also explored the option of providing tablets to students, and have occasionally met with public resistance from parents unwilling to pay annual fees charged for software and hardware upgrades. This was the case in 2014, when Indian School Muscat proposed providing tablets to students for a yearly charge of OR30 ($78).
Used in early grades, ICT in Oman is aimed at developing sophisticated communications skills and greater perspective. Young students are provided with the same educational software environment as students in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan and the US, building virtual worlds with software including Etoys and SIM Stories, for example. Older students learn to use programming language, create animations and design web pages. Use of telecollaboration also provides teachers with access to tools that aid communications and facilitate the exchange of ideas locally, regionally or worldwide.
In higher education, relatively young private institutions are focused on aligning curricula with the Omani government’s development plans, including focusing on technology, innovation and the creation of new jobs. E-learning companies such as Cloud Smart Learning Oman maintain positive relations with universities and colleges, offering services to educational institutions aimed at improving standards at a relatively low cost of investment.
At the Modern College of Business and Science (MCBS), the value ascribed to technology in the classroom is reflected in the number of full-time jobs set aside for technology manager positions. The MCBS is one of the first schools in Oman to introduce a mixture of online and in-classroom teaching known as blended learning. This is an essential part of the school’s English as a second language and MBA programmes. MCBS employs a turnkey, cloud-based learning solution called BlueQuill that was developed by its US affiliate, Franklin University.
The programme offers ways to share and deploy content across courses and applications, providing mobile learning options, useful learning analytics and a portal for students to submit assignments. Middle East College, the largest private college in the country, relies on ICT to facilitate communication in flipped classroom instructional models, delivering instructions online, and encouraging collaborative activities and concept work.
Many schools also outsource course management software developed by educational technology companies such as Blackboard in the US. These offer tools that can be used to implement blended learning solutions and develop a virtual classroom. They also offer options for a community and portal system for collaborative learning and web conferencing. “Omani students need to actively engage with international peers and colleagues in the university,” Anthony Cahalan, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, told OBG. “Whatever we can do to improve that communication – if its technology in the classroom, interactive student discussions using virtual learning systems – all of those things are part of the package.”
E-learning and ICT integration are particularly relevant in Oman given the importance of connectivity to less-developed, periphery areas of the country. Though the Ministry of Higher Education has stated that bachelor’s degrees cannot be offered online, some schools – including the Arab Open University – have been given exemptions from the government by offering a percentage of face-to-face presence in its open learning courses.
In vocational schools such as the National Automotive Higher Institute, administrators typically make available e-learning portals that require student engagement, for example, CDX software and IC3 online examinations. The main objective is to bridge the gap between the demands of job seekers and labour market requirements in the domestic market. E-learning has nevertheless met with only mixed success in vocational schools, with students slow to pick up the resource in favour of face-to-face instructions, suggests Lawrence Alva, CEO of National Training Institute (NTI), an Oman-based vocational training and employment solutions company acquired by UK-based Babcock International Group in 2014. NTI currently owns the franchise for the New Horizons computer learning centre, and has access to a dedicated Babcock company for e-learning called Skills to Learn, with many programmes tailored to the oil and gas industry. Another challenge to the adoption of ICT in Omani higher education is country restrictions on the use of voice over internet protocol to allow only calls hosted from servers in Oman. This prevents users from making calls from certain popular applications, and makes video conferencing challenging.
Education policy on ICT in Oman is aimed at the integration of knowledge, skills and values associated with computer use into all subject areas at all levels of education. The country is a regional leader in use of ICT in the classroom, maintaining abundant infrastructure for that purpose, including computers, computer laboratories, local area networks and ICT support services. Government policy has generally been successful in accomplishing objectives in basic education, and the use of e-learning in higher education is expanding to include virtual classrooms, libraries and specialised vocational software.
Pilot programmes funded by international organisations can be helpful, although general consensus among education sector administrators is that any programmes relying on external funds alone are unlikely to be sustainable beyond the commitment of initial start-up capital. Planning for ICT should be carried out in a responsible way, including a replacement policy for technology and the means to secure student buy-in to the use of e-learning services.
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