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The usage of Internet in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia commenced in the late 1990s. The Internet entered slowly the Islamic countries since it was considered a gateway to immoral materials and improper texts for the youth. The first adopters of the new technology were the universities which benefited from the access to the world network for educational purposes. The King Saud University, for example, has utilized the use of intranet by providing useful information to students concerning curriculum, upcoming conferences and access to the library database (Mirza, Abdulrahman).
The new technologies provide the unique possibility for e-learning as part of the active educational process. The higher education institutions in Saudi Arabia can use the e-learning resources to improve the quality of the delivered education. Collaborative e-learning has the advantage of being flexible for the learners and the tutor. It is also highly valuable for group work since there is the need of class discussions which can be done in online form. In this way, the members of the group would have enough time to rethink their position without the social pressure of the face to face contact.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the ability of the student to set the pace of the learning process. Thus the learner can realize the value of taking responsibility for his/her own improvement. In other words, e-learning trains the student to be proactive and take an essential part in the process of acquiring new skills. Different learning styles are also addressed by placing the emphasis on one's own pace of learning.
The benefits of e-learning can be experienced especially in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia. According to the Koran a woman cannot be seen without her veil by males except for her closer relatives. The male professors might experience difficulties from religious essence while teaching to female students. Although direct teaching was used before 1990, it is no longer the case. The problem is deepened by the lack of female instructors in higher education.
The most convenient way to address this problem is through e-learning. Technology might be put into practice in such cases. One example is the closed circuit television which is used by the instructor to deliver a lecture to female students who receive the information directly at the female campus. Another instance is the usage of telecommunications at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences. "The program is setup in a way such that a course is taught to both male and female students at the same time, with both lecture halls being within close proximity to one another. As a matter of fact, the male and female lecture halls are directly adjacent to one another. Each student has an individual client machine connected through a local area network to the instructor's PC" ( Mirza, 2007).
Still, e-learning might pose various problems to the tutor and the students. Although, it is highly interactive, it cuts the direct contact between the instructor and the students. It leads to inability to comprehend the material and misunderstanding of the true purpose of studying the particular subject. Good utilization of distance learning requires excellent knowledge of the used software and perfect computer literacy.
There are instructors and/or students who need more time to acquire the specific skills needed for the implementation of the e-learning. Another aspect of e-learning is the relative independence of the learning process which might be difficult to students with bad time-management habits. They would be intimidated by the progress of the others while not being able to set timetable for their own learning process. It is also essential for the educational body to provide a good Internet connection since the students might experience technical problems that would lower their overall performance in the long run.
Types of collaborative e-learning
There are different types of collaborative e-learning depending on the type of the technology used and the interactivity involved in the process. There is low-interactivity e-learning which involves the usage of Power Point presentations, e-books or podcasts. The moderate to high one is associated with interactive simulations and games. The high interaction e-learning is a virtual interaction between members of a group. It encompasses video conferences, discussion groups and blogging. Depending on the technology used in the process of e-learning there is a division between low-scale technologies and larger scale ones. The low scale technologies are HTML pages, e-books and webcasts while the other group consists of interactive tools and learning management system (Flexible Learning Website).
The most suitable type from the ones numerated is the e-learning method which satisfied the needs of the students both separately and as a group. The instructor should choose the form which fulfils the requirements of the learning process and at the same time leaves room for improvement by the students themselves.
Effective collaborative e-learning
Effective collaborative e-learning requires a set of conditions in order to function properly. These are group composition, task features and communication media. The group composition is highly important because it provides the basis for the work of the tutor. The members of the group possess qualities that differentiate them from each other. For example, they may differ in relation to gender, social status, level of intelligence and computer skills. In this sense each group is a heterogenic element. "Internet-based information and communication tools have a great potential with respect to heterogeneity: no infrastructure can better cross geographic, cultural and professional boundaries. Nevertheless, human beings have a natural trend to assemble with those who are the most similar to them" (The Global Development Research Center Website).
It is argued that the task features preset the interaction between the members of the group. Effective e-learning is achieved when the tasks are equally distributed and small groups within the big group are formed. In this way the members of the small subgroups can set the pace of their work by themselves. The character of the task might lead to further collaboration between the members of the group and aid the learning process. It is the tutor who defines the essence of the tasks and distributes them in accordance with the group's needs.
The communication media is also important for the successful tackling of the learning tasks. It is essential to choose the most suitable technical medium for the execution of the planned tasks. If the communication media is poor, it might result in problems for the students to involve in the active work.
Studies on collaborative e-learning
In the study Utilizing Distance Learning Technologies to Deliver Courses in a Segregated Educational Environment, Abdulrahman Mirza talks about the significant benefit of collaborative e-learning in Islamic countries. The study sample consists mainly of health degree holders in King Saud bin Abdulaziz University of Health Sciences -16 female and 9 male which makes 25 people altogether. The IT students who participated in the study had worked in the health industry. 55 questions related to previous distance learning experience have been included in the study. Most of the students claimed that they had a mixed-gender experience at a certain level of their academic career. Female students complained about the quality of teaching as a result of the new technology.
25% of the females felt uncomfortable while speaking through a phone or a microphone. A significant part of the female participants in the study, 98%, agreed that it would be more useful to have a face-to-face contact with their instructor. The study concludes that it is unusual for women in conservative society to prefer close contact with tutor from the opposite sex. Still, the employment in health organization together with education in mixed environment explains this result. It is also obvious that the majority of female students do not favor e-learning in this particular case. This group sees the absence of the tutor as an obstacle to proper comprehension of the learning material. In comparison to the females, the male students do not view the physical presence of the instructor as a vital part of the educational process (Mirza, 2007).
Another useful study on e-learning is the one conducted at the University of Mansoura in Egypt. Ahmed Wahab discusses the advantages of using the new technology as part of the learning process. The target group of the study was first year students from the Business department. The author was their tutor in Management and used blogging besides the paper outlines and the material presented during the classes. Students had the chance to ask questions by using the blog of their tutor and the whole activity was on a voluntary basis. 258 students participated in the study of Ahmed Wahab. The gender distribution was 104 male students and 154 female ones. The survey shows that a significant percentage of the participants-79.8%-had the intention of adopting e-learning.
Among the most important factors for adopting e-learning were a friendly interface and functionalities that would aid students' productivity. It seems that the students have recognized the need for e-learning as part of their curriculum. Still it is the responsibility of the university to provide the suitable medium for the proper execution of e-learning. The author of the study talks about learning tools such as WebCT and Moodle which provide students with the opportunity to access class material while at home. They can submit their homework online and receive tutor's evaluation the same way. The system is secured while providing for group discussions and interactive ways of completing a group task.
Ahmed Wahab concludes that a deeper research should be done that encompasses more universities in Egypt. Thus the overall inclination of Egypt students towards e-learning would be found out. In comparison with the study in King Saud bin Abdulaziz University of Health Sciences, this one does not focus on gender preferences (Wahab, Ahmed).
Factors affecting collaborative e-learning
Collaborative e-learning depends on several different factors-the technical medium, the tasks involved in the learning process and the tutor-student's ability to take advantage of the new technologies.
The technical medium is of great importance since it provides the framework for executing the given tasks. The used software should be introduced to the students beforehand. It will allow for more time for adaptation and increasing involvement in the learning process. Another idea is to make students test different programs. In the end a survey might be conducted assessing the most 'user friendly' software. This might differ from group to group depending on the personal preferences of the members. It is possible to try different programs in the very beginning in order to test group's ability to work coherently in the given technical environment.
The tasks involved in the learning process are crucial for the success of the e-learning approach. All tasks should be created in accordance with the technical capabilities of the used programs. Tasks should be distributed in an efficient way in order to stimulate discussion within the group. They should use the maximum of the technical tools while leaving room for creativity and innovation.
Another factor is the student-tutor ability to take advantage of the new technology and the good communication between them. The most efficient way of interaction is through strictly planned session online and adequate homework for better understanding of the already discussed concepts. The e-learning might be only in an online and interactive form or a combination of scheduled class meetings and online contribution
Talking about collaborative e-learning in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one should consider the educational tradition in the country as well as the social medium. Still it seems that the success of e-learning also depends on the type of university and the used educational policies. Although the society might be conservative, some groups of female students would want to experience the face-to-face tutoring. It is essential to realize that the e-learning might be combined with traditional in-class activities.
The e-learning would be a success story in Saudi Arabia since it suits the needs of the society by being less intrusive to female students in contrast to direct teaching by male instructors. Collaborative e-learning should answer the needs of the students and there is no general model which can describe the best practice.
It depends on the educational body to provide the technical medium while the tutors should be prepared in advance to use the new technology. The role of the students lies in the understanding of the new method as an upgrading tool in their academic career. The example from Egypt shows that there is general acceptance of the e-learning as an innovative way of studying. Still, time is needed for further development of e-learning in the countries from the Middle East. The development of e-learning in Saudi Arabia is impressive since the country has recently started introducing the Internet to its public. It has the financial resources and intellectual capabilities to carry out the process of e-learning's adoption. Each country is a special example of this process since it has unique social, religious and geopolitical features.