Blended Learning In Saudi Arabian Girls Secondary Schools Education Essay

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Abstract

Blended learning combines various forms of instructional technology, including videotape, CD-ROM and web-based training, with face-to-face, instructor-led training (Thorne, 2003). It makes use of pedagogical approaches to produce an optimal learning outcome (Dzakiria et al., 2006). This research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning in the new 'Smart Schools' project - an attempt to develop and improve learning through technology in girls' secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. The current research will evaluate the attitudes of students and school staff towards using technology and the cultural effects on the use of computers/laptops and the internet in bended learning settings. It will elucidate many of the pedagogical issues in the application of blended learning and the shape of the future "classroom" as well as relevant educational strategies towards improving education. The main question for this research is: What is the actuality of using blended learning to improve learning in Saudi Arabia? In addressing this question a variety of interrelated questions emerge, which, in turn, centre around the questions:

1. How do students and school staff view the process of learning in a blended-learning environment in Saudi Arabian Smart Schools?

The purpose of this question is to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning by investigating the attitudes and opinions of students, the teachers' interaction with them in the classroom and the attitudes of other staff towards blended learning. It also investigates the acceptability within Saudi culture of this type of learning when applied to different resources in and outside schools.

2) How is pedagogy in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools affected by blended learning?

The aim here is to evaluate the effectiveness of pedagogy in blended learning by identifying the most effective pedagogical strategies that are applied at the foundation stage to support the development of students' skills and knowledge.

This research adopts a qualitative, interpretive approach with supporting case study data as the chosen research methodology. Thus, the phenomenon of interest will be examined in its natural context, from the perspectives of students and teachers, using observation and interviews with school staff, providing a complementary perspective to the existing studies. The approach highlights some methodological implications of blended learning in specific schools, which contribute to the development of methods and practice in this field. This qualitative study reports in some detail the views and behaviour of secondary students and their teachers as they progress through their first year in a blended learning environment in Saudi Arabian Smart Schools.

Contents

Page

1

1.1

Introduction

Blended learning environment

5

5

2

2.1

2.2

2.3.

The Saudi Arabian context

General Education in Saudi Arabia

ICT culture in Saudi Arabia Education

Recent Educational Projects in Saudi Arabia

8

8

9

10

3.

3.1

Research problems and motivation

Research questions and their justifications

14

14

4.

4.1

4.2

4.3

Proposed methodology

Theoretical considerations

Data collection

Ethical approval

18

18

22

23

5.

Thesis chapters planned

24

6.

Timescale

25

7. Conclusion 26

References 27

Appendix A 31

1. Introduction

This report begins by introducing the problem area that the research attempts to address. It then examines briefly the background to education in Saudi Arabia in general and to the use of ICT in particular, placing in context the recent project with which the research is concerned. Additionally, it presents the aims and objectives of the study, and the initial plans for this research.

This research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning in the recent Smart Schools project, whose aim is to develop and improve learning through technology in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools. Blended learning is most simply defined as "the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning" (Heinze and Procter, 2004). The present section will highlight briefly the meaning of 'blended learning environment', within the context of my research.

1.1 Blended learning environments

"An appropriate environment is key both to safety and to effective learning and development" (DfES, 2006). The learning environment involves both people and the space in which students develop and learn. In an appropriate physical environment the learner will have opportunities to explore, learn and develop with the support of teachers and instructors (Standards, 2007). In light of this, it is recognised that learner outcomes and development will be affected by the different types of learning environment, including traditional, e-learning and blended learning environments.

Traditional learning: The traditional learning (TL) environment is defined as supporting face-to-face learning, which requires the presence of students and teachers in the same place at the same time. This environment allows students to interact with teachers and ask pertinent questions concerning their classes. Students also enjoy the ability to learn with others and to get to know their teachers. Another advantage of TL is that the students are able to work in study groups to achieve better results (Tsai and Machado, 2009). TL also has disadvantages; for instance, in the traditional classroom there are usually more than twenty students and only one teacher, so it is difficult for him or her to give individual attention or instruction to each student. In addition, time limitations mean that the teacher cannot use different learning styles or measure the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, nor indeed manage students' problems in some cases. Therefore, students in a TL environment are more likely to become bored and discouraged, or to display behaviour problems in the classroom. Some learners prefer to learn by visual means and others by auditory means, while yet others will learn better with a hands-on approach (Sciver, 2009).

E-learning is an alternative way to teach and learn. It employs new multimedia technologies and the internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services, as well as remote exchange and collaboration.

"E-learning is mostly associated with activities involving computers and interactive networks simultaneously. The computer does not need to be the central element of the activity or provide learning content. However, the computer and the network must hold a significant involvement in the learning activity" (Tsai and Machado, 2009).

E-learning opportunities are usually accessed via the internet, although other technologies such as CD-ROM are also used (Ministry of Education, 2004). Incorporating e-learning environments has been an area of growing interest, the aim of which has been to encourage the learner to become more engaged and motivated (NAIDU, 2006). However, there are criticisms of the implementation of e-learning. One of these is that e-learning can foster a sense of isolation, where participants miss the social and physical interaction that comes with attending a traditional classroom and lose the opportunity for informal learning in a social context (Heinze, 2008). Another disadvantage of e-learning is that students may feel unsupported while learning. Teachers are not always available to help the learner, so learners need to have the self-discipline to work independently without assistance. E-learners may also become bored with no interaction (Williamson and Smoak, 2005 ). Other drawbacks of e-learning compared with traditional learning are that it lacks communication with peers and teachers, risks work remaining uncompleted and does not allow for group interaction (Newman, 2004), while in face-to-face settings there is real and direct communication between teacher and students.

Given these differences and the respective advantages and drawbacks, there has been a move to combine e-learning in its various forms with traditional types of teaching and learning in an attempt to create more appropriate blended learning environments (Heilesen and Nielsen, 2004).

"The blended learning environment integrates the advantages of e-learning with some advantageous aspects of traditional methods, such as face-to-face interaction. Blended learning brings traditional physical classes with elements of virtual education together" (Finn & Bucceri, 2004, cited by (Akkoyunlu and Soylu, 2008).

"Blended learning environments [involve] the 'blending' of face-to-face, online, print-based and other media to create an overall learning environment for students" (McKenzie et al., 2008).

From the above discussions it is clear that blended learning is an evolving concept and that there are many issues related to learning methods, techniques, resources and delivery which need to be addressed in any specific context wherever it is being implemented. The present research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning in the Smart Schools project being implemented in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools. Before going into the details of my specific research questions, I would like to give glimpses of the education system in the Saudi Arabian context and the blended learning initiatives which are being promoted in Saudi Arabia.

2. The Saudi Arabian context

The main objectives of Saudi educational policy are to provide efficiently the education that best meets the needs of the country, whether religious (Islamic), economic (to produce people who participate in the country's development), social (to encourage good conduct) or political (to promote loyalty), and to eliminate illiteracy among Saudi adults (Higher Committe for Education, 1980). The religious roots of general education in Saudi Arabia have been explained as follows:

"Islam dictates that learning is an obligation for every Muslim, man and women. This obligation, which gives education the status of a religious duty, is the cornerstone of education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is the foundation upon which the state builds its educational responsibilities and in light of which the citizen performs duties towards himself, his community, and his religion. The roots of education in Saudi Arabia, therefore, go deep into the Islamic education which started in the mosques and led to the establishment of schools and universities around their pillars" (Al-Sallom, 1989).

The following section gives details of general education in Saudi Arabia.

2.1. General Education in Saudi Arabia

In general, Saudi schools aim to develop a social and academic atmosphere to give students a strong feeling of belonging, a pride in their school and a feeling that they are wanted and nurtured there (Al-Sallom, 1989) (Algamdi and Abd-Aljawaad, 2002). The Ministry of Education encourages teachers, staff and parents to work together as a team to provide the best possible school environment and to give students high morale and confidence (MOE, 2008a, Alhamed et al., 2004).

In Saudi Arabia, education for both boys and girls is administered by the Ministry of Education. General education comprises three stages: six years of primary school for children from the ages of 6 to 12 years, three years of intermediate study for children from 12 to 15 years and three years of secondary for students from 15 to 18 years (Planning, 2008) (Al-Sallom, 1989, Algamdi and Abd-Aljawaad, 2002). Obviously, each of these educational stages aims to achieve special objectives and purposes in order to fulfil the needs and the demands of the students at that stage. This can be seen more clearly in Table 1.

Table 1 : Education System in Saudi Arabia (Presley, 1984, Education and HR, 2008)

Level

Age Group

Preschool

3-6

Primary

6-12

Intermediate

12-15

Secondary

15-18

University

18-24

The first Saudi government school for girls was built in 1964 and by the end of 1990 there were girl's schools throughout the kingdom. Statistics for the academic year 2003-2004 show that 5 million students enrolled in Saudi schools, about half being female (MOE, 2008a, Al-Harir, 1987).

Today, the Saudi educational system consists of more than 24,000 schools and other educational and training institutions serving every citizen; this system provides students with free education, books and health services. As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz has often stressed how the young people of Saudi Arabia are the country's most valuable resource (MOE, 2008a).

The government continues to work to improve educational standards and this has been achieved by raising the quality of teacher training programmes, improving standards of evaluation for students and the growing use of educational technology. For instance, at the secondary level learning has been improved by the introduction of computer science into the curriculum (MOE, 2008a, Alhamed et al., 2004). The following section outlines the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in education and ICT culture in Saudi Arabia.

2.2 ICT culture in Saudi Arabian education

ICT has been taught in special advanced schools in Saudi Arabia since 1985, through three subjects: an introduction to computer sciences, systems programming and the use of information systems, and programming in BASIC. The success of the programme, supported by the Ministry of Education, led to the introduction in 1991 of computer studies as part of the curriculum in all boys' secondary schools and later in girls' schools (Al-Owaishek, 2001). Computer studies was to be a compulsory subject with two classes per week, lasting in total two hours. However, it should be noted that computer studies had already been included in the curriculum in public schools at primary, intermediate and secondary stages as an optional subject. Since 1999, the subjects being taught have been: computer applications, computer science, information technology, information and communication technology, and information systems. A range of computer training programmes has been prepared for teachers and students, i.e. everyone in all education sectors (MOE, 2008a)

This was the first stage of the use of computers in the Saudi educational system. The second stage saw some integration of computers in the teaching and learning of other subjects in the curriculum. This was related to the increased commitment by the Ministry to develop the infrastructure of information technology (IT) and its employment in education and learning (planning, 2007)

"There are still serious problems requiring prompt solutions. Some of the outstanding problems are the prevalence of widespread illiteracy, the imbalance between general education and technical education, and unfavourable environment factors affecting pupils' attitudes and achievement" (Al-Rasheed and Shaheen, 1987).

As a result of these government moves towards more integration of ICT in education, two further steps were taken: first, introducing IT as a compulsory subject in girls' schools and to the primary stage of education as of the 2003 academic year, and second, introduction of the National Project (Watani), which is concerned with the use of computers as educational technology.

2.3. Recent educational projects in Saudi Arabia

Another aspect of educational development in Saudi Arabia is the integration of technical planning, to make technical education an integral part of the curriculum and teaching, while focusing attention on providing techniques, sophisticated educational materials and multimedia equipment in the educational process. Thus, the MOE aims to provide students with the skills required to use computers in all areas of education and working life (MOE, 2008a).

The government's plans to spend 240 billion riyals (approximately £32 billion) on the establishment of the necessary technical infrastructure will provide a firm base for developing various aspects of the national economy, including the industrial and service sectors. Thus, the establishment of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) sits within the framework of an integrated project (Okaz, 2007) and is particularly relevant to the current research.

"Located along the Red Sea 50 miles north of Jeddah, KAUST aims to be a world class graduate research university that will support scientific discovery and human advancement. It is expected to open in September 2009" (KAUST, 2008).

The MOE has identified 39 steps to implement the plans of the King for the development of public education, which include curriculum development, training of teachers and improvements to the educational environment of more than five million students (Al-Shemary, 2007).

Accordingly, to further the plans for education development and improvement, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques decided to establish a learning development project called The King Abdullah Project for the Development of Public Education in selected secondary schools in different areas around Saudi Arabia (Al-Kinani, 2008a, Al-Kinani, 2008b, Tatweer, 2008, Alroomi, 2008). The general aim of this project is to develop the quality of education and technical organizations, to achieve better education and training and to improve outcomes. These can be achieved by mixing technology with traditional learning in secondary schools for both girls and boys (Alroomi, 2008, Al-Kinani, 2008a, Al-Kinani, 2008b, Tatweer, 2008). In secondary school, students study subjects more vocationally and require extensive education or specialized training in general knowledge to help them to adapt when taking a university place. Education has a special nature in secondary schools, because students will soon face the adolescence stage; therefore this stage demands that teachers give learners more guidance and support, and that they undertake extensive preparation (Algamdi and Abd-Aljawaad, 2002). The secondary stage, in common with other stages, has to fulfil the general objectives of education in Saudi Arabia, as well as those specified by the King for the development of public education, as follows:

To develop a comprehensive educational curriculum.

2- إعادة تأهيل المعلمين والمعلمات، وتهيئتهم لأداء مهامّهم التربويّة والتعليميّة بما يحقّق أهداف المناهج التعليميّة المطوّرة. To train, support and prepare teachers to deliver the various curricula to achieve the goals of education as developed nationally.

3- تحسين البيئة التعليمية وتأهيلها وتهيئتها لإدماج التقنية والنموذج الرقمي للمنهج؛ لتكون بيئة الفصل والمدرسة بيئة محفزة للتعلّم من أجل تحقيق مستوى أعلى من التحصيل والتدريب. To improve and configure the learning environment to integrate the technical curriculum; to ensure that the classroom and school environments stimulate learning in order to achieve a higher level of achievement and training.

4- تعزيز القدرات الذاتية والمهارية والإبداعية وتنمية المواهب والهوايات وإشباع الرغبات النفسية لدى الطلاب والطالبات، وتعميق المفاهيم والروابط الوطنيّة والاجتماعيّة من خلال الأنشطة غير الصفية بمختلف أنواعهاIIinihkhbjkb To encourage students' skills and self-development, in order to foster their talents, support them in their hobbies and satisfy their psychological needs, by understanding the concepts of national associations and social activities (Al-Kinani, 2008a, Al-Kinani, 2008b, Tatweer, 2008, Alroomi, 2008).

The above statements constitute the objectives of Smart secondary schools, to which the present research applies.

Smart Schools: Previously, in Saudi secondary schools, the focus on introducing computers had only one aspect, as a subject, ignoring the other very important aspect of introducing computers as tools, through the use of computer-assisted learning. Thus, there was no relationship between computer work and other subjects in the Saudi curriculum (Al-Rasheed and Shaheen, 1987), but as mentioned in the previous section, the authorities are now increasingly integrating ICT into the education system. According to the Ministry of Education, a range of computer and technology training programmes has been initiated for teachers and students, to disseminate science and knowledge and to eradicate illiteracy in all its forms. The Ministry of Education has established 27 technical education centres, which will provide educational methodology services and contribute to the development of instructional practice and the performance of teachers, thus improving the quality of the educational process. These centres promote the role of educational techniques and technical information in the communication field (MOE, 2008a).

The Saudi authorities have begun to apply blended learning in selected secondary schools as part of the Smart Schools project (Tatweer, 2008, MOE, 2008b, Al-Kinani, 2008a, Al-Kinani, 2008b). The purpose of this research is thus to study various aspects of blended learning that could improve teaching and learning through technology in girls' secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. It involves observations of the effectiveness of blended learning as reflected in students' experiences of using technology, which were correlated with their achievements in computer classes following the new plans of the Ministry of Education. In light of this, the following section will explain the research problems and the motivation for the study.

3. Research problems and motivation

This research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning in the new Smart Schools project. In order to try to develop and improve learning through technology in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools, it will evaluate the attitudes of students and the school staff towards using technology. This study will enhance our understanding of the cultural effects of the use of computers and the internet, and the acceptance of technology in schools. In research reported in my MSc dissertation, I investigated the cultural aspects of using computers and technology in Saudi girls' secondary schools and observed a positive attitude towards the use of technology in that particular environment (Bukhari, 2007).

3.1 Research questions and their justification

The main question for this research is: What is the actuality of using blended learning to improve learning in Saudi Arabia? In addressing this question a variety of interrelated questions emerge, which, in turn, centre around the questions:

1. How do students and school staff view the process of learning in a blended-learning environment in Saudi Arabian Smart Schools?

The process of learning involves the development of information literacy skills as an ongoing exploration which begins during the early school years and potentially continues throughout a lifetime (Laverty and Corinne, 2000). Moreover, there is a need to combine the main elements of traditional educational processes with modern up-to-date technology, allowing e-learning to be viewed as an equally valuable practice. To achieve this, learning should be perceived from the students' perspective (Oliver and Trigwell, 2005). There is also a need for further research that takes learners' views into consideration (Conole and Oliver, 2007). It is important when combining traditional learning with e-learning to promote student/teacher communication, so that students are not left without support. In addition, blended learning is a relatively new area; therefore, its cultural effects require careful attention and research from students, teachers and other educational professionals, as Mitchell and Honore have noted:

"E-learning is much more than software development and the delivery of a format. To win the hearts and minds of learners and tutors a clear e-learning strategy, organisation and culture is ultimately required" (Mitchell and Honore, 2007)

To perform this research I need to investigate the issues from the perspective of students, to examine the teachers' interaction with them in the classroom and to explore the attitudes of school staff towards blended learning in high schools in Saudi Arabia because of urban and rural factors and the complex mix of cultures. In addition, most relevant research to date, for example by (Garrison and Vaughan, 2008) and (Heilesen and Nielsen, 2004), has concerned universities or other higher education establishments and not secondary schools. Although e-learning tools are widely available, there are still practitioners who do not make effective use of them (Conole and Fill, 2005). Since these observations refer to e-learning in general, there is a need for research that is specifically related to the practice of blended learning applied to the context of Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi official made the following statement regarding the importance of examining the new project from the students' perspective:

"We want to have a very strong start, since this will affect the whole project. We don't want teachers and students to simply admire the project from afar, but we want students' guardians to interact with them closely on the project, which will change the face of education in Saudi Arabia" (Al-Kinani, 2008b).

In accordance with this declaration of intent, this question aims to investigate blended learning from the perspectives of students and of school staff, considering the 'cultural effects' on other educational organisations in particular, by proposing considerations for appropriate improvements to the environments in which blended learning occurs in Saudi Arabia. Thus, it is hoped that the new project will make constructive changes to create appropriate blended learning environments for the future.

2. How is pedagogy in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools affected by blended learning?

The first research question is concerned with the students' perspective and that of the school staff in the environment within which blended learning is applied in its first year. Therefore, it may be said to cover the learning aspect. The second question, by contrast, is concerned with the teaching side of the phenomenon, focusing on the fundamentals of pedagogy in the Smart Schools project. The term 'pedagogy' refers to the instructional techniques and strategies which enable learning to take place. It designates the interactive process between teacher and learner, including the provision of some aspects of the learning environment. Pedagogy is a general term used to denote a planned process of teaching which is based on specific assumptions about student learning (Britain and Liber, 2004). Teachers should now provide students with information sources, either in libraries or online, to allow them to carry on their own research, as the director of the Educational Training Department at the Taif General Directorate of Education said: "The new project aims to make students analyze and think to come up with solutions. A teacher's role will be to just monitor the class and distribute roles among learners" (MOE, 2008a).

This research seeks to develop a blended learning pedagogy by evaluating the materials and practices which have already been used with learners in order to see how learning may be enhanced with technology. According to Oliver and Trigwell, pedagogy is an important aspect of blended learning, as it is in traditional methods, because it is concerned with student learning (Oliver and Trigwell, 2005). The classroom and school environment which the Saudi project seeks to instil has been described as follows:

"Imagine that students are searching for a certain piece of information. The modernized classroom is divided into three groups. Group A is using computers to find that information, group B is reading books for the same purpose, and group C is writing what conclusions the two groups have found. This is what we want our students to do in their classrooms" (MOE, 2008a, Tatweer, 2008).

Pedagogy in secondary schools in Saudi Arabia is strongly influenced by the leadership, which might affect the adoption of blended learning, and by society; indeed, support from the government for teachers could stimulate positive cultural behaviour within society and a wider acceptance of blended learning (MOE, 2008a) (Algamdi and Abd-Aljawaad, 2002).

In light of this, this question aims to explore the potential pedagogic foundations for blended learning in Saudi Arabia.

The contribution of new knowledge made by the research is intended to be as follows:

It will evaluate the perspective of students and school staff during the first year of implementation of blended learning, to add to the knowledge of the practice of blended learning in the new Smart Schools project.

It will identify ways in which the blended learning environment influences learners and teachers through a range of issues associated with existing theories of technology, blended learning and pedagogy from different academic perspectives.

It will add to the knowledge of blended learning pedagogy in high schools (secondary schools).

Nevertheless, this research has limitations regarding its generalisation to different contexts such as traditional schools or boys' Smart Schools in Saudi Arabia. There is also a limitation inherent in the starting point of the research, because the study will be conducted in the second year after the adoption of blended learning and the researcher had no connection with the students or their teachers when they began learning and teaching in a blended learning environment. Thus, the initial perceptions of the process of learning in a blended-learning environment may be lost.

The research disciplines concerned are those of education and information systems.

4. Proposed methodology

4.1 Theoretical considerations

Research methodology means the procedures or the techniques used in doing a piece of research. In simple words methodology means the overall approach to the conduct of a research study. The role of the researcher is to discover things by collecting data from various sources, to investigate that data and to analyse it, keeping in mind the aims and objectives of the research. The particular way in which this is done constitutes the research methodology. Methodology refers to the theory of getting knowledge, to the consideration of the best ways, methods or procedures by which data that will provide the evidence basis for the construction of knowledge about whatever it is that is being researched is obtained. There can be various methodological approaches to a research study. Some of those commonly used in information systems studies are case study, action research and experimentation (Oates, 2005).

It is important to note that research methodology is not the same as research methods; a research methodology involves choosing which research methods to adopt. This report will not go into the detail of the terminology; the following example will serve to explain the difference between the two terms. A case study (methodology) may involve questionnaires, interviews and observation (methods). For the present research, case study has been chosen as the most appropriate methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning in different areas and schools in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to analyse deeply the phenomena that form the lifecycle of these units with a view to establishing generalisations about the wider population to which they belong (Cohen et al., 2007). The reasons for this choice will be clear at the conclusion of this section.

Research methods may be categorised as either qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative research methods, which were originally developed in the natural sciences to study natural phenomena, include survey methods, laboratory experiments, formal methods and numerical methods, while qualitative ones, which were developed in the social sciences to enable researchers to study social and cultural phenomena, include observation and participant observation (fieldwork), interviews and questionnaires, examination of documents and texts, and the recording of the researcher's own impressions and reactions (Myers, 2004).

According to Patton (cited by (Pepperell and Rubel, 2009), "The decision to use a qualitative methodology rather than a quantitative methodology stems from the researcher's question and population of study". Since qualitative research methods help researchers to understand people and the social and cultural contexts within which they live (Myers, 2004), this study adopts them as appropriate, because its aim is to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning from the perspective of the students, teachers and other staff in the school environment. It also aims to understand the effects of culture on the use of computers and the internet, and the acceptance of technology in schools.

An alternative categorisation sees all research as based on some underlying assumptions about what constitutes 'valid' research and which methods are appropriate; thus, qualitative research can be either positivist, interpretive or critical (see Figure 1). These three philosophical perspectives are explained in turn below.

Figure 1: Qualitative research (Myers, 2004)

Positivist research: The term qualitative research typically refers to methodological approaches that depend on non-quantitative (or non-statistical) modes of data collection and analysis. Qualitative research can be conducted within traditions that are positivistic as well as non-positivistic, which applies to a substantial body of research in social sciences, especially in management and organization studies (Bharadwaj, 2000). Research may also be termed positivist if there is evidence of formal propositions, quantifiable measures of variables, hypothesis testing and the drawing of inferences about a phenomenon from a representative sample to a stated population (Klein and Myers, 1999). For the most part, qualitative positivism adopts a relatively commonsensical and realist approach toward ontological and epistemological matters. Reality is assumed to be concrete, separate from the researcher and cognizable through the use of so-called objective methods of data collection. Hence, qualitative positivism may be seen as suffering from limitations similar to those that affect quantitative positivism (Prasad and Prasad, 2002). Commonly, the logical positivist philosophy assumes that science is objective, which has become the 'received view' in the philosophy of science. However, the positivist philosophy has several limitations in respect of the present study, especially when applied to social sciences, as it is based on the inductive statistical method and generalizes a universal statement of truth from observations of a certain number of positive instances. According to Leong, this approach is often inappropriate because the creation of a priori hypotheses is essential for systematic theory building (Bharadwaj, 2000). "Especially in social sciences, since observations are always subject to measurement errors, this approach is based on the notion of pure observation", as Anderson has noted, which is impossible in research in general and in this research in particular (Bharadwaj, 2000) (Myers, 2004). In addition, my background as a teacher requires me to contribute my knowledge through this research, in an attempt to enhance the learning and teaching process. By contrast, the positivist approach assumes that knowledge is derived from an objective interpretation of assumptions, without any of the subjective biases or a priori knowledge of the scientist coming into play (Bharadwaj, 2000, Myers, 2004). These factors make the positivist approach inappropriate for this research.

Interpretive research: "While research in information systems (IS) has traditionally been dominated by the positivist approach, the interpretive approach to IS research has in recent times gained significant attention" (Bharadwaj, 2000). According to Kaplan and Maxwell (1994), if it is assumed that our knowledge of reality is gained only through social constructions such as language, consciousness, shared meanings, documents, tools and other artefacts, IS research will be classified as interpretive, which is to say that it focuses on the complexity of human sense-making as the situation emerges and on understanding phenomena through the means that people assign to them (Myers, 2004). Interpretive methods of research in IS are "aimed at producing an understanding of the context of the information systems, and the process whereby the information system influences and is influenced by the context" (Klein and Myers, 1999). Moreover, the interpretive philosophy allows alternative models of reality because it is based on the belief of science. According to Peter and Olson (1983), the interpretive perspective emphasizes the importance of factors relevant to the research process, such as social interaction and influence among researchers, the idiosyncrasies of individual researchers and their subjective interpretations, for an understanding of how scientific knowledge develops(Peter and Olson 1983, cited by (Bharadwaj, 2000) (Prasad and Prasad, 2002). Thus, according to both Kuhn (1970) and Popper (1972), observations are always interpreted in the context of the researcher's knowledge and mental models. Moreover, interpretive researchers admit that their own knowledge claims are clearly a function of social, cultural and cognitive factors that impinge on their research (Peter and Olson 1983, cited by (Bharadwaj, 2000). Therefore, the interpretive approach is more suitable for the present research than positivism.

Critical research: The final philosophical perspective in this classification is one of social critique, assuming that social reality is historically constituted and that it is produced and reproduced by people. To make this possible, critical researchers assume that people can act consciously to change their social and economic conditions. They do, however, recognize that humans' ability to improve their conditions is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination, as well as natural laws and resource limitations (Myers, 2004).

Finally, the choice of the paradigm most relevant to addressing the research questions set out above had to consider that the study is mainly concerned with how certain events took place. Obviously, the interpretive paradigm is the most appropriate option, since the research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the blended learning environment, making it the most realistic for answering my research questions. Within this philosophical approach, there are various qualitative research methods, as pointed out earlier, the choice of which will influence the way in which the researcher collects data. Specific research methods, such as action research, case study research, ethnography and grounded theory, also involve different skills, assumptions and research practices (Myers, 2004). The choice made for the present research is that of the case study methodology, using the methods of questionnaires, interviews and observation.

4.2 Data collection

Each of the research methods discussed above uses one or more techniques for collecting empirical data (many qualitative researchers prefer the term 'empirical materials', since most qualitative data is non-numeric) (Myers, 2004). These techniques include questionnaires, interviews and observational techniques. In the present study, the methods of data collection will be questionnaires, semi-structured interviews and observation. The reasons for choosing these methods is outlined here and will be justified in greater depth later, in the methodology chapter.

Questionnaires serve the purpose of gathering background information about students, such as their past experiences with e-learning, their computing expertise and their early expectations, which will help in the interpretation of their initial attitudes towards blended learning. I will also pilot the questionnaire to my colleagues before distributing it to the participants, to make sure that others understand the meaning of each question correctly.

There are different types of interviews: structured, semi-structured and unstructured. I intend to use semi-structured interviews as a method for the collection of qualitative data, because this format will allow me to expand on standard questions and explore each interviewee's point of view, while investigating trends and broader issues more thoroughly (Weijun, 2008, Smith and Southerland, 1994, Zhang, 2006).

According to Patton (2003) observation is a fieldwork technique generating descriptions of activities, interpersonal interactions, organizational or community processes, or any other aspect of observable human experience. There are two types: quantitative and qualitative observation. This study will use qualitative observation because it will be conducted in a natural setting where the researcher seeks to interpret the social interactions in a blended learning environment.

4.3 Ethical approval

I have received ethical approval to conduct data collection from the University of Salford Ethical Approval Committee (see Appendix A) and am currently waiting for approval from the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia, where the actual fieldwork will take place; once this has been granted, data collection can begin.

5. Thesis chapters planned

In order to achieve its objectives, the present study:

Critically reviews a range of issues associated with existing theories of technology and blended learning concepts and examines pedagogic research adopting various academic perspectives (Chapter 2).

Selects a research methodology (research methods, data collection techniques) appropriate to information systems research (Chapter 3).

Reports and analyses the experiences of headmasters, teachers and students in girls' secondary schools in Saudi Arabia (Smart Schools) (Chapters 3 & 4).

Interprets the findings and makes some suggestions for solutions to facilitate the future application of blended learning in girls' secondary schools (Chapter 5).

6. Initial Timescale for my PhD

YEAR

2008

2009

2010

2011

Initial proposal

Literature search & review

Research methodology

Data collection (Saudi)

Data analysis

Thesis writing

Thesis submission & examination

As can be seen from the above table, the research project is on time. In addition to the general PhD learning process and related activities such as up-to-date learning agreement and progress reviews, I have also presented my work at the ISOS research group seminar session, attended the IRIS doctoral school and attended the Vitae Postgraduate Researchers in Education Conference (PRiE 2009). I have also attended a two-day NVivo QSR data analysis session held at the University of Salford. This research is on track and is planned to be submitted on time.

7. Conclusion

This report has reviewed the background to education in general and technology in particular in Saudi Arabia. It has also discussed the new Smart Schools project which is meant to develop and improve the standard of education in Saudi Arabia. Blended learning is new integrated approach being used currently in that country; meanwhile, many types of technology such as the internet, laptops, computers and smart blackboards are emerging in Saudi secondary schools to serve this new approach. The two main research questions for the current work are:

How do students and school staff view the process of learning in a blended-learning environment in Saudi Arabian Smart Schools?

How is pedagogy in Saudi Arabian girls' secondary schools affected by blended learning?

No research has so far been conducted to address these research questions. In the proposed study, I will also try to evaluate the perceptions of blended learning of students and teachers in girls' secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. I hope that the outcome of this study will help us to improve this important educational initiative. The pragmatic implications of blended learning will be of particular interest to practitioners and researchers in the area of learning technologies and techniques. It is hoped that my research will lead to a better understanding of delivery and learning in the blended learning initiatives of Saudi Arabia.

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