Education is one of the priorities of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. They have formulated the six goals of Education for All (EFA), which aims to provide quality education to all around the world by the year 2015. The sixth goal of this program is to improve the quality of education. It calls for improvements in all aspects of education, targeting a scenario where all people are provided with opportunities to achieve academic excellence (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2010).
Online courses were designed and developed at a university in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In line with the UNESCO goal, online learning can provide a number of benefits in this conservative Islamic society. Besides the normal benefits that are associated with online learning, such as flexibility of study for students in terms of time and place, there are some which are specific to this region. These benefits include providing an opportunity for all girls to obtain a tertiary education. Currently girls that do not live within commuting distance of an institution cannot participate in tertiary studies as they are not permitted to be away from home unless in the company of a family member. Another benefit is that both males and females could study online courses offered by overseas institutions if they had the necessary skills to participate in this mode of study. Other reasons include those that motivated our university to offer such courses. The university wanted the capability of being able to run courses that had small enrolments without incurring high costs and staffing issues. Currently courses that have small enrolments are cancelled unless they are absolutely essential. Additional cost is incurred due to the fact that courses have to be offered separately to males and females because of segregation protocol. Another reason was that the university wanted to be able to offer increased flexibility to the students in terms of their schedule.
The writer was involved in the implementation of one of the two courses that were offered in this mode. This was the first time for the university to deliver a course in an online mode. The course was in Business and it was taken by students studying for a diploma or degree. Of the 26 students that enrolled 16 were male and 10 were female; their age range was 20-35 years and they were all from the local region. English, the language of instruction, is their second language. While their ability in speaking English is reasonably good, their ability in reading and writing the language is less than desirable for university level studies. Within a short time of commencement of the course the students manifested negative reactions and requested classroom instruction instead. The university acceded and provided supplementary instruction.
The students discussed their grievances with the writer concerning the online mode of study. The writer discussed the issue with local educators to gain further insights into the problem. Additionally a survey was conducted among the students querying them on their perceptions of the course. The survey showed that, without exception, all students were negative towards the online version of the course.
A number of reasons were ascertained for the students' dislike of online learning. According to culture and tradition teachers hold an important position in Middle East society. They believe that the teacher should be physically present to instruct and guide them. Oral instruction was very important to them and the students wanted the written information explained to them verbally. The student felt that there was more reading involved in an online course than they would do in a classroom based course. They said that their competency in English was not adequate for them to work on their own - they needed the teacher to explain things to them. The students also preferred to work together with the physical presence of each other. They disliked working on their own. The students had no skills in independent learning and had a low level of critical thinking ability. They were unable to cope with any constructivist type activities and wanted the information to be presented in a manner that they could memorize.
It may be seen from the reasons given above that the students clearly disapproved of learning in an online mode. However, various studies in other parts of the world have shown that online learning can have numerous academic advantages such as enhancing faculty-student communication, enabling student-centered approaches, and accessibility of materials (Dwyer, Barbieri & Doerr, 1995).
In order to address the problems faced in implementing online learning among students in the Middle East this paper presents a critical literature review of previous research related to the problems of encouraging participation in online learning. The objective of this paper is to generate recommendations on what research should be conducted as well as strategies to be implemented in order to promote the participation of students in online learning. This work also aims to explain the reasons given by the students on why they disproved of online learning.
Review of Literature
In his book entitled "What's really wrong with the Middle East", Whitaker (2009) discussed issues with the educational systems in the Middle East. He pointed out that the main problem is that students were taught to learn through memorization. Rote learning is the typical style in the Middle East. This is a well recognized problem with the educational system in the UAE and has been the subject of numerous reports. This rote learning approach typically leads to students having limited independent learning and critical thinking abilities.
The university students disliked any constructivist type activities in the online mode. This may be attributed to the fact that they are used to the memorization style of learning and thus have difficulty with any activity that involves construction of knowledge.
Rabab'ah, G. (2003) in his review work on the issue of English as a second language in the Middle East discussed the difficulties that Arab learners face. He described competency levels and their implication for teaching and learning. His work indicated that students' competency may not be at a level that allows them to fully gain the benefit of a course. This work supports the reason given by the students that they found the online course too difficult because English was their second language.
Shryock, A. (1997), in his book on Middle Eastern societies, describes "oral tradition" and the abilities of the people to retain and transfer information orally. These abilities with spoken words may support the reason given by the students that they wanted to hear verbal explanations.
Dirani and Yoon (2009) conducted a study of online learning at a university in Jordan. They explored the factors that affected the quality of an open distance learning program that was being offered by the Information Technology and Computing Department. They pointed out that online learning is still a new concept in the Arab world. The study mentioned a number of issues regarding the program. One of the issues was the low public esteem towards online learning. This was because of the skepticism that the public has for this form of learning. The researchers also identified the students' lack of independent learning skills and the desire of students to be "spoon-fed" as major challenges that are being faced by the program.
A case study was conducted by Patronis (2005) which investigated the motivational forces as well as barriers to learners' participation in an online environment. The researcher made use of an online forum as the means for engaging in useful interaction among learners. Forty-eight freshmen students from a UAE university participated in the study. The results of the case study showed that motivation among online learners can be enhanced through human interaction, wherein the student is able to perceive the teacher in their online courses, using tools such as webcams. Patronis (2005) also suggested that a successful online course takes into consideration the design of instruction and the means of delivery that facilitates effective peer and instructor's interactions as well as promote communication among the students.
Vrazalic, MacGregor, Behl and Fitzgerald (2009) also studied the different barriers that could exist to online learning in the UAE. The findings of the study indicated significant barriers to student participation in online learning. One barrier is the language. Students prefer an online program that is in their own language. Students said that their online courses were stressful, complex, difficult, and uninteresting. Students also considered online learning difficult because it was so different from the usual learning environment of a typical classroom.
Selim (2004) conducted a study aimed at identifying the factors that contribute to the success and acceptance of online learning. A survey research method was used on a sample of 538 university students at a UAE university. The study focused on four categories of factors which were: instructor characteristics, student characteristics, technology and support. The most critical factor was determined to be "instructor's attitude towards interactive learning and teaching via e-learning technologies" (page 409). This factor, according to Selim (2004), is concerned with the students' perception of the instructor - his/her presence, his/her guidance, his/her help and assistance. This finding supports the students' reason that the presence of the instructor was essential to them.
Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves (2002) explored how the use of authentic activities can promote student engagement with the online learning environment. The researchers included a literature review which identified issues related to the need for students to willfully repel disbelief in order to fully engage in learning situations. The researchers stated that authentic settings have the capability to motivate and encourage learners to participate. They said that if such an authentic setting is provided to the students, they can become immersed and fully engaged in online learning.
Collaboration is considered an essential aspect of any learning environment and the inability to have physical collaboration was a reason that the students disliked online learning. Much research has been conducted on the question of collaboration in terms of how it may best be provided in an online environment. Curtis and Lawson (2001) explored collaborative online learning with the aim of investigating the extent to which collaborative learning could be observed with the use of students' textual interactions as they are exposed in an online environment. The researchers conducted the exploratory study with a sample of 24 students. The purpose of the research was to determine if collaboration can be effective in an online environment. The results of the study showed that collaboration can be effectively done even in an online environment. The researchers found certain common traits between the collaborative behaviors in the face-to-face scenarios and those of the online environments. However, the researchers also found significant differences between the environments. These differences included the lack of "challenge and explain" cycles of interaction.
Interaction and sense of presence are presented in many publications as issues of importance in online learning. Picciano (2002) examined the relationship between students' performance in a course and interaction and sense of presence. His results showed that interaction and performance did not have any significant relationship. However, Picciano (2002) emphasized that the success of a course is dependent on the nature of the student to student and student to faculty interaction.
Social presence was also the topic of research of Richardson and Swan (2003). The objective of their study was to examine social presence in online courses in relation to the students' perceived learning and satisfaction. Their study investigated 97 participants of online courses at a US university. The results of the study showed that students with high levels of overall perceptions of social presence also had high levels of perceived learning and satisfaction with the instructor. Overall, the perceptions of the students towards social presence contributed to the students' perceived learning. This suggests that learning environments where interaction is strongly promoted will enhance the students' learning experience.
Other research has examined an approach whereby traditional classroom teaching is combined with online learning thus providing a mixture of both. Such an approach, referred to as Blended Learning, may bring a number of benefits. Garrison and Kanuka (2004), in a discussion paper, examined the potential of blended learning to support deep and meaningful learning. After an evaluation of the potential of the blended learning approach they present an outline plan for its implementation. They concluded by saying that the approach has been proven to have significant potential to enhance both the effectiveness as well as the efficacy of students' learning experiences.
Rovai and Jordan (2004) defined blended learning as a hybrid of classroom and online learning and showed its benefits over typical classroom and pure online learning. They said that blended learning provided the conveniences of online courses without losing the traditional face-to-face contact. In their study, Rovai and Jordan (2004) used a causal-comparative design to investigate the relationship between the traditional classroom, blended, and full online environments. The participants consisted of 68 graduate students who were enrolled in three graduate-level education courses during the same semester. The researchers used an instrument - the Classroom Community Scale (Rovi, 2002) - to measure connectedness and learning in each of the three courses. Findings of the study revealed that blended courses produced a stronger sense of community among the students, compared to traditional classroom and full online learning.
Data Evaluation, Analysis and Interpretation
The writer found that there is a scarcity of research on issues related to online learning in the Middle East. This may be because online learning is still a new concept in this region of the world as stated by Dirani and Yoon (2009). Nevertheless, the literature that was found and analyzed provided substantial evidence to support the reasons for why the students disliked online learning.
Whitaker (2009) discussed the issues with education in the Middle East and said that the fundamental problem is rote-learning. This causes a lack of independent learning skills, a lack of critical thinking skills and a requirement for spoon-feeding by the teacher. This supports some of reasons why the students did not want to participate in the online learning course. The students wanted the physical presence of the teacher and they wanted to be given step-by-step instructions. The research by Dirani and Yoon (2009) further supported this. They found that students had a lack of independent learning skills and that they expected spoon-feeding. Further, they stated that there is a general skepticism towards this kind of learning, that is learning without the physical presence of a teacher, in the Middle East.
Rabab'ah (2003) discussed the issue of English as a second language for Arab students. He said that competency levels were frequently too low. This supports the students' complaint that their competency level in reading and writing English made the online environment more difficult than a classroom. They perceived that there was more reading to do in an online environment than in a classroom setting. This is further supported by the study of Vrazalic, MacGregor, Behl and Fitzgerald (2009) on the barriers for participation in online learning in a UAE university. They found that the English competency level of the students was one of the barriers. That study also found that students wanted the physical presence of the teacher.
The writing of Shryock (1997) discussed the oral tradition of Middle East societies. This may support the reason of the students that they needed to have verbal explanation of material.
Another reason for the lack of participation was that the students wanted the physical presence of their peers for collaboration in their studies. Research by Patronis (2005) and Selim (2007) examined the issue of collaboration and its importance in an online setting. Their findings supported the importance of collaboration and they suggested that for online learning to be successful there must be good communication between the students and between students and teacher. Patronis (2005) suggested the use of tools such as webcams. Selim (2007) found that the presence of the teacher in the online environment was one of the most critical factors in the success of the course.
Interaction and social presence was also the focus of studies by Curtis & Lawson (2001), Picciano (2002), and Richardson & Swan (2003). They have also pointed out the importance of social presence in collaborative work settings and they each suggested that effective online interaction enhances students' learning experiences.
In order to encourage participation in an online learning it is important that the environment be engaging. Herrington, Oliver & Reeves (2002) suggested that setting authentic activities was key to the development of an engaging environment. They stated that students must be able to relate to and believe in the activities.
Other researchers have studied the approach of blended learning which is a mix of traditional classroom teaching and online learning. Such an approach may provide significant benefits in a Middle East setting. Garrison & Kanuka (2004) explored blended learning and said that there was evidence that proved that blended learning could enhance students' learning experiences over that of either classroom learning or online learning. Rovia & Jordan (2004) found that blended learning produced a stronger sense of community among the students than either classroom or online modes of learning.
Students in the Middle East are generally lacking in the skills required to study in an online mode. One of the primary reasons for this is that students have been taught to learn by memorization in their primary and secondary education. Additionally there are other barriers to their participation such as their desire to have the teacher physically present and their desire to collaborate physically with their peers.
The Government of the UAE has embarked on an education reform program to tackle the issue of rote learning and to develop independent learning and critical thinking skills among students. Additionally they are introducing a program aimed at improving competence in English literacy.
The research has highlighted a number of factors crucial to the successful introduction of online learning in the Middle East. First and foremost is the teacher. In this society the role of the teacher is one of greater significance than in other parts of the world. Thus, the presence of the teacher is of paramount importance. Strategies must be followed that ensure that the teacher's presence is very apparent.
The ability to collaborate is very important. The students work closely together and need to feel a strong sense of community. Excellent facilities must be provided to accommodate interaction. Technologies such as webcams and other media transmission equipment can be used for communication between students and between students and teacher.
Activities in the course must be authentic and interesting to the students. This is important so as to motivate them to participate and engage with the environment.
Considering all the above the writer recommends the use of blended learning for the university students. Research has indicated that combining typical classroom and online approaches would produce a wider range of advantages compared to these approaches standing on their own. Moreover, the concepts regarding online learning are still new in this region. That is why it is important that students should not be abruptly exposed to this approach. Based on empirical data, providing blended learning to the students would promote the benefits of online learning without having to sacrifice the traditional way of students' learning, and yet again, without jeopardizing the quality of education provided to them. After they have accepted online learning concepts through blended learning, there can be a gradual transition towards pure online learning.
In relation to this recommendation it is suggested that longitudinal studies be conducted to explore the effect of such a transition scheme among students from year 1 to year 3. Students could be introduced to blended learning in their first year. Then there could be a gradual increase in online learning concepts until they have achieved full acceptance in their third year, at which time hopefully they could study a course in full online mode.
Finally, more Middle East studies should be conducted on issues in online learning in order to provide a richer pool of information on how this mode of study may be successfully implemented.