Long before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) forced educational institutions to conduct learning via online tools, the importance of e-learning was being realized all around the world.

This is true in Saudi Arabia, where the demand for higher education has climbed by over 479 percent between 2005 and 2009. This is, in part, due to the increasing number of high school students seeking to pursue higher education. What does this have to do with e-learning? 

There is an estimated 5 million Saudi citizens between the ages of 15 and 24, which has created capacity pressure for higher education institutions in the kingdom. This results in crammed classrooms and a decline in the level of learning. Thus, Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education has been advocating the adoption and use of information and communications technology (ICTs) in education at all levels for quite some time. E-learning has been used as a complementary, and sometimes alternative, method of conducting classes and examinations over the years. 

Distance learning was first widely adopted in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s and further grew in size in the decades that followed with the expansion of the internet and technology. Early on, a closed-circuit television was used as a mode of e-learning, allowing the creation of a "oneway video network and a two-way audio network to address the problem of insufficient instructors in higher education institutions."

By 1996, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) established the Computer and Information Centre (CIC), providing a range of ICT services to schools and educational centers. 

Saudi Arabia's decades-long relationship with distance learning

Source: Arab News

In 2002, the General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVOT), a governmental body in Saudi Arabia, established an e-learning training and resources center. The latter provides an "e-library of more than 50,000 books and 3,000 training programs for lifelong learning."

And then in 2003, the e-Learning Centre, in the Deanship of Academic Development at King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), was established. It offered integrated access to online resources using web course tools, providing 80 courses in engineering, sciences, and industrial management, both in English and Arabic, through the OpenCourseWare Consortium. The latter is a global community of hundreds of higher education institutions and organizations committed to advancing OpenCourseWare and its impact on global education.

A few years later, Saudi Arabia set up the National Communication and Information Technology Plan in 2007 to integrate ICTs at all levels of learning, centering its focus on higher education. The kingdom has even partnered with tech giants like Microsoft and Google to establish certain programs that ease the move to online tools for students and teachers alike. 

One of the first universities to implement ICTs was King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals in 2003. Others that followed include King Khalid University in 2006, King Saud University (KSU) in 2007, and King Faisal University (KFU) in 2008. 

A decade ago, nearly 50 percent of the student and faculty population demonstrated "levels of dissatisfaction with e-learning, either in terms of content or method," citing problems with computer literacy. But that's changed over the past 10 years. Many schools and universities have since adopted blended strategies in the educational sector, using both online and offline tools and systems. 

"Integrated and remote education was one of the proposed plans before the spread of the coronavirus. The emergency events helped with its implementation despite the fact that some peripheral regions do not have the necessary components of a fast and effective communication," Noura Al-Marri, vice-chairperson of the Shoura Council's Educational Committee, told Arab News last month. 

E-learning in the age of COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia

Many of the e-developments that manifested during the novel coronavirus pandemic in Saudi Arabia are a case in point following the closure of schools to restrict the spread of the contagion. The Ministry of Education launched Vschool.sa to direct the workflow for virtual classrooms. 

During the COVID-19 outbreak, Ma'arif for Education and Training, one of the largest private school owners and operators in Saudi Arabia, proved successful with its distance learning tools. Over three days of e-learning sessions, Ma'arif's e-learning platforms witnessed the participation of nearly 15,000 students who attended 8,560 live sessions that took place online during school hours, according to Arab News. 

"With more than 48 years of experience in education and training, Ma'arif has been a trend-setter in introducing pioneering models of education," Mohamed Al-Arfaj, chief executive of Ma'arif for Education and Training, said.

"Our investment in information technology training and our focus on centers for developing life skills has been key to meeting the educational needs of students. The COVID-19 situation that led to schools being closed called for a bold, new and innovative approach to education, reflecting the aspirations of our community."

Growing digital infrastructure is key to successful e-learning systems

One of the major problems with e-learning in many countries in the Arab world is the lack of a proper digital infrastructure to support the process through and through. 

The quality of e-education available to students varies depending on the country where they're based. This is because "online education depends strongly on digital infrastructure, PC and Internet penetration, and connection costs, all of which vary hugely from one Arab country to another." 

Adeeb Al-Soby, an educational technology professor at King Saud University, reiterated this point in an interview with Arab News. 

"The learning process needs a strong Internet and modern devices such as mobile phones and iPads because remote learning requires effective learning platforms for video files, audio files, chats, shares and homework," Al-Soby said.  

The responsibility falls on communication companies who should seek to provide high-speed internet services, especially during such circumstances. 

"The kingdom is a leading country in this field as the Saudi Electronic University, King Saud University, King Abdul Aziz University, King Faisal University and many others have a complete remote-learning infrastructure," he added. 

Saudi Arabia's ICT Strategy 2019-2023 is proof that e-learning lies at the core of the kingdom's vision. It is a nationwide plan aimed at further developing the kingdom's digital infrastructure. The strategy seeks to attract leading international companies working in emerging technologies, to increase the share of local content in the IT sector and improve the technical skills of the relevant local workforce among other things.