When Ahlam Al-Watban teaches botany as an assistant professor at King Saud University, she seeks to connect with her students by sharing her experiences and telling her personal story.
“What I try to do with my students is to inspire them, connect with them and serve as a role model for success,” Al-Watban said. “I share with them my experiences and my story to get them excited about what they’re studying and how they will apply this.”
But as technology continues to reshape the higher education landscape, Al-Watban says there is an ongoing need for faculty in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to learn more about how to engage their students online.
“Students don’t want to sit there and listen to a lecture. They’re bored,” Al-Watban said. “As faculty, we have all the IT support and tools, but we don’t know how to use them.
“We’re trying to make our students as highly educated as possible and we have the chance to raise the standards of our education so we can meet this goal,” she said. “But we need to motivate other faculty to embrace new technologies that will make learning more active.
“This is what we’re here to do.”
By “here,” Al-Watban is referring to the United States. She is one of several women faculty members from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who plan to spend the next year here participating in a year-long eLearning Pioneers Program. The program — being sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia — comes by way of a partnership between The Open Education Consortium and the National Center for E-Learning and Distance Learning in Saudi Arabia.
It is meant to equip female faculty and university leaders with skills in online and blended learning. Forty faculty are in the program. They will spend their time in placements at the College of the Canyons, The University of New Hampshire, The University of Massachusetts, Tufts University, and the University of California, Irvine.
They will meet with faculty and instructional staff to learn more about the best ways to use technology to help students learn. They will also discuss institutional strategy, faculty development and student-centered pedagogy. The goals of the program are to teach participants to do things that range from applying tools and knowledge to reach personal professional development goals to informing colleagues about best practices in using technology for teaching and learning.
The program also seeks to have faculty evaluate e-learning tools, approaches and outcomes and to “contextualize skills and knowledge gained through the program for implementation in Saudi Arabian higher education.”
“One of the important things about programs like this is the opportunity for people to get to know each other beyond the political impressions and stereotypes,” said Manal Al-Dahash, eLearning Pioneers Program Manager for the National Center for eLearning and Distance Learning.
“When we interact and share experiences, we not only learn about the subject we’re talking about, but we also learn about other people’s perspectives and experiences,” Al-Dahash said. “This helps everyone involved appreciate cultural differences.”
But there are often more similarities than differences.
“It’s important as educators that we are open to new experiences and not just new information so we can understand how and why certain practices are applied,” Al-Dahash said.
A program description says Saudi faculty will gain opportunities to incorporate U.S.-based pedagogy and strategies into their institutions to better educate the Saudi population of girls and women. Education is provided to males and females separately in Saudi Arabia.
Mary Lou Forward, executive director at the Open Education Consortium, said the program is more of an exchange of ideas than it is “training” in the classical sense.
“We aren’t teaching Saudi faculty how to do eLearning, but rather examining the ways that eLearning can be employed to reach both instructional and institutional goals,” Forward said. “Faculty and institutions in the US struggle with how to ‘do’ eLearning as educators do around the world.
“Collectively, though, we can share experiences and insights and refine educational approaches to ensure that education meets societal needs, whether in the U.S. or Saudi Arabia.”
Program participants are keenly aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
During her time in the United States thus far, Mona Alkhattabi, assistant professor at the Computer and Information Sciences College at Al-Imam Muhammed Ibn Saud Islamic University and vice dean of E-Learning and Distance Education, said she noticed that higher education in Saudi Arabia and the United States faces many of the same challenges.
“Mainly in change resistance, students’ attitudes and many other managerial issues,” Alkhattabi said. “I hope that I could influence my colleagues to consider infusing technology to support their students’ learning process. I also look forward to contribute in establishing a solid and sustainable managerial construction to enable and support good e-learning practices in my university.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.