Proposal for an Open University in the Arab World

DR. MUAIN H. JAMLAN, Associate Professor Department of Educational Technology University of Bahrain Bahrain In the recent years we have seen vast scientific and technological developments. There have been corresponding changes in the economical, social, scientific, cultural and educational aspects. To meet these changes, there must be a well-educated and ambitious society. To create this society, there must be new methods applied to solving daily problems. In education, innovative methods are required to deal with chronic problems preventing development of educational institutes. In addition, huge financial support is needed. Finally, there is more information and advanced technology to transfer it. We seek, therefore, good educational institutes that can accommodate these new knowledge riches and also provide access to it for learners. If we look at the Arab World, we find that although there are huge budgets and many efforts to upgrade higher educational institutes, there are still many problems to be solved and objectives to achieve. Student numbers continue to increase, yet many existing Arab universities cannot handle all the incoming graduates. Some Arab countries have built more institutions; other, poorer Arab countries could not do so. The problem is complicated by our universities' approach of academic specialization, for example, in humanities or science. There is a great need for such specialization, especially in skills crucial to the development of the Arab World. This problem touches the right of every man and woman to receive higher education. Learning is a right for everybody. Higher education needs are not limited only to school graduates, but also to workers who need to upgrade their job skills to advance their careers. They should be provided with everything new in their fields. Thus, there should be another way to meet societies' needs, desires and interests. Distance learning in higher education, and in particular, the open university, is that alternative. But before I present my proposal for the open university, let's look at the current situation of higher education in the Arab World and what is required from those institutes. Higher Education in the Arab World The higher education system in the Arab World is a classical model similar to those in the developed world. Higher education in the Arab World consists of teacher training institutes, technical institutes, community colleges and universities. University education is available in every country of the Arab World. Most offer academic degrees in various subjects starting from the first degree to post-graduate degrees. Graduates from these universities are qualified to work in sectors such as medicine, engineering, agriculture, law, education, etc. But Arab universities differ from each other in structure and specializations, making it difficult for students and faculty to exchange experiences. Most universities concentrate on academic purposes rather than society's needs. Technical institutes and community colleges, on the other hand, have strong contact with their nations' needs; they conduct research for industry, agriculture, social development, etc. A lack of meaningful contact and exchange between higher education institutions in the Arab World results in little to no readily available knowledge about each university's goals, offerings or activities. Each Arab World university has its own policy to decide its curricula and specialization, usually related to the needs of its country. Unfortunately, there is no such formal study that compares the curricula and specialization of all universities. In the university libraries, there is a duplication in both their work and contents. No strong cooperation exists and so an information network is needed to link them. In research and consultancy, universities do not often collaborate. Research is duplicated and there are rare occasions of consultancy. Also there is no joint supervision for research between universities. On the plus side, while still too rare, an exchange of academicians d'es happen between universities within one country. The last two decades has seen vast developments in Arab higher education. Available statistics about the Arab World show that the number of students enrolled in higher education institutes rose from 173,000 in 1960 to 442,000 in 1970 to 1,900,000 in 1984.1 Expenditure on higher education also increased, from $307 million in 1970 to $1,204 million in 1980.1 In spite of great financial support to higher education institutes, income is still too low compared with expenditures.2,3 So while there was a quantitative development, it was not necessarily qualitative. Table 1 shows that only a small percent of secondary-school graduates continue their education. One reason is that higher education institutes do not accept many students due to physical limitations -- there are just not enough seats or teachers. Table 1: Country & Year Students Students Staff No. of Higher in Secondary in Higher Ed. in Higher Ed Ed. Institutes Jordan 85 120,233 35,417 2,152 28 U.A.E. 85 18,177 8,496 (Y91)** 754 (Y91)** 9 Bahrain 84 14,051 2,569 (Y91)** 500 (Y91) ** 3 Tunisia 85 153,218 39,545 3,214 14 Algeria 85 423,502 9,778 23* Saudi Arabia 85 167,975 126,974 (Y92)** 8,081 (Y92)** 77 Sudan 84 116,125 35,596 14* Syria 85 254,501 158,703 5,782 4 Iraq 85 369,588 141,762 7,616 27* Oman 85 11,483 3,282 (Y92)** 377 (Y92) ** 1 Qatar 85 7,769 5,921 (Y92)** 561 (Y92)** 6 Kuwait 85 83,927 13,654 (Y91)** 922 (Y91)** 2* Lebanon 79 38,971 85,087 6,515 11* Libya 85 108,367 9 Egypt 78 928,244 485,664 22,760 19* Yemen 85 51,970 11,976 941 17 Morocco 83 312,199 105,658 3,505 29* See end of article for sources Source: ALECSO, Educational Statistical Yearbook for 1985/86 in The Arab World, Tunis, (in Arabic), 1988, pp. 276-277. * Alnamla, A. F., "Information Banks and the Arab Universities," Journal of the Arab Universities Union, Special Edition No. 2, Jordan: Amman (in Arabic), 1988, pp. 66-85. ** Arab Educational Office for the Gulf States, Universities Guide for the Arab Gulf States, Saudi Arabia: Riyadh, (in Arabic), 1993. Higher education institutes play a big role in developing technology, culture, etc. For this reason they should have close relationships with other sectors of society. The specializations of higher education -- technical, vocational and medical subjects -- were created to meet Arab countries' needs. Socially, higher education also plays an important role. Everybody who satisfies entry requirements is educated. In some Arab countries, the education is free; in others, students pay fees. In any case, higher education is available in most geographic regions, with some exceptions. Culturally, Arab higher education puts effort into developing a cultural movement as well. In economic terms, higher education offers opportunities for graduates to have better jobs. Arab nationals now work in their own countries in many fields. Some universities are also involved in joint projects with government and private sectors to develop industry, agriculture, etc. Yet it has not been enough; chronic problems persist. It can be concluded that the existing higher education institutes do not fulfill the needs of Arab societies. What Do We Mean by Distance Learning? Distance learning is part of open learning, a concept two decades old. Open learning can be defined as "any form of learning that is adapted to the varying needs of individual learners, especially in terms of their time, place, pace and topic of study."4 It can be argued that distance learning frees the learner from time and place, and meets his or her specific needs and interests. This kind of learning is administered by an organization often called an "open university." An open university is an educational institution with a different system, offering services via distance teaching and learning. Its students usually cannot attend regular universities for several reasons. The open university g'es to the students rather than having them come to it, through a multimedia system comprising TV, radio, printed materials and learning centres. In general, distance learning has advantages compared to conventional methods. Jevons states it offers: easier access, independent learning opportunities, a more intimate interface with employment, better quality control over course materials, possible cumulative improvement in pedagogic quality, better staff development and lower costs.5 Why Do We Need It in the Arab World? Distance learning in higher education has been introduced in countries such as the U.K. , U.S.A., Australia, France, Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, etc. These countries had their reasons. Arab nations have similar reasons: Millions of students are enrolled in Arab schools now and will graduate soon, but there is not enough room in higher education institutes. Plus, thousands of women cannot enter universities because of social and cultural prevention. Although thousands study abroad, the cost of such an education is high. An open university in the Arab World would minimize the cost of studying at home. There is already a big demand for university-qualified graduates, yet the space in universities is limited. We need to take advantage of the now-flying Arab Satellite; it could provide a wide range of information to higher education institutes, enable us to exchange experiences and also help unify curricula in the Arab World. Existing universities cannot accept employed workers and there are no programmes to help workers upgrade their skills. An open university would remedy this situation. Benefits to the Arab World When we apply the concept of the open university in the Arab World we expect that it would boast the following advantages: An open university has the capacity for large numbers of students. This will stop thousands of Arab students from studying in foreign countries. It reaches the students whenever and wherever they are, via technology. It offers equal higher education for all nationals without any discrimination against nationality or gender. Its cost is expected to be less than that of an existing university. Lower tuition fees bring the cost of higher education down to an affordable level for many. It gives students the chance to choose the subjects, materials and way they want to learn. This choice is rarely available in an ordinary university. It offers continuous education for people already working in different fields. The open university, as a new educational approach, is expected to solve many of the chronic educational problems we have suffered for a long time. The Big Three are: the large number of people interested in higher education; a heavy demand for university-qualified graduates; and education for women.6 A Concrete Plan for Establishment There have been previous attempts to establish an open university in Arab countries, such as AlQuds Open University for Palestinians. It started transmitting TV and radio programs in 1986, but it has limitations and is so far directed only at Palestinians. Other attempts failed without even being born, like the Open University for the Gulf States. In 1979, ALECSO studied the possibility of establishing one in Amman, Jordan; but it stayed an idea, no more. The last attempt was a joint project between Spain and Morocco in 1986 to establish a site in Morocco. Goals: The main purpose of an open university in the Arab World is to foster cooperation between Arab countries in the field of higher education and to develop their higher educational systems to cope with the modern world and its innovations. Structure and Administration: Figure 1 (below) outlines a suggested structure for the open university. The institution would have a main office in any Arab country and regional offices in others. The main office will plan and design curriculum; choose and create teaching materials; and handle the administrative work of finance, appointing staff, transmitting programmes, etc. Regional offices would follow up the work of the main office. They would register students, distribute learning materials, hold workshops and training sessions, exchange experience with local universities, run joint projects with local universities, etc. Learning centres would be created within regional offices. The open university could be launched in three stages. Planning: In this stage, the philosophy, aims, programmes and main and regional offices are determined. Representatives and experts from all Arab countries would participate in assigning priorities. Needs of each Arab country would be determined. Launching: A president and council of the university are appointed. Work starts on producing teaching materials; media will be chosen to transmit programmes. Technicians, administrators and distance education specialists would be assigned. Formal cooperation agreements with local universities would be signed. Evaluation: In this stage, the project would be evaluated to make sure all components of the university are available and ready. If evaluation is positive, the open university could start officially. Teaching Strategies and Curriculum Teaching and learning strategies in the open university depend on several basics. First is self-learning by students; they have to be internally motivated. Second is self-evaluation; students should evaluate their own work according to their professors' instructions. All the while, students would be able to turn to the regional offices whenever they need help with learning materials, exams, etc. Teaching strategies would not differ much from those in ordinary universities, but a wider range of methods and media would be used. These would include learning packages, TV programmes through open- and closed-circuit stations and satellites, radio, telephone, fax, video, slides, etc. The Arab Satellite should be fully exploited in the open university. As it has not been used much for educational purposes yet, this project is greatly anticipated. Usually all programmes are produced locally by the open university staff, but this would not prevent cooperation with regular universities. Students of the open university should attend pertinent seminars and workshops, held in regional offices, arranged by the learning centres. Curricula: The curricula of the open university would not be that much different from those of regular universities. It would consist of a mixture of theoretical and practical subjects. In general, features of the open university's curricula would include:7 Correlating objectives of training programmes with the needs of target populations. Making students and trainees aware of the goals and programmes offered. Content of the curriculum and training that is integrated with both theoretical and practical parts as well as connected to the university's goals. Curricula and training programmes introduced by multimedia. A significant role provided for the learner or trainee in planning, producing and evaluating their teaching and learning experiences. The use of both formative and summative evaluation and feedback to ensure that objectives were achieved. Two Tracks, All Students Two kinds of programmes are expected to be offered by the open university: Academic Programmes: These include arts, science, maths, humanities, educational studies, social studies, technology, etc. Normally these programmes lead to the first degree or even post-graduate degrees. Non-Academic Programmes: These include training sessions and workshops in different specializations, usually designed to upgrade skills in different fields or careers. These programmes might lead to an associated diploma or certificate. Students: The student population will comprise graduates of secondary schools from all Arab countries plus those working in government and private sectors. The university would require only a passing certificate from a secondary school, not a grade point average. The open university would have the right to accept or refuse any student according to the availability of seats in a programme. Tuition: Tuition fees would not be high. Target populations are those who could not attend regular universities because of cost (or gender), so tuition should be less than that of regular institutes. n Budgeting and Other Problems The open university would be financed by the governments of Arab countries, by their private sectors and other donations. Although we are ambitious to have a university for all Arab nationals without any limitations, there are some obstacles. Among theses problems are: Some Arab countries suffer from shortages of electricity and communication. Therefore television transmission and other technologies might be used selectively or not at all. Differences between policy, curricula, goals and programmes of higher education among Arab nations will make it difficult for the planners of the university to unify a system accepted by all countries. Not all programmes produced by the open university will be accepted by all Arab education planners. Time zones will make it difficult for the open university to transmit the same programme at the same time. A three-hour difference exists between east and west of the Arab World. Some Arab countries have recent satellite technology for transmitting and receiving programmes, whereas others do not. Students in less-developed regions, therefore, would be affected. Suggestions to Overcome Problems There must be political support from all Arab countries for the open university. It is for all Arab countries. Higher education planners should be convinced that the open university can achieve what other universities could not. It should be financed by all Arab nations. There should be cooperation between television and radio corporations in the Arab World to transmit the open university's programmes. Degrees and certificates awarded by the open university should be credited by all Arab countries. Summary I have presented an overview of higher education in the Arab World; it has major problems. Distance education -- and its varied technologies -- can be introduced to the Arab world to solve these problems. The open university for the Arab World is a suggested model. It can facilitate cooperation with existing universities and help achieve better-implemented development in the Arab world. n Muain Jamlan is the chairman of the Department of Educational Technology, in the College of Education, at the University of Bahrain, State of Bahrain. References: 1. Bu Btana, A., "Higher Education Modes Needed by the Arab World Till the Year 2000," Journal of the Arab Universities Union, Special Edition No. 2, Jordan:Amman (in Arabic), 1988, pp. 284-324. 2. Alomari, K., "Development of Higher Education Systems According to the Development Needs in the World," Journal of Arab Universities Union, No. 23, Jordan: Amman, (in Arabic), 1988, pp. 31-42. 3. Rahma, A., "Higher Education Development Policy in the Arab World: Its Aspects and Priorities," Higher Education Development Policy in the Arab World, ALECSO: Damascus, Arab Centre for Higher Education Research (in Arabic), 1985, pp. 27-48. 4 Burton, T., "Training Authors to Write Open Learning Materials," Aspects of Educational Technology, Vol. XX, London: Kogan, Page, 1987, pp. 28-34. 5. Jevons, F., "Distance Education and Campus-Based Education: Parity of Esteem," Distance Education the Mainstream, London: Croom Helm, 1987, pp. 12-23. 6. Alsaeed, M. M., "Why the Open University?" Journal of Arab Universities Union, Special Edition, No. 1, Jordan: Amman, (in Arabic) 1986, pp. 10-25. 7 Alkhawaldeh, M. M., "The Open University. A New Innovation and a National Response to Upgrade Education in the Arab World," Journal of the Arab Universities Union, Special Edition No. 1, Jordan:Amman, (in Arabic), 1986, pp. 43-60.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.