Jazan Province, Saudi Arabia
Since 2015 Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has been going through a civil war. After attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels escalated, reaching Saudi Arabian cities and the borders of neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with other Arab nations to fight back against the rebels upon request of the Yemeni government. The ongoing conflict caused some Southern frontier Saudi Arabian institutions to evacuate and suspend classes due to concern over student safety, Jazan University among them. This 52,380 student university quickly adapted to make sure their students of its border colleges would continue their education by studying online using Blackboard Learn and other e-Learning tools.
Jazan University is a young institution with over 22 campuses in the Jazan province, Saudi Arabia. Established in 2006, the university is located near the Yemeni border, on the coast of the Red Sea. Ten years ago, Jazan University started offering online and blended learning after the creation of the Deanship of e-Learning and Distance Learning, which was later merged with the IT department and was renamed the Deanship of e-Learning and Information Technology, serving all of the university’s campuses.
“The Deanship’s vision for digital education and learning is to be an effective means to achieve student success and to provide electronic services through smart, comprehensive and high-quality technology solutions,” says Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed Gashim, dean of e-Learning & Information Technology at Jazan University. According to Gashim, the optimal and thoughtful use of online learning and information technology can be employed to achieve the university’s strategic objectives, according to approved international quality standards.
Adopting Online Learning
As a high-volume university providing various educational programs via campuses scattered throughout different geographical regions along the province, Jazan’s enthusiasm in adopting online learning was motivated by two main arguments. The first reason is that online learning can help overcome challenges related to traditional education, such as increasing number of classes to faculty ratios, providing diversified educational experiences, teaching students with all abilities and needs, and giving access to education to those who live in distant, mountainous regions or islands.
The second reason is the belief that online learning can boost education improvement and development at the university, especially for the distance learning campuses. This is possible by enhancing the quality and equality of experiences offered to students, offering more flexibility and effectiveness in learning, providing better opportunities for student assessment and new assessment tools, and providing detailed, automated and documented information on the progress of the learning process, among others.
In order to achieve these goals, the Deanship uses various tools and features that fit the circumstances of different learning activities and needs. “We use various online learning tools according to a systemic approach in which the tools are integrated to achieve specific objectives,” Gashim explains.
Among the tools used at Jazan University are Blackboard Learn’s community engagement module, which helps the institution share student-specific information, relevant news and timely updates with families and community members and content management system, Blackboard Collaborate for web-conferencing, and the Blackboard App. These tools seamlessly integrate with the deanship’s key performance indicators (KPIs) in order to create a digital learning environment aimed to achieve the university’s set objectives.
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Education in Times of Conflict
When the conflict with Yemen started to threaten students’ safety in Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, two all-girls campuses near the region were instructed to evacuate until further notice. The university suspended regular face-to-face classes in the affected areas and decided to switch to online learning instead.
The Deanship of e-Learning and Information Technology was responsible for managing this transition for the Faculty of University Colleges, within the university’s Samta College in the 2016 – 2017 academic year, and for the Al-Arda College for Girls in 2017 – 2018.
According to Gashim, the main challenges with that transition were time constraints, the lack of training for both students and teachers, the diversity and number of programs and courses offered by those colleges, and the lack of digital content for those courses. Additionally, the university wanted students, parents and professors to perceive the programs and courses offered through online learning as useful and satisfactory.
Below is a comprehensive list of the actions Jazan University took to overcome these challenges:
- Opening multiple communication channels between the Deanship and the colleges.
- Developing new educational policies compatible with online learning.
- Providing the colleges with a set of 19 online courses prepared in advance by the Deanship, ready for immediate use.
- Implementing a set of special training courses for faculty staff members to equip them with the necessary skills to produce digital content.
- Developing executive plans via the Deanship’s e-courses department to increase production of outstanding digital courses in accordance with Deanship standards.
- Increasing the number of virtual classrooms for affected students to replace physical classrooms.
- Using other technological tools to increase offline communications and outreach educational resources, such as licensed texts and offline teaching videos, considering students and faculty members with limited or no internet access.
- Getting faculty members involved in accelerated implementations of e-Learning methodologies.
- Implementing a set of training courses for female students on the use of Blackboard’s digital learning environment.
- Providing permanent and continuous technical support with notes taken as formative assessments for training development.
- Holding a series of seminars and workshops about the benefits of online learning.
- Providing key performance indicators mentoring reports for stakeholders with formative and summative assessments and recommendations.
According to Gashim, investing in online learning technologies and training is a fundamental part of the institution’s strategy to improve its competitiveness. Being the dean of both Information Technology and e-Learning facilitates the efficient integration of knowledge and practice management with direct accessible technological tools operated under the Deanship. Therefore, many of the university’s goals related to education continuity were reflected on producing successful results for the colleges near the border.
This experience was extended and positively perceived by the other university colleges within the province. The results are already emerging: hundreds of faculty staff members have been effectively using technology resources and have been trained to integrate online learning into their teaching; several colleges are using blended learning to enhance learning activities and support students; and thousands of male and female students have received a bachelor’s degree through online learning in the recent years. As a result, the deanship was recognized by Jazan University’s president for its achievements and received an e-Learning award by the Ministry of Education.
Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed Gashim, Dean of e-Learning & Information Technology at Jazan University
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