Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 06, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
In a country where men and women are taught in separate classrooms from K-12 up to higher education, the use of online learning technologies can make a radical difference in building a stronger educational environment, especially benefiting female students. E-Learning Pioneers, a 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Award winner, is an initiative by Dr. Tahani Aldosemani at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University, in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, which aims to provide female students and faculty members increased access to the university’s learning environment in order to promote equal learning opportunities and inclusivity.
Since the 1960s, when education for females was officially introduced in Saudi Arabia’s education system, boys and girls have been gender segregated from primary school up to higher education. Universities in the country have separate colleges for males and females, and even instructors must be of the same gender as their students.1
This, along with women not having permission to drive in the country – the ban on female drivers was just recently lifted as of June 20182 – has made gender inequality a critical factor for women’s education in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the huge impact on the country’s education and economic development.
Luckily, online learning tools now offer critical support when it comes to bringing people together. E-Learning Pioneers is a Blackboard Catalyst Award winning initiative that empowers female instructors by training them to use different Blackboard tools, so they can in turn teach thousands of students online at the university’s women’s colleges.
“The original idea was to get the university’s instructors who were early adopters of Blackboard tools to train other instructors in their colleges. This way, more instructors could learn about e-learning platforms and tools and spread the knowledge to more female students,” says Dr. Tahani Aldosemani, vice-dean of Information Technology and Distance Education at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University.
The tradition of not allowing instructors to teach all students, regardless of gender, does not apply to classes taught through videoconference. This is key to the initiative’s success, as it allowed both male and female instructors from any of the university’s colleges to be trained and to teach online.
Another way E-Learning Pioneers has benefited women has to do with the ban on female drivers, as the university’s colleges are located in different regions throughout the country and online classes minimized the need for long commutes.
Since launching E-Learning Pioneers in 2017, 15 female instructors have participated in the six-week workshops. Each coordinator or trainee who received the original Blackboard training was able to transfer the knowledge onto other faculty members who could eventually pass it along to the students. So far, more than 3,000 female students have benefited from the initiative.
Besides learning how to use Blackboard tools such as Blackboard Learn to their full potential, training consisted of diverse topics such as online learning strategies, including online teaching, blended learning, flipped classrooms, microteaching strategies, and quality standards around online learning (Quality Matters).
“Faculty were able to dig deeper on what e-learning tools could do for their work, learning about features such as virtual classrooms, electronic exams, evaluation, discussion and groups management, the Saudi Digital Library, among others,” Dr. Aldosemani explains.
In addition, both faculty and students have learned about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which enable students to access e-courses provided by international online learning institutions such as edX, Coursera, MIT Online, and many more.
E-Learning Pioneers has also published and distributed digital and printed magazines to raise awareness of online learning solutions, and has even created infographics on these topics containing QR codes with direct links to MOOCs and other applications.
E-Learning Pioneers: Four Main Goals
1. To provide female students and faculty members, especially those who attend or work in faraway colleges, increased access to the university’s digital learning environment along with special support.
2. To raise awareness about Blackboard’s suite of products and their full usage potential, as well as other education technology tools, features and resources.
3. To increase the adoption of online learning solutions among female students and faculty members
4. To create an online learning culture that enables female students to benefit from the expertise of different instructors, regardless of gender.
The Role of Social Media in Engaging Participants
As Dr. Aldosemani recalls, the use of both WhatsApp and Twitter were instrumental in getting participants engaged with E-Learning Pioneers. “I personally used my Twitter account to celebrate and share what these pioneers were doing with the university community. The idea was to encourage them by posting pictures of what they were accomplishing,” the vice-dean recalls.
There were also three WhatsApp groups created to help participants exchange information about the initiative: one for administrators (college deans and vice-deans) to facilitate the work of E-Learning Pioneers staff members; one for IT staff to support participants with technical issues; and another one for initiative participants so they could share their experiences with their peers. “I also used the app to provide them with lots of encouragement and support,” says Dr. Aldosemani.
The Future of E-Learning Pioneers
Next year, according to the vice-dean, the idea is to spread the E-learning Pioneers initiative to the male colleges as well, as a way to provide those students with knowledge that is currently not available to them due to Saudi Arabia’s gender segregation rules. “We are very thankful and honored to be awarded with the Blackboard Catalyst Award and the idea is to move forward with the initiative to spread more e-learning initiatives throughout Saudi Arabia,” shares Dr. Aldosemani.
“I was approached by many female deans in Saudi Arabia who want to apply the same initiative at their universities. So, I feel the impact has extended beyond myself and Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University, and onto other institutions in the region as well. This has been a very empowering experience for me,” she concludes.
What Participants Have to Say About the Initiative
- “The training programs provided to us by the Information Technology and Distance Learning Deanship were excellent, as they equipped us with the necessary skills and knowledge to train others. I liked the practical aspect of training and the one-on-one training approach, as well as the effective training materials and portfolios. The constant support and encouragement we received always encouraged me to do more for my college and to implement new e-learning initiatives for students.” – Maraheb Alrashedi, instructional dsigner and e-learning specialist at PSAU’s Society College, in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia.
- “I started planning the college training program after attending the Deanship’s training programs and adapted it according to faculty and student strengths and weaknesses, which resulted in the implementation of a comprehensive training program. I rate the initiative as excellent in terms of the training program’s effectiveness, as well as the quality of both the training materials and the outreach training. I started training a limited number of trainees, and then increased the number of students after examining my training capabilities. They were trained in groups of five, and for each group I assigned a supervisor from a group of e-learning early adopters among faculty members to follow-up with the students and provide them with support whenever needed. I also encouraged them to send their questions or comments during the training sessions. Additionally, I asked trainees to answer some feedback questions on their satisfaction around the e-learning training programs.” – Salwa Hussain Ibrahim, Computer and Information Science instructor at PSAU’s College of Science and Humanitarians, Hotat Bani Tamim, Saudi Arabia (located 100 km away from Al Kharj)
- “I liked that the training program focused more on practice than theory, without intensive written materials. However, the teleconferencing aspect was not the best quality all the time and that was a challenge for me. I also appreciated that all the training materials and presentations were given to us, and that the training was provided by bottom-up management, rather than top-down. I found that communication with the deanship was excellent and that the chosen communication channels were effective. We used phone calls, WhatsApp, and direct communication as well.” – Sahar Eizidden, assistant professor of Curriculum and Instruction at PSAU’s College of Education, Wadi Al Dawasir, Saudi Arabia (located 500 km away from Al Kharj)
Photos by: AFP – Fayez Nureldine