Photo Saleh Alsalamah, Blackboard Administrator at Saudi Electronic University

Saudi Electronic University: Exploring the Cultural Challenge of a Successful Analytics Implementation


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jun 13, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Blackboard Analytics helps colleges and universities globally to reduce student attrition and increase enrollment and engagement by extracting valuable insights from their existing data. Saleh Alsalamah has been working as a Blackboard Administrator at Saudi Electronic University for more than a year and is in charge of the implementation of Blackboard Analytics, as well as of building new reports according to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and requirements from the university’s deans and directors. He talked with Blackboard about the institution’s experience with the platform.

Saudi Electronic University (SEU) was founded as a government educational institution in 2011, by royal decree of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. From the outset, the university established a new learning model in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the implementation of blended learning, as most universities in the country use traditional learning models. SEU offers both undergraduate and graduate programs in four different colleges: College of Administration and Finance Sciences, College of Computation and Informatics, College of Health Sciences, and College of Science and Theoretical Studies.

The learning process at SEU occurs within an information-based environment, with the help of communications technology and distance education. Most of the teaching is done through e-learning, and the remaining via face-to-face classes. Most importantly, SEU has established a strong partnership with Blackboard and acquired the license for all government universities in Saudi Arabia. Since SEU is a fairly new university, few people knew about it when it first started. However, year by year, more people have been curious about the institution and its new learning model.

The implementation process has not been without its challenges. Aside from the expected technical issues that may arise when working with this kind of technology, there are some other deeper, more complex barriers. As Blackboard’s Vice President of Analytics, Mike Sharkey said, “A successful analytics implementation is a cultural challenge, not a technological one.” SEU’s case has not been the exception.

As several universities in Saudi Arabia make the transition to the blended learning model with increasing emphasis on e-learning, the main challenge for SEU, as for others, remains a cultural one. As Alsalamah puts it, “We have to explain to all Saudi citizens and residents about the tools we are using to make them realize that this is a global phenomenon and we are not the only ones using them.”

Efforts to promote the use of e-learning tools at SEU were put into action, as some instructors were having difficulties adapting to the new learning methods and tools. For example, some, instructors were leaving little to no activities on Blackboard, so the first step was to look at why they were not using the system and whether they were having difficulties. The next step was to provide assistance or training when needed, and the results from this initiative were quickly noticed as instructors started using the tools with great success. Training was carried out in two ways: through face-to-face sessions, and through online courses in Blackboard Learn. The materials were created to describe the tools available, along with best practices to use them effectively. Instructors were also taught how to use wikis, blogs, and journals in an e-learning environment to support their courses.

As to why SEU chose Blackboard Analytics, Alsalamah commented, “We have most of our efforts focused on e-learning, so we went with Blackboard Analytics because it was already integrated with our LMS, which is Blackboard Learn. Also, it has a lot of features to build new Analytics Reports, which are better when clear requirements have been set by the deans and SEU’s director.” The implementation process began more than a year ago, and SEU has taken advantage of the insights provided through the Analytics Reports ever since.

The accuracy of the requirements, along with the KPIs, make for better reports, which inform Alsalamah and SEU’s directors whether they are moving in the right direction. Currently, some of the reports that have been built have provided good results, while others, as expected, have shed some light on the urgency of corrective measures. In both cases, Blackboard Analytics is effectively helping the institution to make improvements across the board.

One key element of the success of Blackboard Analytics at SEU has been the Intervention Framework (IF). This framework is used to identify the rules for Blackboard Learn usage, as well as to provide effective instructor and student support. Faculty and students can describe their difficulties through IF and receive training to solve their doubts. All college chairmen have their own IF, which allows them to review results and make sure efforts are focused on achieving KPIs, as well as to track tool adoption by faculty and students and act according to the information provided. SEU’s director can review all instructor and student activities on a daily basis and plan the next steps. At the end of the month, he can extract the reports from the system and send them to all the deans, who are also happy to evaluate the different activities and solve issues.

This kind of framework improves interactivity between those involved in the learning process as well, as it allows the content to be reviewed and updated regularly. Instructors are happy with the tools and are constantly asking for more reports to be created so that they can improve in their activities.

Alsalamah shared that the impact of IF and Blackboard Analytics at the university can be divided into four main areas:

  1. Making effective and timely decisions
  2. Increasing student retention rates
  3. Enhancing cross contents
  4. Improving faculty performance 

Lastly, SEU has seen positive results in terms of student enrollment. For context, traditional universities in Saudi Arabia will accept students up to three to four years after graduating from high school, after which time, it becomes difficult to get accepted. SEU, however, is more flexible with students. In fact, in 2017, more than half of the students that applied had graduated the year before. This shows that SEU is doing a notable job at changing the country’s mindset towards e-learning methodologies.

Photos by: AFP – Abdallah Al-Shaikhi