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A Second Chance for Many Arab Students

CAIRO – Peter Riek, from South Sudan, can’t be late for his lecture. Today, his class will be filmed and streamed online to students across the Middle East – a high-tech aspect of Arab Open University, where students in seven countries are taught through a blend of campus-based and online learning.

“When I came here I didn’t know anything about computers,” Riek says, glad that has changed three years later through his course instruction.

But above all, Riek values the opportunity to get an education.

“I heard Arab Open University can admit anyone in the world,” says Riek, 24, who moved to Egypt in 2010 to go to university. “There is no discrimination for whomever applies. . . and also it’s private so there are no obstacles from the government in Egypt.”

Arab Open University offers invaluable opportunities for students like Riek, who have few prospects back home and may not otherwise have access to higher education.

But the Arab Open University faces many challenges in its quest to provide students a second chance. It has to overcome a belief by many academics, inside and outside the Arab world, that online instruction is inferior. The language of instruction, which is usually English, also limits the university’s reach. Many Arab students prefer learning in their native language or simply don’t know enough English to study in it.

Moreover, the university’s desire to be a pan-Arab institution is sometimes hampered by government unwillingness to acknowledge a degree earned in another country.  A student who earns an Arab Open University degree in Egypt, for example, will only get recognition for that degree in Egypt and the United Kingdom, where the affiliated Open University is based.

Nevertheless, the institution’s administrators and professors believe that they have created a worthwhile model.

“We are using all the tools available and this achieves better results at a lower cost,” said Nabil Kamil, who teaches computer science at the branch in Egypt. “That’s the whole idea.”

The university is a non-profit institution established in 2002 by Saudi Prince Talal Ibn Abdulaziz, president of the Arab Gulf Program for Development, which is based in Saudi Arabia and known as Agfund. To start Arab Open University, Agfund approached the U.K.-based Open University, which was identified as the most appropriate collaborator.

The Jordan campus of Arab Open University.

The Jordan campus of Arab Open University.

Arab Open University’s mission is to distribute knowledge and build expertise in Arab countries. Students can transfer between the institution’s branches, located in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, where the university has its headquarters. Classes and academic offerings across the region are the same with the exception of an education program, taught in Arabic and only offered at some branches. A new branch is expected to open in Sudan this September.

The majority of learning takes place online or through remote audio and visual methods, while a quarter takes place in the classroom – partly in response to Arab government requests for a “bricks and mortar” element to the education.

“E-learning is the new method and the most suitable method to reach many sectors in society,” said Moudi Al Homoud, rector of Arab Open University.

A core goal of the university is providing career prospects for students who did not previously complete their higher education for social or professional reasons. Take, for example, Amal Abu Rizk, a final-year student in Jordan, who married at an early age before receiving her degree. “Today, my daughters are studying in school and I’m at the university,” she said.

Students vary in social class, nationality, race, age and religion. “We target all categories of society: the disadvantaged, the females, the older people who are just getting back to school,” said Yara Abdallah, assistant director for administrative affairs at the Arab Open University campus in Lebanon. “I have mothers with babies dozing in class… I have young, fresh graduates from high school. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact in the classroom.”

The university’s Egypt branch draws many students from outside the country, including Somalia, Iraq, Algeria, Syria and other countries, who can’t easily enter public institutions.

“[Arab Open University’s] mission is so much about widening access because in a lot of Middle East countries, the existing non-private universities – the public universities – will only take nationals of that country,” said the Open University’s Lynne Orton, quality and partnerships manager at the Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships at the Open University.

When Arab public universities take foreigners, they will often charge them high fees.

“I was trying to apply to a Cairo public university but I didn’t succeed because there was a lot of money to pay,” said Riek, sitting inside the Arab Open University library on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital.

At Arab Open University, Riek pays as little as $1,100 each term. That level of fees is made possible through low-cost land leases by Arab governments, subsidies and Agfund donations.

In Lebanon, Older Students

The Lebanon campus of Arab Open University is situated in the neighborhood of Badaro, facing Beirut’s only major park, Horsh Beirut. Like other Arab Open University campuses, the Lebanese branch serves students who are older than those at many other universities. Eighteen percent of students at the campus are over 26 years old, according to Fairouz Sarkis, director of the Lebanon campus.

The campus is not glamorous, sitting in the middle of a busy intersection. But its location means people living both inside and outside Beirut can easily attend, and the administration is looking to open study centers across the country.

Many classes, however, are held on weekends and evenings, and students value the flexibility that schedule offers.

“I find it convenient for me time-wise and it’s not very expensive,” said Kassem El Houcheimi, 52, an orthopedic surgeon studying for his M.B.A. in Lebanon. On a recent afternoon, he was rushing from campus to work to conduct surgery.

The Arab Open University continues to be a partner of the U.K.’s Open University and uses Open University course materials with minor modifications. Typically, a student receives a package of printed material, audio-visual aids and, sometimes, compact discs. There is also an online learning management system where students can access tests and tutors.

A tutor at the Arab Open University, in Egypt. (Sarah Lynch)

A tutor at the Arab Open University, in Egypt. (Sarah Lynch)

At graduation, students are granted a dual degree from Arab Open University and the Open University. But the institutions are independent from each other, and different. More than 240,000 students attend The Open University while only 33,000 students attend Arab Open University, which still has a relatively limited curriculum.

Employment statistics suggest the institution’s blended learning method is effective. More than 50 percent of students graduating from the Lebanon branch are employed within three months, while nearly 90 percent have found a job after six months, according to Sarkis, the director there.

The employment track record of graduates at the Lebanese campus appears to point to success, but, in Lebanon, and elsewhere, the institution’s campuses face obstacles.

Technological standards in rural areas are not always advanced enough to serve the university’s online format. “We are working hard with each state to provide us with the needed infrastructure,” Al Homoud said.

In Lebanon, the information and communications technology program coordinator, Ahmad Fadlallah, said the real task is keeping students’ attention and maintaining quality given their time limitations, as students come from diverse environments and often switch between study and work.

“Having someone very old, and at the same time having others in the class of different ages – this in itself is a challenge that tutors have to deal with,” Fadlallah said.

Given the challenges, Arab Open University is only part way to reaching its original goals, like many institutions. But administrators are confident the university will grow, aiming to reach 40,000 students next year and providing more opportunities for students.

“We are happy to serve the next generation in the Arab world who have no means to a higher education,” Al Homoud said.

Sarah Lynch reported from Cairo, Emma Gatten from Beirut and Rasha Faek from Amman.


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