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New Portal Will Help Bring “MOOCs” to the Arab World

AMMAN—The announcement this month of an online portal for education in Arabic has some in the region hopeful over its potential contribution to educational reform and others warning it will not be a panacea.

The Edraak portal, expected to become available in spring 2014, will offer millions of students a chance to access Arabic translations of select courses taught at top-tier universities such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Berkeley – for free.

“Our platform will present the Arab world with unique and vital opportunities that can be part of a necessary revolution in education and learning,” said Haifa Dia Al-Attia, chief executive of the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development in Jordan, which is creating the portal in partnership with edX, a Cambridge-based nonprofit online learning platform founded last year by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Others warn that such portals, the home of Massive Open Online Courses, or (MOOCs) are too new.

“It is important to understand that MOOCs are a model still at the experimental stage,” said Gihan Osman, an assistant professor at the graduate school of education at the American University in Cairo. “There are substantial reservations regarding their potential as a venue for quality education.”

MOOCs are designed to allow a single professor to teach a class of several thousand students. Some advocates say they could help solve a central problem at Arabic public universities: Teacher-student ratios that can reach as high as one professor to thousand students.

Still, MOOCs are controversial: Some fans say they are the future of higher education because they are free, flexible, collaborative and the best such courses are designed to ensure that students keep up. But detractors see MOOCs as the eventual downfall of universities, predicting they could force professors to become nothing more than glorified teaching assistants, making it easier for students to drop out from brick-and mortar institutions and forcing them out of business.

Queen Rania foundation officials hope its portal will help motivate Arab students to finish degrees leading to greater job opportunities. The founders are working with businesses to develop courses to equip Arab students with the skills needed to meet the demands of the labor market, Al‑Attia said.

The signing of the agreement by edx and Queen Rania Foundation

High undergraduate dropout rates, high unemployment among graduates and a lack of appropriate skills for the labor market are problems that are generally regarded as plaguing countries such as Egypt.

The new online platform will also allow the Arab world to take advantage of international interest in the region, proponents say.

“Arab professors and regional experts can use the platform to give courses in English about the region and its history,” said Al‑Attia. “This will help us in presenting our issues in our perspective to a global audience interested in our region.”

Foundation officials believe Edraak will help bridge a gap between the tremendous impact MOOCs are having in the English-speaking world and their modest use among Arabic-speakers.

The third annual EF English Proficiency Index, a report produced by a global language-training company that surveys 60 countries and was released last week, noted that most countries in the Middle East and North Africa region rank among the bottom third in their population’s English-language abilities.

News of the Arabic-language portal follows the launch of two other global MOOCs websites – XuetangX, in China, and France’s Université Numerique. But the new Arabic platform faces greater hurdles, some say, especially student access to computers and the Internet.

“Our challenges begin and do not end,” Nafez Dakkak, co-manager of Edraak said in an interview. “It is no secret to anyone that we are suffering from poor information network infrastructure in the region. Our platform is regional so we want to develop partnerships with organizations where students can use computers and get Internet service.”

The Middle East and Africa region, when viewed as a whole, still has a relatively low Internet penetration rates, expected to reach 17.4 percent of the population this year, according to projections by an independent NY-based market research organization, eMarketer.

Besides technical challenges, many Arab students are likely to dismiss the opportunities offered by MOOCs because of limited opportunities to get degrees. Changing that mentality will take time, Dakkak says.

“In a region where there is a high demand for university degrees, regardless of specialization and practical experience, spreading online education is also going to be a serious challenge,” Dakkak said. “When we view MOOCs as a means of obtaining an education that offers accessibility and flexibility rather than as courses leading to credentials, we can overcome our original hesitation over the perceived weaknesses of MOOCs.”

Also, there are cultural issues related to teaching and learning, say educators, due to the MOOC’s method of teaching, which relies on peer-facilitated discussions.

“Our education systems rely heavily on teacher-centered models,” said Aziza Ragai Ellozy, founding director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. “The majority of students from our region would be unprepared for lessons that diverge from that contributing to the already high percentage of MOOC dropouts.”

Still, Ellozy believes MOOCS could play an important role.

“Our system is in dire need of promoting, nurturing and cultivating the habits of a critical mind,” she said. “MOOCs promotingcritical thinking with an emphasis on conflict resolution would be my first choice.”

Osman says the portal might also draw in Arab educators to be more active in considering how best to shape courses for their students.

“That is why I am personally extremely excited about Queen Rania’s initiative,” said Osman. “First the translation of existing courses into Arabic and then the design of MOOCs by Arab experts in Arabic – this could help us focus on contextualizing the experiences, developing local expertise but also nurturing Arab knowledge-creators.”


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