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Arab Universities and MOOCs: Cautious Cooperation

Hoping to learn a programming language without any financial cost or any need to stick to a certain schedule, Imad al-Din Nassar, an engineering student at Alexandria University’s Department of Production and Industrial Engineering, took a “massive open online course” on the topic in Arabic provided by Edraak, a MOOC platform.

“I have finished the first course. It was quick, pleasant, and not boring,” said Nassar. But he felt the training had some drawbacks.

“Evaluation questions were few and easy,” he said. Because the course completion certificates are issued in Arabic, he worried it might be an obstacle for including it in his resume when he applied for jobs with some foreign institutions.

“Studying in Arabic is better and easier for me,” said Nassar, “But I would rather have the certificate in English to help me find a job.” (Edraak says it will soon offer students a language choice for certificates.)

Today, Edraak, the largest Arabic online platform, has a million users and the second largest, Rwaq, has more than 600,000. (Users, or as Edraak calls them, “learners,” are defined as someone who signed up for an account.) Both platforms started up in 2013.

The Arabic MOOC platforms operate in an international context in which such online courses are often regarded as having already peaked in popularity. The term Massive Open Online Course was coined in 2008. The original idea was that such courses would be free and would reach thousands of students who would drive their own interaction with the course. One legendary MOOC on artificial intelligence, at Stanford University, was reported to have reached 160,000 students in 190 countries.

Shireen Yacoub, Edraak’s chief executive officer.

As MOOCs peaked, their popularity resulted in predictions that they would drive universities out of business.  Many Western universities rushed to join for-profit and nonprofit efforts to build and share online courses. But that craze has died down, as the realization also dawned that generally fewer than 10 percent of students actually complete a course. In February, a professor of history at Colorado State University and a critic of online learning argued that “MOOCs are dead.”  By that, he meant that many MOOC providers had turned to corporate training, and that MOOCs were no longer viewed as a threat to universities’ existence.

In the Arab world, as universities struggle to reach thousands of students with few qualified professors, many educators feel that MOOCs still have potential. But the number of available courses is relatively small. Edraak has created 54 courses, with four of them (as of this writing) currently available, including courses like Product Management, Remedial Math and Life, Kinematics of Motion 2, and Effective Thinking through Mathematics.

About 81,000 students have officially completed Edraak courses, the organization says, but it points out that many students are just interested in specific modules of certain courses or only want to audit courses. Those who have completed a course can display it as a “badge” on, arguably the most popular employer recruitment site in the Arab region. Edraak is also developing a verification system so that employers can check online if an individual has actually completed a course.

“We hope to add 35 new courses in the coming period,” said Shireen Yacoub, Edraak’s chief executive officer. She noted that increasing the number of courses will require more funding and more partnerships with educational institutions.

She said most existing courses are at the introductory level, with some intermediate courses, including courses that have been sublicensed (and Arabized) from HarvardX and MITx. Edraak’s content strategy is to include more intermediate and some advanced and specialized courses, she said.

The courses that are offered for credit in collaboration with Jordanian universities reflect the same tests used at the universities, she said, and 12th grade courses offered reflect the same level of questions used for preparing students for the national school leaving examination.

Rwaq says it has created a total of 200 courses so far, with 26 currently open to users. Fouad Al-Farhan, the co-founder of Rwaq project, says that up to 20 percent of enrolled students finish their courses.

Both platforms face obstacles in finding a sufficient number of enthusiastic academic partners to help create MOOCs.  “Universities have not shown a serious will to cooperate,” said al-Farhan, “Most of them want to wait and test the idea’s chances to succeed. So, we decided to look for a special approach to create the curricula.”

Rwaq cooperates with individual academics from various Arab universities. It offers courses in nine different disciplines, including economics and management, science and technology, education, medicine, religion, social sciences, engineering, art and culture, and history.

For example, Nazih al-Othmani, an assistant professor at King Abdulaziz University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, gives a course entitled, “An Introduction to Biomedical Engineering and its applications.” Non-academic experts provide many other courses such as a course on a popular programming language known as “C” that is provided by the independent developer, Al-Hassan Al-Abdali.

Fouad Al-Farhan, the co-founder of Rwaq project.

“We are not an academic body,” said al-Farhan. “We are a platform to spread science and knowledge. We are trying to deliver good content for those who are interested in education in the Arab world.” Edraak has been able to win the cooperation of some academic institutions. Today, the platform cooperates with ten universities, seven of which are Jordanian. (Edraak is affiliated with the Queen Rania Foundation, an Amman-based organization.) Other participating institutions include the American University in Cairo, the American University of Beirut, and the German Jordanian University.

Still, the number of Arab universities participating remains small given the more than 600 universities in the region, according to the Association of Arab Universities.

Mona Younes, a researcher and distance-education doctoral student at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, believes that caution is appropriate. “Universities need to test the start-up initiatives’ value and credibility before cooperating with them,” she said.

Younes also added that many Arab universities are still in the early stages to digitalizing their curricula. “Cooperation with academics individually or in the form of translating some existing courses into Arabic is a realistic solution,” she said.

Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, says not all online courses are appropriate for academic partnerships. “Some of the topics are not actually taught at university, such as resume (CV) writing skills,” said Bali.

Al-Farhan seems optimistic about the possibility of interesting more Arab universities in cooperating with Rwaq.

“I expect a change soon in private universities’ orientation after we succeeded in attracting good numbers of Arab youth,” he said. “That would be great, especially given that many of our users are looking for training opportunities that offer accredited certificates.”

Recently, Edraak started to cooperate with the German Jordanian University to provide blended education, in which online instruction is combined with face-to-face discussion in classrooms.

“Another university’s decision to adopt this experience is evidence that MOOCs, and online learning, are no longer a black hole, with everybody afraid of approaching it,” said Yacoub. “Still, it needs more time.”


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