Nowadays, higher education is experiencing big challenges driven by many emerging trends, among which is the introduction of the means of online learning. Accordingly, many universities all over the world are taking different moves to cope with the new requirements; some universities were established as purely online learning providers, other conventional universities launched new online programs, and some introduced online learning programmes to enhance some of their already existing programs.
E-Learning redefines the teaching/learning processes and the overall learning environment. It changed the old university system to a new set of practices by introducing significant changes in the roles of its main key players; learners, faculty members, and the institution as an entity (Mendenhall, 2001).
The change which e-learning brings to higher education, accompanied by its vast spreading as an accepted learning delivery mode, has been always questioned by its components who tie this type of learning to poor quality. Therefore, studying the different aspects of evaluating the quality of e-learning has been rising as an issue that is worth researching and enhancing (Kistan, 2005; Wirth, 2005).
A big range of perspectives on what factors to address when evaluating the quality of e-learning has been developed. Nevertheless; most of those studies either addressed a few factors pertaining to a single aspect or dimension (Ally, 2004) or addressed multiple aspects but without looking at the e-learning institution comprehensively (Cohen and Ellis, 2004).
In view of the lack of a holistic framework of factors to evaluate the quality of e-learning programs, the aim of this study is to hopefully contribute to the body of knowledge in this area, by developing a framework for the evaluation of quality in e-learning programs.
The main purpose of this study is to evaluate the quality of e-learning programs through investigating the related critical factors that have been identified by researchers and practitioners of this field. It also intends to examine the relevancy and importance of such frameworks within e-learning practise in Saudi Arabia.
The study aims also at understanding how the key learners and faculty members differ in perceiving the importance of such factors on impacting on the quality of an e-learning program?
The research intends to answer in broad perspective the following questions as well:
What are the factors which affect the quality of e-learning?
In this question the researchers are trying to address the quality factors which affect the success of E-learning in Saudi Arabia based on 12 factors that have been addressed from the literature.
How can we increase e-learning practice in Saudi Arabia?
The second question to know is what’s the best way to increase the number of E-learning practise in Saudi Arabia and what do learners think based on their experience.
This dissertation includes six chapters in addition to its introduction. Below is a brief description of each:
- Chapter two; outlining the background information of the research to put the reader into the perspective of this study. The chapter includes a discussion of the emerging trends in higher education that have pushed for the introduction of e-learning and discusses broadly the quality issue in this type of learning.
- Chapter three; covers the literature review of e-learning, i.e. critical factors for evaluating the quality of e-learning programs. The chapter starts with identifying the distinctions between e-learning and traditional education, discusses in detail the definition of the “Quality” concept in higher education generally, and in specific e-learning.
- Chapter four; Cover the research methodology such as the process of data collection and analysis which will be used.
- Chapter Five; we will be describing and analysing the data and present the data gathered. Results of the analysis are then discussed.
- Chapter six; this chapter summarizes the study, lay out the conclusion and ends up with recommendations for future research.
In this study the researcher will to collect his data by the quantitative method where a questionnaire will be designed based on the factors which have been discovered from the literature review and then will be sent to random group in Saudi Arabia. The Data later on will be analysed to show the result and the findings.
Saudi Arabia Background:
Saudi Arabia which is the birth place of Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca, and Medina, is located in the Middle East bordering the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. The king’s official title is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The modern Saudi State was founded in 1932. It is a large Middle Eastern nation that ranks as one of the world’s leading producers of petroleum, and exports more oil than any other nation. The government is of a monarchy type and the monarch is both the chief of state and head of government, and administratively it is divided into 13 provinces, with the constitution governed according to Islamic Law. The country’s legal system is based on Sharia law and several secular codes have been introduced. Commercial disputes are handled by special committee.
Saudi Arabia has an oil based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. It possesses more than 20% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. It not only ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, but also plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. It is believed that about 40% of GDP comes from the private sector and roughly 5.5 million foreign employees play an important role in the Saudi economy, particularly in the oil and service sectors.
The researcher carried out this research in Saudi for the following reasons which are described in detail.
- The access: as the researcher is a Saudi national and has good access to the people in Saudi Arabia where he can collect more information and find a better response rate than carrying out research in any other place.
- The Language: The researcher is multi lingual as he can speak Arabic and English fluently, therefore he will not face any problem in collecting the data
- The Information: The researcher understands the situation in Saudi Arabia which enables good research as he will not spend too much time understanding the situation and its cultural factors.
The Organisation of the Education System in KSA
The education system in Saudi Arabia has five divisions. They are: kindergarten for children from three to six years old, elementary (6-11), intermediate (12-14), secondary level (15-18), and university level (typically 19-24, depending on the subjects studied, and the form of higher education). The secondary stage is the final phase of general education in the Kingdom. It is a three-year period, following on from the intermediate stage. Students are admitted to this stage if they have obtained the intermediate stage certificate. Normally students follow secondary stage education between the ages of 16 and 18 years. This stage is considered the most important period in the general education ladder because students who successfully complete this stage are eligible to join any higher education institution.
The administration of the education system in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is highly centralised. All educational policies are subject to government control and supervision by the Supreme Council of Education. Textbooks and teaching tools are uniform throughout the Kingdom. The four principal authorities responsible for education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are: the Ministry of Education; the General Presidency for Girls’ Education; the Ministry of Higher Education; and the General Organisation of Technical Education and Vocational Training.
In this chapter we gave a sample overview about the research and the reasons for carrying out this research such as the lack of understanding in the practice of the E-learning program in Saudi Arabia. The research is trying to develop a good understanding of this and the information of other studies carried out in similar fields of the success factors of the quality of E-learning in Saudi Arabia. Also in this chapter we have described the dissertation structure and the research questions which are going to measure the main factors for the success of learning Quality. Finally the Saudi Background has been analysed to give the reader the information to understand where the study has been carried out and why.
The main objective of this chapter is to put forward the point of view of this study by laying out its background information. The chapter starts with presenting the emerging trends in higher education that have lead to the introduction of e-learning. It then continues by explaining the quality issue that is associated with this type of learning. The chapter also includes an overview of the background information about e-learning in Saudi Arabia.
Education An overview:
According to a recent publication by UNESCO, the education sector in general comprised of all of its components including higher education is experiencing new trends that exert on it new pressures and challenges (Hernes, 2003).
Those trends are either classified under demography, such as the continuing growth and increase of population, particularly young populations, migration between countries, and increase of life expectancy, or are due to globalization where nations in general and learners in particular flow across borders without limits, allowing learners to have easy access to the best universities in the developed countries. Finally, perhaps the most important trend is knowledge growth accompanied by advanced information and communication technologies which have changed forever the way information is obtained, stored, used and displayed.
Despite the divide between one country and another, or within the same country, more knowledge development opportunities have been created. Information technologies offer the possibility of modularization and customization of education through the use and re-use of learning objects focusing on learners, the possibility of engaging learners more than ever and therefore changing the role of the faculty from a teacher to a facilitator.
In response to the challenges described above, the growth of the e-learning programme with its different modes in higher education is apparent and best reflected by the increasing number of e-colleges and e-universities, or the increasing number of higher education institutions that introduced e-learning programs and definitely by the growth of enrolment rate among learners.
A study of e-learning in the United States in 2005, suggested that e-learning is penetrating the higher education institutions both in size and breadth and that e-learning is part of the mainstream of higher education. Figures of the study showed that sixty-five percent of schools offering graduate face-to-face courses also offer graduate courses online. Sixty-three percent of schools offering undergraduate face-to-face courses also offer undergraduate courses online. Among all schools offering face-to-face Master’s degree programs, 44% also offer Master’s programs online. Among all schools offering face-to-face Business degree programs, 43% also offer online Business programs. The same study showed an increase of around 20% of learners’ enrolment rate compared to the previous year (Allen and Seaman 2005).
For different reasons, those statistics do not seem to be applicable to other countries. The USA is certainly the world’s largest provider of e-learning; however the market for e-learning and lifelong learning is also growing in Europe. Moreover, the Arab world, which represents 5 per cent of the world’s overall population, has entered the 21st century with a striking statistic, which shows that it has only 0.5 per cent of the worlds Internet users. This obviously impacts on the number of its e-learning initiatives and enrolled learners in such type of learning systems (UNDP, 2002).
Using Computers in Learning:
These days, computers have become an important educational tool kit. Many educational organizations and training centres rely on them to deliver information and learning knowledge. However, using computers in education has a long history and is deep-rooted in the field. The idea of using computers in training first appeared during World War 2, when the US military trained farmers to use weapons and other equipment via this systematic approach (Horton, 2000).
The first real use of the computer in educational organizations was seen in the 1960s, when the University of Illinois together with the Data Corporation developed the PLATO system. PLATO is a system which enabled the learning and understanding of complex subjects. Apple’s Macintosh and Microsoft Windows operating system have since provided a standard platform on which programmers can develop training programs (Horton, 2000)
Definition of E-learning:
E-Learning refers to the employment of information and communication technologies to support the development and delivery of learning in academic and professional development institutions. E-Learning is used widely with other terms such as online learning, technology-mediated learning, web-based learning, computer-based learning, etc.
Several definitions of e-learning have been developed reflecting the diversity in its application, used tools, and associated technologies. Whatever definition was used, the meaning of e-learning always contains two fundamental terms; Learning and Technology. In one way or another, all definitions of e-learning indicate the learning that takes place with the support of multimedia objects, the internet and technological applications as a delivery mode. One of the highly used definitions of e-learning is: “Education via the Internet, network or standalone computer; it refers to using electronic applications and processes to learn, where communication and content is delivered via the Internet, intranet/extranet, audio or videotape, TV and CD-ROM etc as appropriate” (LTSN Generic Centre, 2004).
A recent definition that uses the terminology of higher education institutions was laid out by Ally (2004) who defines e-learning as:
“The use of the Internet to access learning material; to interact with the content, instructor, and other learners; and to obtain support during the learning process, in order to acquire knowledge, to construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience”.
According to Horton (2000) E-learning is a general phrase that has several definitions. However, the comprehensive definition that covers all aspects of e-learning is what Ruth and Richard offer: “E-learning is defined as instruction delivered on a computer by way of CD-ROM, Internet, or intranet with the following features:
- Includes content relevant to the learning objective.
- Uses instructional methods such as examples and practice to help learning.
- Uses media elements such as words and pictures to deliver the content and methods.
- Builds new knowledge and skills linked to individual learning goals or to improve organizational performance”
Feature of E-learning:
Eaton (2001) outlines that e-learning is characterized with the following features:
- Computer-mediated classrooms: faculty members and learners communicate through the computer, making face to face interaction less frequent.
- Separation in time between communications: communication between faculty members and learners can also be in asynchronous modes.
- Availability of services online: learners are not only provided with online learning experience but also with online services such as advising, registration, and library services.
- Distinction between e-Learning and Conventional Education:
To understand the quality of e-learning requires a full understanding of how this type of learning differs from the conventional style of education and the changes it brings to higher education institutions. This section presents in a broad perspective the distinctions between e-learning and traditional education which shape higher education nowadays. Such distinctions will be taken into consideration when materializing a definition for quality in e-learning, and deciding what to be taken into consideration for evaluating the quality of this type of learning.
The following areas were highly repeated in the literature as key distinctions between e-learning and traditional education:
McLaughlin and Oliver (2000) believe however that new technologies have a positive impact on the learning environment where more choices for forms of learning are provided to the faculty and learners. This includes the delivery and presentation of content in more flexible way and a variety of modes, the provision of interactivity, engagement, communication, feedback, and communication and collaboration tools. Weller (2000) sees that those types of new choices will facilitate the quick use of courses for easier customization and individualization resulting in more satisfied learners.
Change in Faculty Roles:
With the growing amount of knowledge and information every day, and the availability of a huge amount of content over the internet, faculty members will not continue to be seen as the source of knowledge, instead, according to Cashion and Palmieri (2002), faculty members are expected to direct learners where to find the most relevant knowledge and provide them with tools that teach them how to learn.
Different Types of Learners:
Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) have referred to young learners of today as the “Net Generation” who grew up being familiar with technological products and facilities. Internet access, computer and electronic games have been a daily activity of learners’ lives. Learners today have different expectations with respect to their learning styles; they prefer to experience things instead of reading or hearing about them, they expect immediate response to questions or actions, they appreciate interactivity and dialogue (Pashuk, 2005). Learners of today consider themselves as customers who demand to be served high quality services. They have consumers’ attitudes towards their academic program and any of its services (Wager, 2005). E-Learning institutions should be arranged to different types of learners, not only in their preferences and expectations but also in their level of variety.
Change in Administrators’ Role:
Administrators of an academic institution are usually referred to as staffs who are not participating in direct teaching or research work, their role is usually to assure that the institution’s systems are running properly. Administrators are responsible to create, maintain and improve an environment that helps learners and faculty achieve their academic goals. Administrators of an e-learning institution can be involved in selecting, orienting, and preparing qualified faculty for courses, administer and manage the technological facilities at the institution, provide different types of faculty and learners support from the technical helpdesk; library services, financial aid, etc. Administrators can also be involved in the planning, quality assurance, and performance management of an activity to help the institution serve its learners better (Williams, 2003).
Reliance on Infrastructure:
Although e-Learning is basically about learning rather than about technology, the technological infrastructure of e-learning programs is still the critical and primary component of the education systems. E-Learning is characterized by its high independence on the validity, and reliability of its infrastructure, which has the role of facilitating and providing accessibility of the learning/teaching process and its support services between faculty members and learners (Pashuk, 2005).
E-Learning institutions must set up their systems, policies and procedures to deal with issues like data security from both internal and external threats as well as copyrights from the learners, faculty and the institutional perspectives. Developing a high quality online course will not only require the intellectual contribution of faculty members, it rather involves other key team members from the same institution or from partnered institutions. Copyright issues are usually linked to revenue sharing models, especially when the course developers are contracted or granted any incentives (Mendenhall, 2001).
Advantages of using E-learning Methods:
As we know, traditional education requires effort, time and money that can lead to some difficulties in achieving the goals of learning. On the other hand, e-learning contributes to the spread of knowledge among people around the globe by easy, fast, and comfortable means, that helps people to attain their personal learning objectives. As a result, several educational organisations have proceeded along the e-learning approach to facilitate and improve the process of learning. In this section, several advantages of using an e-learning approach will be discussed. The author has divided the advantages into two main categories, advantages for learners, and advantages for instructors.
Advantages for learners:
According to Mayer (2003) he has concluded the common advantages that learners can gain from e-learning. The following list illustrates the main advantages for learners:
- “Learners can get the best instruction available “
The wide popularity of the e-learning programme makes learning more flexible and gives freedom to learners to choose the best course available which fits their needs.
- “Training occurs just in time”.
Web-based training is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week which allows learners to study when they need it without any conditions or constraints. They do not need to wait for training sessions or a specified time to attend.
- “Learners set the pace and the schedule”.
Learners can study at their own time; learners can take as many lessons as they need depending on their time and their plans. For example, some of them may wish to study full-time while others prefer to study a few hours a week.
- “Learners get better access to the instructor”.
Communication with the instructor(s) through web based e-learning systems can be more effective than the traditional classroom approach.
- “Training adapts to the learner’s style”
Many different learning styles can be incorporated within an e-learning environment, and the learner is able to adapt to a style or series of styles which they prefer and in the way they feel is most efficient.
- “Learners get immediate feedback”
There is no need to wait while for the results of the exams, or games. The results can be obtained immediately.
- “Learners are treated more equally”
A degree of anonymity is ensured, therefore personal characteristics are not considered.
- “Saves money and time for learners”
Hidden costs are eliminated in that here are no travelling expenses, parking fees, etc. It is also efficient for time in that almost all the time is spent on learning and no time is wasted on travelling.
- “ Produces positive side effects”
Learners are constantly improving their other skills, such as general computer skills, various internet technologies and how they apply them in their jobs.
Advantages for Instructors
According to Mayer (2003) the most common advantages for instructors can gain from e-learning are:
- “Instructor can teach from anywhere”
Instructors are able to teach the course from any location in the world. All they need is connection to the internet.
- “Instructors travel less”
Almost all the time is spent on planning, producing and publishing courses with no time wasted on travelling to attend.
- “Course content can be dynamic”
Instructors have the opportunity to deal with course matter at any time and in any place such as home, office etc.
- “Instructors save time”
Time consumed in preparing the course document such as handouts, having course paper printed etc., are eliminated.
In this chapter we have covered a wide range on academic study in order to understand this subject, starting with the definition of E-learning and what do we mean by E-learning, followed by another important part which is what is the difference between E-learning and Conventional education. Also the researcher has included a brief explanation concerning the history of E-Learning and the feature of E-stand and its practise.
Moreover, we can see that based on the literature there are many advantage of E-learning for the learner. For example, he can study from anywhere and at any time which is the flexibility of E-learning and also there is an advantage for the instructor as he can also teach from any place and with a flexible time schedule.
In order to understand what constitutes quality of e-learning and the critical factors that should be addressed when evaluating this type of learning, an understanding of the distinctions between e-learning and traditional education needs to be attained. Therefore the first section of this chapter is dedicated to exploring what changes have been brought to higher education by e-learning. This chapter includes a literature review for to explore what has been recognized by the researchers and practitioners of this field as key factors that affect the quality of e-learning programs and institutions, and therefore should be used to evaluate this type of learning.
A list of highly rated and most repeated factors was then generated and categorized to form the basis for a comprehensive framework intended for evaluating quality of e-learning programs which will be used later in the empirical research.
Quality in E-learning:
A range of perspectives on what defines quality in e-learning, and what should be considered when evaluating the quality of e-learning has been developed. Some studies have addressed few factors pertaining to a single aspect or dimension, and some have developed frameworks for evaluating the quality of e-learning addressing many aspects. During those studies many different approaches were adopted ranging from surveying learners, faculty members, designers and policy makers for their views, building models for effective e-learning, and constructing camps that contextualize and debate the e-learning environment (Brennan, 2001).
Despite the important contribution of each of those studies, a complete framework for evaluating the quality of e-learning couldn’t be found. Developed frameworks either addressed the quality of the e-learning program with an emphasis on the classroom environment only, or overlooked some important aspects, such as the impact of the institution on the quality of e-learning programs (Cashion and Palmieri, 2002).
E-Learning has been addressed by governing or accrediting bodies which developed quality standards, principles or frameworks. Such standards however, were developed to help institutions plan for their e-learning programs (Cashion and Palmieri, 2002) or as a self assessment tool, therefore they usually address in general perspective quality standards, academic standards, standards of competence, service standards and organizational standards (Harvey, 1999).
According to Vlasceanu et al (2004), the definition of quality in a higher education institution differs with the changes in:
- The interests and needs of various types of stakeholders
- The institution’s own inputs, processes, outputs, purpose, mission and set of objectives
- The characteristics and attributes of the academic world
- The historical evolvement and development of higher education
Revisiting the changes that e-learning brought to higher education especially to the role of its fundamental stakeholders, learners, educators and administrators, it perhaps becomes logical when we look for a definition of quality as a concept, to consider these stakeholders first. For this reason, a growing literature in the field of e-learning tends to define quality of e-learning programs as the degree to which principal stakeholdersâ€Ÿ needs and expectations are consistently satisfied, referring to the learners and educators (Kistan, 2005).
Critical success factors (CSFs) are key areas of performance that are essential for the organisation to accomplish its mission (Rockart, 1979). Managers implicitly know and consider these key areas when they set goals and as they direct operational activities and tasks that are important to achieving goals. However, when these key areas of performance are made explicit, they provide a common point of reference for the entire organisation. Thus, any activity or initiative that the organisation undertakes must ensure consistently high performance in these key areas, otherwise the organisation may not be able to achieve its goals and consequently may fail to accomplish its mission. The term “critical success factor” has been adapted for many different uses. Familiarity with the term is often presented in the context of a project or an initiative. In this context, CSFs describe the underlying or guiding principles of an effort that must be regarded to ensure that it is successful.
Clarity of course goals:
Not surprisingly, there has been consensus in the literature that in order to assure the quality of the teaching/learning process, designing a course should start with explicit outcomes that identify the expectations from learners and the faculty from the very beginning. Learning outcomes which usually drive the effectiveness assessment process of courses should be also challenging and linked directly to the institution’s overall goals and objectives. (Mayer et al 2000) faculty members have to adjust course content by selecting appropriate learning styles to achieve course goals and learners needs.
Interaction is one of the most widely mentioned factors in the literature in relation to its impact on the quality of e-learning programs. (Moore, 2002)
Interaction in the e-learning environment compensates for the loss of direct and face to face contact between learners and their faculty member or colleagues. Moore (1989) has identified three types of interaction:
- Interaction between faculty and learners, which is considered to be the most vital component that creates an effective learning environment upo