Monday, November 29

Islam, Higher Education & The Virtual Campus!

"When the son of Adam (human being) dies, his deeds are stopped except for three things, namely, his good deeds, his knowledge, and his pious child who prays for him."
- Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

In this context, 'his knowledge' means knowledge that benefit others (including written materials such as articles, papers, books, etc.). Not only what has been learned, but more importantly what has been shared. So, sharing knowledge is not only a good thing to do, it is a form of worship in Islam. So, let's practice it sincerely (whether we are Muslim or not)!

A couple of weeks back (9-11 November), I attended and participated in two (2) very interesting conferences (Oops, I mean one conference & one forum!):
  1. International Conference On Islam And Higher Education (8-9 November)
  2. Future Campus Forum Malaysia (10-11 November)

As for the first conference, I could only attend the 2nd day (9th November), as I was stuck with other work commitments. Overall, these two events where enriching and enlightening (in their own ways), and now I will share some insights (lessons learned) and explore how we could face some of the challenges ahead.

Actually, I was invited to moderate the e-learning session just a few days before the conference. For whatever reason that may be (the original moderator pulled out, poor planning, etc.), I don't care, except that I was delighted to get the call, and obviously agreed to take up the challenge. As I have never moderated a session at an International Conference, how could I say 'NO' to such a great challenge.

Also, I have to share with you the invitation phone call, which was a classic. Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Osman Bakar's (Deputy CEO, IAIS) personal assistant (PA) called me, and said (roughly, as my recall memory is not 100%):
  • PA: Can I speak to Professor Zaid Ali Alsagoff
  • ME: There is no Professor Zaid Ali Alsagoff here!
  • PA: Can I speak to Dr. Zaid Ali Alsagoff
  • ME: There is no Dr. Zaid Ali Alsagoff here!
  • PA: Is there any Zaid Ali Alsagoff here?
  • ME: Yes, I am Zaid Ali Alsagoff
  • PA: Oh, Professor Osman Bakar wants to....bla, bla...!

In short, I was the only session moderator (7 in all) that is not at least a Doctor, which is a pretty good achievement in an academic kind of conference (good or bad, I am not so sure!). Even during the conference, the announcer wanted to address me as 'Doctor', and was confused that I was not one. I have to admit, I like the attention of being a non-doctor in such situations. A few years back during an International e-Learning in conference in Thailand, I was asked (presented a paper):

Person: Doctor?
Me: Still a Bachelor, but married!
Person: (He looked confused!)

Technically that can work for a Muslim, but I don't want to get into that (visit another blog for that). At that time I was doing my Masters, and was probably the only presenter that didn't even have a Masters. In short, I am not too academic inclined (or talented), and prefer reflective blogging to writing 'Objective' research papers! Until now, that has been a quite wise decision (in terms of connecting and reaching out). But I am planning to return mentally to the academic world soon, I hope!

Also, I am planning to do my PhD (2012 or later), but at the moment I am enjoying family life (including my 9 months old baby girl), work, and learning (what I want, whenever I want!). So, I don't want to give that up yet for a PhD (unless it involves just that)! Enough about me, let's zoom back to the...

I attended all the sessions at the International Conference On Islam And Higher Education (download the presentation slides) on the 9th November, as I was interested to listen and get some insights into how different countries and communities are struggling to infuse more Islamic teachings and values into their mainstream education models. Of course, if FOX News was here, they would paint a different picture saying ______, and I would be on CIA's most wanted list.

But, getting back to reality, it was heartening and enlightening that most have realized that investing in education and moving forward is NON-Brainer. I had the opportunity to listen to speakers discuss Islam and (mostly Higher) education in India, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, Tanzania, Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

No doubt, we (Muslims) have many challenges ahead, but investing heavily and smartly in education could do wonders to deal with many of them. No doubt, dropping bombs from 30,000 feet is not going bring Muslims closer to the West (or accomplish the mission, except amplify hate. Obama, time to wake up!), but also Muslims have to realize that there are plenty of peaceful loving people in the West, and just brushing everyone under one monster roof is not the solution. We both have to do some soul searching (Including me!), and educating and connecting people (besides using Facebook!) is a great way to infuse greater understanding and move forward.


Yes, moving forward together to solve mission nearly impossible, which is mankind's authentic TERRORISM AGAINST MOTHER EARTH! Whether 'Global Warming' is a fact or myth, I cannot verify, but what I do know is that mankind is abusing the Earth beyond its capacity (by __%), and unless we change or transform the way we live soon, we are not providing much hope for our future generations. But, on a positive note this disaster in the making (or made!) will increasingly bring us together around the world, and eventually we will have to put our differences aside (for a while), so that we can clean up our own mess. Shame on mankind, shame on me! I suppose I am dreamer, but why not? I am still learning! Let's get back to the conference...

Although, some might argue that Universities will be extinct soon (like the dinosaurs), unless they transform the way they facilitate and assess learning, they are still very much needed (for reasons also beyond learning), an e-Learning can play a vital role to empower more people to be educated. As you see in the diagram below, we have a long way to go to ensure that all in the Muslim world (15 selected countries) have the opportunity to continue their education:

Professor Dato’ Dr. Ansary Ahmed's insightful an stimulating talk (PDF) during the e-Learning session (which I moderated) went beyond wishful thinking, and provided us with hardcore (sad) numbers and some excellent thoughts on moving forward.

The other speaker during the e-learning session, Professor Dr. Ahmad Memariani Azizolah from Iran (FOX News, please chill!), explored Payame Noor University (PNU), Iran: A Universal Distance-Based University in the Islamic World, which I found truly mind boggling. For example, The University has 485 centers throughout the country supported by 3500 teaching staff and the student population exceeds 1,100,000, which means roughly 314 students to one teacher. WOW! To put this into perspective, Oxford University has a ratio of 3 students to one teacher. How can one ensure quality University education with such a student-teacher ratio (314 to 1)? Any magic formulas to share?

In 1979 the access to higher education in Iran was just 5% . Today the PNU and Islamic Azad University (1,200,000 students in regular programs!) cover approximately 65% of the students. And Al-Mustafa Open University (a virtual Islamic University) attracts more than 18000 international students from more than 100 countries. Again, WOW!

Having also witnessed (2 trips) the tremendous growth and emphasis on education and e-learning (e.g. National Center for e-Learning & Distance Learning) in Saudi Arabia over the last two (2) years, it is an exciting time to be working in the education world. I was fortunate to be part of the first e-Learning audit team that visited eight (8) Universities earlier this year, and it was very encouraging to see the passion and drive in Saudi Arabia to transform the education system (more input here). Actually, the whole Middle East is going through a massive transformation, and education and e-learning is increasingly playing a critical role.

But, we still have a long but exciting way to go, and here are three (3) transformative things that I recommend that we should focus on to really take-off:

  • Free Internet Access is a Fundamental Human Right!
    Internet is the oxygen of learning in the 21st century, and without it we are denying millions (1.57 billion Muslims around the world) of people access to learn (e.g. free learning resources), even if educational institutions have no space for them. Also, the Internet provides people an amazing platform (ecosystem) to connect, network, innovate, and do business directly and indirectly.

    As of 1 July this year (2010) "every Finn will have the right to access to a 1Mbps (megabit per second) broadband connection. Finland has vowed to connect everyone to a 100Mbps connection by 2015 (Source)." In short, we must realize the importance and the empowering impact the Internet can have on society and education, and therefore should do everything possible to make it happen. Of course, the Internet can be used to do negative stuff, but that is a challenge we have little choice, but to face. If that means sometimes censoring sites, fine, but do not censor the Internet itself, which is probably the surest way to self-destruct in the 21st century. Let's think beyond, and envision Internet (and learning devices) for all! It might sound impossible now, but it is not! We, just need to rethink the way we think, and put our energies and passions in the right direction(s)!

  • Forget Copyright, Practice Copyleft Instead!
    Isn't it weird that we can actually copyright and sell knowledge that was created by others, but synthesized, paraphrased, and mashed-up by ourselves. Oops, I forgot, we contributed say 5% originality. What right do we have to copyright and sell such knowledge? We can argue that we invested time synthesizing it, referenced resources used, but does that take the fact away that many academic textbooks today are often just a collection of other people's work wrapped nicely up into a sizzling cover, which we glorify and sell as if we are the masters of the universe. Some people do actually make a (necessary) living from it, fine! But, to the rest who already make a decent living, let's practice the greatest passion of a true academic, which is to share what we learn to as many people as we possibly can. Today with the Internet and tons of amazing free learning tools we can reach anyone in the world that has access to the Internet without needing to invest much, except our time.

    Maybe I am wrong here, or maybe it is that I am left handed, and as a result I find copyright so difficult to appreciate (especially in the academic world). Anyway, now that we can easily Copyleft (Confused? Click the link!), or use Creative Commons, we should think beyond copyright, and explore sharing more for the benefit of everyone (except the publishers). Also, if we argue that a University would lose its competitive edge by sharing learning resources (courses), I disagree. If your real competitive edge is content, I suppose you need to rethink your learning model, because content can easily be duplicated within seconds. Having awesome content is not a sustainable competitive edge, but infusing and nurturing learning models that use content to apply learning and transform learning minds is. You can duplicate content easily, but a learning model and culture takes time to nurture. Many top universities around the world know this, and don't mind sharing their educational resources? It is also great branding for a University to be part of the Open Educational Resources (OER) or Open Courseware (OCW) movements.

    Moreover, if you are a Public University funded by citizens (tax money and endowment), you should share back whatever you can. Although, Public Universities cannot enroll every potential student due to obvious limitations (facilities, teachers, car parks, etc.), they can still share at least their courses and learning resources, empowering hungry minds to learn on their own. Also, the public should have the right to check the quality of their investment. In short, we won't lose much by sharing learning resources (not like money!), but the community at large can benefit tremendously by creating a learning sharing ecosystem (reuse, remix, adapt, contextualize, mash-up, etc.) that is potentially sustainable beyond physical barriers, providing everyone the potential to learn. But, how do we then make money? You can make money through teaching, coaching, online facilitation, consultations, workshops, site advertisements, funding, endowment, etc. There are so many ways to still make tons of money, if we really think about it!

    Finally, by focusing on researching, constructing and innovating the missing links, instead of wasting too much time reinventing content that already exists (reuse/remix existing OER/OCW), we become more valuable as a teacher and educator. This is the only way to catch-up and lead the way in the 21 century where 'Zorro' bytes of new learning content is created and made available only (mostly for free) every day.

  • Build Learning Networks!
    Having free Internet access and free learning resources is not sufficient to transform us into a learning and innovation society. Learning resources usually don't inspire people into action or learning (if they did, libraries would be crowded beyond reach!), but inspiring and knowledgeable people can. We all know that the Internet can also be the biggest waste of time creating an amusing life out of basically doing nothing (in the real world). We have to get out of our University cocoon nests and interact beyond. We need to create learning communities and networks where we share and discuss trends, issues, resources and ideas, and are receptive to criticism and disagreements. It is amazing how powerful group and network learning can be, if we embrace it and participate.

    Finally, we should increasingly explore the idea of facilitating 'Massive Open Online Courses/Environments (MOOC)' where we get together to share, discuss and reflect important topics and issues. If you are looking for a good example, try PLENK 2010. Imagine having educators from say 78 countries explore together important issues using a variety of free learning tools.

That brings me back to this conference, and the problem with most conferences (that I have attended) is that when completed, I suffer from information overload and exhaustion. In other words, how can we transform conferences to become less bla, bla, bla... to be more engaging & interactive?

In other other words, conferences should perhaps emphasize 'Less is more' for presenters, and encourage them to focus on key points/issues, so that we can have more time to discuss and network.

And that is what I experienced at the...


The 'Future Campus Forum Malaysia' took place at Westin Hotel (Kuala Lumpur), and there were roughly 100 participants. The forum hall was a perfect fit for a stage and 10 discussion tables (with 10 seats each). Besides the amazingly small prayer room (only 4 could pray at once), Westin is a reasonably good place to conduct a forum with this context.

Although, this forum did not have any particularly enlightening or inspiring speakers (got quite high expectations, usually!), the whole format was really built around networking and sharing ideas (and capturing them). My role was to be a participant only...

Even though the presenters or the panel discussion was not too enriching, the real fun was the 10 30-minute interactive discussion sessions. So, basically for 6 hours during the 2-day forum, we were in intensive discussions covering 10 different relevant topics:
  1. Measuring Effectiveness
  2. Remaining Competitive
  3. Gaming & Immersive learning
  4. Content Development
  5. Future Learning Styles
  6. Creativity & Innovation
  7. Public-Private Partnerships
  8. Connected Campus
  9. Continuous Professional Development
  10. Choosing Classroom ICT Equipment

Each discussion topic was facilitated by an international or local expert who initiated the discussion and captured the interesting ideas and experiences shared (1 facilitator + 9 participants). The 10 interactive discussion sessions were organized according to 10 different colors, and each color was associated with a number, too. Every participant was given a color (on the name card), and would then start from the table with the same color, and then move from table to table after each discussion session. I was black (my name card!), meaning I would start at table 1 (Black). Since some people might be color-blind, it is good to have numbers besides colors to refer to. After 2 or 3 sessions, we would be enriched (discussion break!) with a talk or coffee (networking) break.

To manage time (and speed up the discussion), they projected an Interactive Discussion Table Timer (starting at 30 minutes), which was kind of cool, but at times also made you feel like you were taking an exam. As they were going GREEN (Yeah, whatever!) they would not hand out web resources, and instead we needed to participate in all activities and submit the forum evaluation before getting the password (and certificate of attendance) to download all the presentation slides. Did all, but yet to receive the password (by e-mail)!

Overall, it was an interesting way to encourage participation, discussion and capturing of ideas. Though, you are stuck with the same group (of 9) throughout all the 10 discussions, and that is where they could have innovated more. Surely, it would have been fun to mix-up perhaps after two 30-minute discussion sessions, and then challenge your ideas with another group of people. By the time my group had reached session two, everyone realized I was the only E-Learning professional (or whatever!) in our group, meaning from then onwards I became the automatic choice to be the first participant to share ideas and experiences.

In conclusion, the forum setup was perfect for discussions, networking, sharing ideas and learning; though it would have been even cooler if we didn't have to stick with the same group throughout the two days. Don't get me wrong, my group was a lot of fun, but just something to ponder, if we were to adopt such an approach for our conferences or forums in the future.

To be honest I didn't learn that much new, except from the way the forum was dynamically facilitated. But there were a few new nuggets of wisdom and resources shared during the two days, which I will blast away in the form of bullets here:
  • Check out the Digital Education Revolution (New South Wales) resources and information.
  • DER-NSW research focuses on how educational technology (or their programme) is influencing teacher pedagogy, students and the consequences of it on the students’ educational outcomes (3 key research questions).
  • Digital Citizenship (8 free lessons to download).
  • Amazing to learn about Fung Kai Innovative School from Ma Siu Leung (CEO), who is a lively & engaging speaker, too! He shared with us tricks on how to create win-win public-private partnerships, and how to trick (smartly) vendors to sell you great technology for bargain prices, and then make them feel like they have a bargain, too (win-win).
  • There are now 9 million Facebook users in Malaysia alone...Now that is connectivity :)
  • In a connected campus, student traverse formal, informal, & virtual learning space towards learning outcomes in a seamless manner (Whatever!)
  • How to develop authentic learning experiences? Prosumer? Produce and consume your own learning!

Not much to scream who-ha about, but I did really enjoy listening to Dr. Stuart Lee (Director, Computing & Services, Oxford University) over the Skype session to us. Now, that was the highlight for me (without doubt!). For example, I learned that Oxford University embraces open source and tries to use it where possible (according Dr. Stuart Lee). Interestingly, some Oxford University building walls are up to 7 meters thick, so it can be a challenge to drill holes to wire the network. Dr. Stuart Lee seemed very conscious that Oxford University is an old University, and that it takes sometimes centuries to change things there (or more than a lifetime).

Then Melissa Highton (Head of Learning Technologies Group, Oxford University) took over the Skype session and shared with us that Oxford University uses Sakai for VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) and invest a lot in video recording lectures and increasingly making them available online for free (something to ponder!).Oxford University also embraces mobile technologies and learning to support their 3 students to one lecturer ratio (Small group teaching).

Interestingly, Oxford University rejected Blackboard as they didn't understand or support the needs of Oxford University's need for a free roaming kind of learning environment (not necessarily course-based)...Ouch! Was it just poor marketing, or could it be that Blackboard is simply not up to mark (yet)?

When we came to the Q&A session with the Oxford 'Twin Tech Terrors', silence from the participants continued. However, that did not stop me from asking whether Oxford University uses Moodle or not. It was revealed that Oxford University has embraced Moodle for distance education, and mostly use Sakai to support face-to-face learning and online research activities. In short, who needs Blackboard?

Finally, I visited Taylor's University (our group) new campus, as the 2nd part of day 2 was a field trip to one of three chosen locations. Tailor's University new campus is pretty impressive, and their 5 (or 4) floor state-of-the-art (whatever that means!) library, which had sizzling noise, collaborative, quiet and sleeping learning spaces, was certainly my favorite highlight. The library even had a mini orange cinema, which included sand bags perfect for falling asleep. I took tons of pictures with my IPhone until it fell asleep (too early!), but I promised not reveal their secret spices.

So, please visit the place yourself to experience a trendy mini-city kind of campus, which looked more like an outdoor version of KLCC (shopping mall) rather than a typical campus you would associate with a University (Certainly hip with Starbucks, Baskin-Robbins, Famous Amos, restaurants, cafes, cinema, hotel, etc). In short, they are making tons of money also by renting out spaces beyond the hostels.

Anyway, since their student population (around 9000 at that campus) are mostly young and trendy, this outfit is perhaps a perfect match. Interestingly, when I came to Tailor's University new campus, I had trouble finding a car park. Later I found out that they actually had 3000 parking spaces (according to their tour guide), and ironically I still had problem finding a car park (at 2 pm). I suppose most students today have cars!

Overall, I learned a lot during those three (3) days and three (3) major events (conference, forum & Field trip).

If only everyday could be like that! I wish :)


Time2Act said...

Many thanks for informative topic Zaid, I have 2 comments:
1- "his knowledge" is better translated into "knowledge that benefit others" and that way it will support your idea of sharing.
2- You are really a talented hard worker Zaid. I learned much from your blog. However you need to have the "seal" of academic world (regardless how useful) i.e PhD, in order to have a louder voice in that world.

ZaidLearn said...

Dear Yasser Massoud,

thanks for your feedback :)

As for the translation, I will touch it up :)

Yes, I certainly agree regarding having a PhD could result in having a louder voice in the Academic world. That is why a PhD is in the pipeline, although not so soon.

But I love learning too much to just do a PhD for the sake of proving anything. When I am inspired with the right topic, I will do it Insha-Allah.

Life is short, and no one will really care about your titles when you are gone. What matters is what you have contributed and what changes that has influenced.

Thanks for your valuable feedback :)

Muhebb said...

Thanks so much for getting out the word on distance education in the Islamic world. I don't know if you realize how "big" this can be for women who might not otherwise be able to attend university. Distance ed is a big pull for women all over the world--demands of family and children often make it easier or even preferable than face to face. Plus many women do not have the luxury of saying, "Let's move to Boston, I've just been accepted at Harvard." Rather, they live where their husbands are studying/employed.
For Muslim women who in many countries may be even more limited in their choices, distance ed can often be a wonderful solution. Can you tell us where we can find out more about the options for distance ed in Saudi Arabia? When I was there I heard there were only hybrid courses; or all online courses that were part of a face to face degree. That is, I hadn't heard of a totally online, accredited program. Can you share info on that?
As for Payami Noor, that has been around for a long time as simply a correspondence school; while students loved the opportunity to learn something, usually their graduates were totally out of competition for job. Now it is becoming up to speed and becoming more digitalized, but I'm not sure about the viability of its degrees in terms of employment. Anyway, the large student/instructor ratio may be a carryover from the old correspondence school days.
Does Azad University offer distance degrees? I didn't realize that. And the Mustafa University offers only Islamic sciences as far as I know. Thanks for all your info here. Keep sharing!

ZaidLearn said...

Dear Muheeb,

thanks for your feedback. As for finding out more about distance learning in Saudi Arabia, please visit Saudi Arabia's National Center for e-Learning & Distance Learning...

(Using English version if needed)

Which I believe would be the best place to answer your questions regarding distance learning in Saudi Arabia.

As for knowing how big it is or increasingly will be for women in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world to have access to Distance Learning, I am very aware of it.

In short, from those I have communicated with through video conferencing (most common tool used for men to teach women in Saudi Arabia), I can tell you this... Women in Saudi Arabia have passion to learn and participate beyond anything I have ever experienced.

Their drive, knowledge, humbleness and willingness to learn puts us men to shame :(

Also, Saudi Arabia takes women education very seriously, and all the men I interacted with in Saudi Arabia were very passionate about ensuring that women got the best education possible within the rules of engagement and culture that they have. So, that I take my hat off. Congratulations.

In short, especially Saudi Arabia you will increasingly see that both women and men will have increasing access to Higher Education thanks to their passion and huge investments into education.

As for Azad & Payami Noor Universities (in Iran, if you didn't catch that), please use Google to find some more information, because beyond the conference input, my knowledge is quite limited.

Alright, I have to go :)

Thanks again for all your great feedback, and expect more from ZaidLearn regarding education in the Middle East, sometime in the near future :)

Warm Regards,


Anonymous said...

This was really interesting. I loved reading it.

A.A. Karim said...

Excellent and informative article! Actually our scholars have plenty of ORIGINAL materials from their research work but unfortunately not many care to spend time writing to disseminate and share the knowledge for the public at large. Many academics (including me) are bogged down with daily activities that sometimes amount to nothing! I also know that some people are very possessive of their "teaching materials", as if, although as you rightly said it's merely a compilation and mash up of resources from various people.

As for doing PhD, it's a big decision that you have to make. To my mind, you are already a scholar.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for writing this, it was unbelieveably informative and told me a ton

nik said...

Dear Zaid,
I created a list of freewares (more specifically catering to chemistry n pharmacy academicians).
How about working on much more focussed groups as step 2 of the process