A perfect blend - technology for learning

Von Kavitha Rajasekhar

A lot is changing in the educational landscape of the Middle East. Driven by increasing competition and changing student demands, higher educational institutions in the region are taking to technology in a big way to enhance the delivery of education. A large part of this trend is being fuelled by the increased focus on infrastructure and in this case the Middle East can be compared with the best in the world. In this special feature we cherry pick four higher education institutions, which have done pioneering work in technology adoption.

Already, the use of technology in terms of e-mail, word-processing, PowerPoint and the Web, has become standard as part of the teaching and learning process. Though this has not radically affected the nature of this process; rather, information technology has become a part of the blend of on-campus delivery, serving as a complement to already existing instructional tools.

To state the obvious, students are the main clients of the higher education organizations and directly or indirectly the main source of income. Their characteristics and needs steer the organization in its programs and approaches. "Institutions of higher education are rapidly implementing technologies to better attract, serve and retain campus constituents,"says Mathew Boice, GM-Middle East, SunGard SCT.

"Education sector is second to none when it comes to technology adoption. There are many factors driving the adoption of technology by higher educational institutions. First and foremost, student today demand technology tools to enhance the learning the experience. Secondly, there is a healthy competition in this sector, which is making educational institutions to invest in the latest of technologies in order to attract more students. The greatest benefit of technology in educational computing is that it bridges the gap between learners and the learning environment.Cisco is a key player in this sector and we offer a complete technology architecture including our Intelligent Information Network," adds Eyad Alqadi, Regional Sales Manager- Public Sector and Enterprise, Cisco Systems.

Apart from the need to attract and retain students, many higher education institutions have come to see IT as a major way to improve their accountability and effectiveness as places of learning. "Higher education organizations have recognized the importance of technology to improve the manner in which they deliver teaching to their students. So we are currently witnessing a lot of end-to-end IT implementations take place in universities and higher colleges across the region. Also, universities are increasingly seeking to setup state of the art facilities to conduct testing and research. At Intel, we have setup two such facilities: The oil competency center in the higher colleges of technology in Abu Dhabi and the finance competency center at the American University of Beirut," says Dania El-Kadi, marketing communications manager, Intel GCC.

So, what are the implications for technology use in teaching and learning process?

"Technology is the new context for teaching and learning processes to bring in new paradigms for education within reach. Perhaps, its biggest impact is putting the student at the center of an expanded learning process through the advent of e-learning. E-learning allows students to benefit the education and other services of a university or college without physically coming to campus," says Boice. Agrees El-Kadi: "After reading, writing and counting, ICT is considered as the 4th skill that any young person needs to succeed in today"s world. It is therefore very important not only to include it as part of the curriculum, but also to integrate it into teaching methods to achieve the shift from an instructor centric model to a performer centric model; empowering students and allowing for more interaction between workgroups from across the world.""

The right infrastructure

Advanced learning management systems aside, the networking infrastructure is one of the most vital components of the right technology architecture for higher education organizations. "For any educational organization, one of the most important factors for success is setting up a reliable, flexible ICT infrastructure. They will have to create a network that they know they rely upon, allowing the teaching and administration staff to get on with their tasks, and giving the IT staff an easily managed, adaptable and expandable base from which to deploy new services as they need them," says Abdullatif Al Mulla, GM, Microsoft South Gulf.

The right ingredients for an ideal educational computing infrastructure should include digital transmission technologies, wireless broadband, multi media networking, and storage. Furthermore, mobile computing is also proving to be the preferred usage model in the education sector, thanks to the flexibility that it brings to students and academicians.

"At 3Com, we fully recognize the value that an advanced network infrastructure can deliver to the education sector, and our recent deployment at University of Bahrain reflects our commitment to developing leading-edge technology for universities and colleges. By providing fast and reliable network communications, we are ensuring that the university continues to successfully provide superior education to its students without any hindrances," says Wael Fakharany, regional manager, 3Com Middle East.

Supported by the 3Com solution, the university"s 20,000 students are now able to readily remote-access the university"s network from anywhere in the world. Students and teachers are able to access learning tools at e-libraries, engage in videoconferences with their professors, and exchange papers and corrections over the network with minimum delay.

"The specific systems that make up the digital campus may vary according to the unique needs and objectives of each institution and its constituents," points out Boice. The right technologies for higher education organizations should include administrative solutions to support administrative processes, content management solutions to manage content, tasks and documents for greater efficiency though Web content management, workflow, imaging and related solutions.

Security is another core issue that educational institutions need to consider while selecting technology solutions. According to a recent research by Educause, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, the increased utilization of networks at higher education institutions provides exceptional opportunities for users but also increases the risks associated with information storage, transmission, and access. Access--together with regulatory requirements, distributed architectures, and hostile elements on the Internet--requires greater expenditures and necessitates new security practices and updated policies.

HP believes there is a growing interest towards open source software application in education sector. It points out that the possibility to safe-tailor the software using in-house expertise, economic pressures to decrease budgets and easy to handle licensing issues will swing the pendulum in favor of open source software.

Leading the charge

The education technology infrastructure of the Middle East can be compared with the best in the world and has earned kudos from the likes of Intel"s ex-chairman Craig Barret. (We have cherry picked four higher education institutions, which have done pioneering work in technology adoption and featured them in the boxes along with this story.)

"Education is the only sector where people have common objectives and issues globally. The region closely follows the technology trends in North America," says May Ammouneh, Marketing Manager, Humansoft Learning Solutions.

"Some of the universities and higher colleges throughout the region are role models in terms of technology adoption. Most recently, many of them pioneered mobile deployments, where numerous campuses in countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and the UAE are today wireless, providing students with access to the latest usage models to enhance their learning experience," says Al Kadi. Needless to say, these increased investments in technology adoption by educational institutions in the region bode well for the current and next generation of learners in the region.

Learning on demand

Dubai Men"s college"s spanking new IT infrastructure can match up to the best in the world. This highly sophisticated infrastructure allows its 2000 students and 300 faculty members access to a unique and advanced educational technology helping to position the college as an eLearning pioneer in the Gulf.

The campus features some of the latest technologies that enable radical and new methods of learning, including on-line library archives, video conferencing, wireless connectivity and voice over IP.

Using IBM"s on demand model, whereby the environment has inherent flexibility to change and bring in new technologies and adapt to changing requirements as and when required, not only now but also in the future. The infrastructure supports secure wireless access throughout the campus and creates an all together new environment that enables new and advances methods of learning, including the region"s first online facility that allows students to download video clips of various classroom lectures through video-on-demand technology. This system provides students an option where they can chose to run the lectures offline, after downloading the file onto their computers.

DMC"s eLearning capabilities also extend to the ability of archiving library books on-line so that students can extract the information they need instantly via their notebooks, while they are in classroom or outside. The infrastructure also supports video conferencing facilities, which will allow the faculty members the ability to conduct their lectures and interact with students without being physically present in classrooms.

The DMC network is architected in a mesh model, which reduces a single point of failure. The LAN has around 5000 nodes while the campus is doted with around 14--wireless access points. The network runs on a 2G-byte backbone providing one mbps bandwidth simultaneously to all students at any given point of time.

The make-up of DMC"s modern IT backbone is supported by a Nortel-based networking environment and includes over 35 IBM eServer xSeries systems, a fully integrated enterprise management system using IBM"s Tivoli enterprise software and Peregrine helpdesk solution. On the storage side, DMC has a five TB SAN with a scalable 100 strong tape library with around 40 TB capacity. It has also deployed digital media technologies to digitally manage, store, protect and distribute video, audio and images across the DMC network.

DMC runs a heterogeneous environment with hardware optimized for different applications in use, including Sun Microsystems, xSeries Intel servers, Novell, Linux, Solaris, Windows. Though the system is currently supporting 2000 students, it can easily scale up to handle 6000 students, DMC"s projected growth into next 10 years.

Security was a key issue for DMC"s new infrastructure and it wanted to ensure the environment would be totally secure without impeding student access to appropriate resources and informational files, no matter where they are. " That"s why we have a six layered security architecture in place. We have struck a fine balance between security and performance, " says Imad Ramadan, ITS Supervisor. The security solution starts right from the edge of the network, comprising the latest access control mechanisms such as firewalls, IPS and filters. Features such as virus checking proxy appliances also ensure that web browsing is fast yet safe from threats.

A technology test bed

Today, in terms of its technology usage and deployment, AUS could easily be termed as one of the leading technology users in the market. From total wireless connectivity, to VoIP and RFID, AUS in the coming months will showcase some of the first time technology deployments in the region.

For the American University of Sharjah, the strategy for integrating technology at every layer is part of what the university calls its move towards total student responsiveness. While the focus is evidently on ensuring a strong backend IT infrastructure, the thrust is certainly on building up the R&D capabilities and extensively piloting emerging technologies. The university today spends nearly 7% of its annual budget on technology investments.

Founded in 1997 by His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) today boasts of 4100 students, four schools and colleges (College of Arts and Sciences, The School of Architecture and Design, the School of Business and Management, and the School of Engineering), 260 faculty members and 700 staff.

"As a pioneer in the field of American style higher education in the Gulf, AUS relies heavily on its IT infrastructure to support its growth and enable university-wide connectivity. We specifically have a charter to pilot emerging technologies and ensure that connectivity and technology is available to every student, " says AUS Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration George J DeBin.

Today, in terms of its technology usage and deployment, AUS could easily be termed as one of the leading technology users in the market. From total wireless connectivity, to VoIP and RFID, AUS in the coming months will showcase some of the first time technology deployments in the region. The campus is currently supported by 400 km of optic fiber network.

"We plan to deploy 50-60 IP phones in a controlled environment like the library to enable inter school VoIP calls. RFID is another project that will be rolled out and we want to enable self check-in and checkout of books for the students using RFID technology," says AUS Director of IT Ashi Sheth.

Other key investments this year will be to double Internet connectivity in support for e-learning and a student portal initiative that will provide an on-line resource for students to store his/her information securely. Wired and wireless connectivity to empower both internal users and guests/visitors is also set to expand. AUS is also looking to ensure the deployment of cutting edge infrastructure following its end-to-end partnership with Cisco systems. "We are also expanding core capabilities like implementing the 10G Ethernet switch for example. We are also considering deployment of VPNs to secure both internal as well as remote connectivity. The idea is to maintain excellent control of our own environment," says Sheth.

Getting a unified view of the business is also an essential objective of its infrastructure and application strategy especially to enable better delivery of service and use it as an all integrating layer between all departments.

On the storage front, AUS currently has about 3-4 terabytes of data storage (with a full SAN in place) and plans to scale this up to 8-10 terabytes as the university consolidated its storage infrastructure.

"Even though utilization of the storage capacity currently stands at 2.5 terabytes, AUS believes that this is required to support its growth plans. In the next three to six months, the university is looking to move away from using direct storage to a multi-tiered storage architecture to managed the data lifecyle effectively," says Sheth.

AUS plans to scale its technology partnership with Cisco over the next few months and pilot more emerging technology including the use of chassis-based switches for scalability, the 10G switch deployment and finally consideration of moving to a unified messaging platform providing fax, email and voice-mail functions through a single interface.

Learning set free

At the UAE University, College of Information Technology (CIT), the concept of learning is about having access to information at anytime and at any place. Like CIT"s Dean Dr Rafic Z Makki says the main aim of using technology is to dramatically enhance student learning by enabling the information to be within reach of the students no matter where they are on campus and to be a catalyst to fuel research and development.

With this charter, it then comes as no surprise to see that the UAE University today has the distinction of having deployed the largest wireless network in the region and implemented the largest active directory in the region.

"All our university business is conducted on-line and we use the Blackboard system for on-line delivery of course content to our student. Besides this we have internal studio/video production facilities and have developed a multimedia e-learning system that synchronizes video, text, course material and student notes within a single environment," says Dr Makki.

On admission, every student in CIT is required to purchase a laptop and use it in the classroom. "Our classrooms are all e-enabled, including wireless Internet access and there are e-enabled learning centers throughout the university including within the hostels. The university has also set up state-of-the-art laboratories for conducting cutting-edge scientific research," he adds.

The infrastructure building process has seen CIT working with a variety of vendors and systems integrators including names like Emirates Computers, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Oracle and IBM.

"From a technical standpoint, there are three key aspects to learning that we required the infrastructure to enable - the availability of the right information at the right time, presentation of this information in a manner that maximizes student interest in the subject, and the analysis and processing of this information to produce knowledge," says Dr Makki.

"High speed broadband internet access is a key technology that is making on-line distance education more efficient and enjoyable. It is imperative that our region also begin to invest in high speed/bandwidth Internet networks such as Internet2 and the TeraGrid," he adds. The TeraGrid project in the USA is the world"s largest and fastest distributed network empowering scientific research on a scale of 20 teraflops of computing power.

Collaborative learning

At the Dubai Women"s College, part of the Higher Colleges of Technology the use of IT both on the infrastructure and client side is to enable total collaboration of students and information.

With a current student base of 2150 students, expected to go up to 2700 by next year, the mandate to use technology to equip students with the right skills for the job market clearly defines the IT spends.

"Earlier the process of learning was distinguished by the fact that it happened in a classroom. But today with the use of technology, we are enabling it to take place anywhere and in a collaborative manner," says the Dubai Women"s College MIS IT Coordinator Brent Pienaar.

The model pursued is a blended approach that uses a mix of technology, on-line student information systems and wireless connectivity. To ensure that this is standardized across the college, students on admission are expected to purchase a laptop, which is also extensively used for learning and collaborative purposes.

"The primary thrust for us has been one of collaboration and just ensuring simple e-mail availability for students was not enough. We have in place Microsoft Exchange, website and a basic document management system, student and faculty instant messaging systems and to ensure everybody takes off from the same starting point, we ensure that every student buys a laptop for use throughout her course," says Pienaar.

Encouraging judicious use of network and printing resources is also a key thrust. The university has a total of 135 classrooms and printing resources are being shared effectively. "Each corridor is provided with one printer, which means the network and the printing can be shared," he adds. Currently close to 2800 devices are connected to the network infrastructure, supported by a dedicated IT team of six engineers.

On the infrastructure side, the college has investment in both storage and SAN capacities, besides building a strong network infrastructure. "We have so far been spending our IT budgets on building capacities as and when we need it. We have currently invested in a SAN capacity of two terabytes and we are looking at investing more to expand the network infrastructure," he adds.

About a year back, the college also put in place a standardized vendor policy and decided to go end-to-end with Cisco infrastructure for the network and IBM for the servers and laptops.

"We are also moving towards enabling more project-based learning and setting up dedicated technology labs is an ongoing effort. We currently have an IBM powered Linux Lab on campus and a Cisco network center and we are looking at piloting projects in wireless technology and VoIP over our fiber optic network," says Pienaar. The college is also keen to invest in delivering one Gigabit bandwidth to the desktop, which will take its collaboration push further.