“To me e-learning is a way of life”

Interview with Prof. Abtar Darshan Singh, Chair of the e-Learning Excellence track


A recent study found that healthcare workers who trained using e-Learning learned as much, and sometimes more, than those who studied in traditional classroom settings. What other industries do you think could be transformed by e-learning techniques?


E-Learning has pervaded almost every corner of the learning biosphere, and it is very difficult to single out any particular industry. You mention healthcare. An awareness of the usage of e-learning in healthcare was spotlighted after a comprehensive study by World Health Organization.


To me, the immediate domain that comes to mind without the benefit of the anecdotal data is architecture design. In some ways it is similar to health care. The recent advances in building virtual models due to the advancement of the animation and gaming industries mean that we can see the industry benefitting from e-Learning in the future. Of course, detailed studies are needed to validate this.


Another area allied to what you mentioned earlier is agriculture. The advent of social media and allied technologies has the potential to be a game changer. A lot of agricultural courses are being developed and taken directly to the masses now. The key to this will be to see if the social media pervasion into the rural communities gets transformed into learning by the masses. If this happens, the transformation will be enormous.


Here again, the role of researchers is paramount. We need the following:


a) a cross-country, large-scale research similar to the WHO study;


b) a meeting of minds of e-Learning developers and the industry that drives the demand; and


c) government-sponsored research into the key drivers for change.


What are some hurdles e-Learning initiatives must overcome before attaining more widespread adoption in the business realm?


To me, e-learning is a way of life. It is an extension of the technology penetrating the classrooms. What we used to call face-to-face learning has significant components of e-Learning in it, and what we call e-Learning has significant amounts of face-to-face work in it. All businesses adopt some form of e-Learning in their operations once an employee has joined the work place. However, there is resistance or a last-mile fear of quality in the recruitment of new employees. This fear perhaps is influenced by decades of distance-learning maladies and will take some time to disappear.


One only way organizations and universities can make this happen is by focusing on what they do right: quality education. A well-thought-out structure of the e-Learning programs, involvement of industry in the planning, development and delivery, and finally a focus on high-quality products will ensure sustainability. Governments have a role in ensuring that the appropriate standards are framed for e-Learning, followed by learning organizations.


To me, the one issue that is glossed over in the debate between face-to-face learning and e-Learning is the sense of community that face-to-face learning provides to learners. Schools and colleges are the hubs of social life for learners, preparing them for life’s social challenges. E-Learning provides a different sense of community engagement to the learner by opening up opportunities for interaction across borders and cultures seamlessly. These human stories need to get out more.


Which eLearning experts are you most excited to see?


Curt Bonk, Christopher Dede, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Diana Laurillard.


Which trends do you see in the mobile sector in the MENA region?


The key for the future in the region is the availability of content and the form in which it will be easily accessed. The region has a high smartphone penetration rate and greater-than-average consumption of videos and social media. These trends are the bedrock on which the m-Learning design will be based.


As time progresses, we will see multiple forms of m-Learning being applied, as our understanding of the usage patterns becomes clearer.


Do you think the MENA region is taking adequate advantage of big data to improve online learning and digital initiatives in schools?


In my opinion, the understanding of big data worldwide is still in its infancy, and the MENA region is no exception. However, due to the dynamic growth in online learning and technology improvements in schools, the rate of acceptance and implementation of big data technologies will be far easier in the MENA region as opposed to other less-well-established e-Learning regions.


When we talk about big data and education in general, there is a constant dilemma between pedagogy and technology concerns. The technological end says yes, massive data can be managed and harnessed for outcomes.


But learning is unlike other domains of big data in that the focus is on the minds of the students, not on raw information that can be leveraged for things like advertising. So, as long as there is a lack of data that conclusively establishes that the content has been understood despite the scale of the classrooms, then the adoption rate will be less. Again, we need more research in this area.


Do you see differences between designing e-Learning programs for the Middle East and the West?


In my opinion, fundamentally, there is no difference. Our normal advice is to adopt the AB2CE principles which substantially cover the broad perspectives of learning design:


A – Study the audience. Who is the learner/ the participant? What is the audience’s TASK (thinking, attitude, skill, and knowledge) level? What special needs do the learners/participants have? What must the instructor focus on and be sensitive to? How can the instructor empathize with the learner/participant in the usage and adoption of new technologies?


B – Know what the intended or expected behaviour is. What will the learners do at the end of this course that they could not do before? What knowledge will the learner acquire?


C– Culture – What are some of the unique cultural norms of the learning in different cultural settings? How can one adapt to these unique norms?


C- Content design – Focus on the relevant content to achieve learner-centred learning and address the cultural, national and regional ethos.


E – Expectation by the learners – Address learner expectations. Try to meet learner expectations without compromising the quality and institutional ethos.


The above AB2CE principles are universal and can be applied in any context.


How would you finish this sentence: “Looking at this year’s agenda, I believe Innovation Arabia 8…… will lead to a myriad of very impactful discussions on the importance of learning innovations in the specific fields and also other global issues especially those that will directly impact student learning. Further, due to the high number of international participants attending the conference, the networking and further scientific research collaborations will give a real advantage to all attendees.


What are some of the most exciting advancements that HBMSU is leading in e-Learning?


A cutting edge dynamic rich content repository; capitalizing on technology to give ongoing feedback in a variety of formats; using cloud computing to offer proper tools and applications to all learners anytime and anywhere; using cloud storage for high-end learning resources
Using mobile technology to ensure all modules, tools and applications are accessible on mobiles, (making them ubiquitous to learners); innovative training and capacity development ofFaculty, e.g.: mobile on-the-go support; use and development of appropriate apps; etc.


Is there a particular topic you would like to highlight for the e-Learning Excellence track?


The highlight of the E-Learning excellence track will be the Keynote address which will eventually lead to the forum discussions. The forum discussions will be led by a group of highly acclaimed educators and researchers. Forum discusisons will give participants the opportunity to actively discuss, participate and debate in the issues raised by the panelist. Participants who have innovative ideas related to how learning organizations can leap-frog and be a champion in smart and e-learning initiatives, will find this forum very useful indeed


For more information on Innovation Arabia 8: www.innovationarabia.ae

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