Jordanian education leader pioneers online university, Arabic web encyclopedia

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Amid recent buzz about higher education going online, one of Jordan’s leading education institutions has launched an online education portal to serve a global audience.

As the founder and Chairman of Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org), H.E. Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh has worked since 1972 to provide professional and educational services from around 80 offices around the globe. TAGUINI, which he launched this January, is his latest foray into the “future of higher education”, an online university that “uses partnership as its modus operandi – comprised of a network of universities, non-governmental organizations, training institutions, and language schools - to deliver comprehensive education to a global student body.”

With a large and growing youth population, the region’s education systems have not very successful at keeping up with the size of the demand for education across the region, let alone the quality of education demanded. Online education, Abu-Ghazaleh says, offers the region an opportunity for “electronic education for employability”. As the online education space matures, it will present clear business opportunities that also generate social rewards.

Abu-Ghazaleh isn’t stopping there, however. Recently, he also announced that he hopes to build an online Arabic encyclopedia named Tagipedia, which will become the largest repository of vetted Arabic content on the web. Popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been historically light on Arabic content, yet has grown to 224,000 Arabic articles after launching various initiatives to support content creation. On Tagipedia, Abu-Ghazaleh hopes to reach 1 million articles by the end of the month, Yahoo reports. Unlike Wikipedia, which allows the crowd to vet its articles, Tagipedia entries will be reviewed and approved by an internal team.

To hear more about his vision, the Wamda team recently sat down with Dr. Abu-Ghazaleh to chat about recent trends in the online education space.           

1.     What potential do the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hold for the Arab world? 

There have been many studies on the effectives of MOOCs. Most criticism [of MOOCs has] centered on the fact that MOOCs do not provide for any interaction between the student and the instructor and that they requires a very sophisticated technology that often fails.  As a result, the majority of MOOC students drop out before the completion of their courses, primarily due to glitches in technology and their inability to interact with their instructor and with fellow students.  Furthermore, it should be noted that almost all MOOC courses do not carry any academic credit and therefore do not help students accumulate credits towards a degree. 

In my opinion, MOOCs have limited applications in the Arab world.  If we are to reach the masses that do not have access to traditional education, we are then assuming that these masses are very sophisticated in the use of technology and they may not be…. [but] I do not want to sound as if I oppose online education.  To the contrary, I am one of the major proponents of online education in the Arab world and that is why I established the University of Talal Abu-Ghazaleh (TAGIUNI) as a virtual university. However, the system that I support is online education provided by a selected number of prestigious universities that offer complete academic programs with limited class size in order to provide for interaction and discussions. I believe in quality education, and [as in] face-to-face education, I do not believe that quality can be delivered when you teach a large number of students.

2. What are the obstacles and challenges to “democratizing world-class education” across the Arab world?

There are a number of obstacles and challenges on the way to democratizing world-class education, especially in developing economies such as the Arab world.  For successful online education to take place, we assume that students are computer savvy and that they have access to the internet.  This may not be the case; in some regions the power supply is rationed and the internet is not reliable.

Furthermore, the education culture has to change; students have to start believing that they can acquire a great education online. [Additionally], one of the major obstacles remains the resistance of some Ministries of Education in the Arab world to accrediting diplomas from online universities.

3. What policies can Arab governments take to overcome these challenges and encourage innovation in this space?

Arab governments have to realize that they do not have the physical capacity nor the manpower required to accommodate all students who seek higher education.  Arab governments have to realize that quality online education is available, and as such the Ministries of Education should accredit online academic programs that meet certain standards.

Arab governments should also support business institutions that will invest in developing the required technology to support online education. Many academic institutions cannot do it on their own and very often need to partner with a technology company that has developed the platform and all the other requisites for successful online education. 

4. Where in the Arab world has TAGIUNI seen the most demand?

TAGIUNI’s objective is to reach students anywhere in the world.  Our mission is not restricted to providing online education to the Arab world.  However, since we are still in our infancy having launched our programs in January of this year, we find that at this time most of the demand comes from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  We have also seen interest from some Asian countries primarily, Pakistan.

5. What is the average age of a TAGIUNI student?

Most of our students are working students with a number of years of experience.  We estimate that the average age is about 28.

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