Please take note that this is not the official UNESCO report of the forum, but only my personal report as invited international expert.
The Regional Forum on ICTs in Higher Education Systems of Arab States was held in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 7 and 8, 2016, with the objective to provide conceptual clarification with respect to the usage of ICTs in Higher Education, to take stock of existing initiatives in the Arab Region, and to contribute to enhancing cooperation and synergies among stakeholders. This report summarizes these discussions, first with respect to some specific topics, and second, with respect to overall themes and concepts.
Access and Inclusiveness
Presenters agreed that ICTs in education play a major role in promoting access and inclusiveness. Prof. M. Jemni presented the ALECSO smart learning framework, which adopted a four-prong strategy: to promote cloud computing, mobile applications, open educational resources, and open online courses. Dr. P. Gedeon cited the UNESCO model of inclusive education “that makes use of electronic media and devices to facilitate access, promote evolution and improve the quality of education and training.” Consultant Dr. A.M.M. Osman cited the case of the use of ICTs to support learning for refugees and displaced populations and addressed provision of higher education resources in cases of emergencies and crises. Dr. H.A. El-Ghali underscored the difficulty of providing higher education for refugee populations and pointed to limitations on employment and engagement in host countries. Mr. I. Zoghbi pointed to the role of ICTs in supporting less privileged populations, including children, women and the disabled.
Presenters agreed that the utility of ICTs in education is enhanced though openness. Mr. S. Downes drew a parallel between open educational resources and the words in a conversation, arguing that education requires a dialogue between practitioners and students. Dr. W. Karam identified the use of free and open source software as a key enabler of ICTs in education. Several presentations referenced the use of open educational resources to support learning, focusing on both increased access and their role in promoting quality.
Presenters emphasized the importance of ICTs in supporting the quality standards essential to supporting the needs of students and stakeholders. Dr. Z. Malak offered the case of the Lebanese Center for Educational Improvement, AJWAD, describing ICTs as a catalyst to enhance quality in the classroom. Dr. K. El Hassan made the same observation with respect to the American University of Beirut, pointing to the use of ICTs in monitoring and assessment of processes and outcomes. Mr. M. Oueidat (et.al.) offered as an example the Global Campus student information and campus management application. Dr. M. Taji described the use of ICTs in teacher preparation and professional development.
Quality Assurance Process
Numerous institutions and stakeholder groups have addressed quality through the development of standards and quality assurance processes. For example, Prof. M. Sidir described the quality assurance mechanisms centering on the Bologna process in Europe and illustrated how a transnational program can be adapted to a national system. Dr. K. Abouchedid (et.al.) described a quality assurance process involving open educational resources. Dr. D. Nauffal described quality assurance processes at the Lebanese American University, addressing the challenges of measuring quality and the role of ICTs in standardizing and automating the process. These observations were reiterated by Dr. N. Hadj-Hamou, who also discussed the role of ICTs in supporting dialogue and interaction.
Competency Development and Assessment
Assessment requires a focus on not only a definition of standards and competencies but also on individual objectives and personal learning records. Dr. P. Gedeon described the European competency framework and identified certain skills – such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and technical skills as being among the most widely desired by employers. Computer-based education and ICTs play an essential role in the development of faculty using Moodle to support program design, class design, and student evaluation, noted Dr F. El-Hage. Mr. S. Downes argued that learning and assessment ought to address the personal needs and interests of students, and that individual and portable personal learning records are to be desired.
Overall Themes and Concepts
As noted above, all participants saw clearly the need to the development and use of ICTs to support education in the Arab Region, as has been the case around the world. At the same time, the Arab Region faces unique challenges and priorities that on the one hand make the deployment of ICTs more difficult, but on the other hand make the use of ICTs increasingly necessary.
The most critical challenge, and one that was addressed in all key areas of discussion, was the need for increased capacity. Physical infrastructure has been developed, but is unequally available through the region. The same is the case for human resources; while there are notable pockets of expertise, there is a need for greater human capacity at a national and international scale. This relates not merely to the technical skills required to effectively use ICTs, but also metacognitive skills that would enable practitioners and especially administrators and government officials to recognize quality, ensure appropriate system-wide and individual assessment, and to foster openness, access and inclusiveness in the system.
As was stated by numerous participants, including most notably Dr. Osman, an appreciation for the effective and appropriate deployment of ICTs to support social and national objectives is best accomplished through joint and collaborative action, whereby member states and officials can both learn from each other’s experiences, identify areas on common interest, and experience directly the enhancement of capacity and quality that a common investment in ICTs can support. It is often said that the nature of knowledge in the 21st century has changed, that it depends more on experience and practice than in previous eras, and that the ability to learn and adapt are of greater importance than recollection and repetition. This may be true, but it is only through the direct experience of building institutions and international collaborations that this will comprehended directly by administrators and decision makers.
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