The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant changes in the instructional process at all levels of education in Saudi Arabia. After spending 17 months in distance online learning, the 2021 academic year allows for the adoption of a blended learning model, which combines traditional face-to-face instruction with online learning in different variations. First, the online learning model on its own is explored and some of the lessons learned during the pandemic are outlined. Then the article introduces blended learning, which is the central theme, examining its benefits and challenges in the modern educational environment. The article examines and compares three major e-learning platforms that are used for the online aspect of distance and blended learning. The concept of blended learning is then critically examined regarding its impact on instructors, students, the instructional process, and general institutions of Saudi Arabia. By all accounts, blended learning is expected to be the future of Saudi Arabia’s educational strategic approach, not only due to the status quo of the pandemic but because of multiple trends regarding demographics, funding, and technology.
The beginning of 2020 saw the world face an unprecedented threat at a level not seen in modern times – a global pandemic. Life in all aspects was changed as governments used available resources to combat the rapid spread of disease. The first official case in Saudi Arabia was confirmed on March 2, 2020, by May, the number of confirmed cases rose to 50,000, one of the highest in the Middle East and among Arab states. However, the Saudi government reacted swiftly with a series of measures and lockdowns being implemented, including curfews and the Saudi Ministry of Education closed all educational institutions on 8 March (Arab News, 2020). Teachers were forced to rapidly and virtually without preparation to transition to distance learning and online virtual classrooms. Despite the gradual lifting of restrictions in the latter half of 2020, Saudi Arabia remained on distance learning through the 2020-2021 academic year. As of 2021, vaccinated students over the age of 12 are allowed to return to classrooms, but many jurisdictions have implemented blended learning models and it is expected that this will be the status quo as the world learns to adapt to COVID-19 (Al-Khudair, 2021). This review article will examine the concept of virtual education and the transition towards a blended model, examining potential challenges and benefits and the impact on students and the educational process.
The sudden end to all educational activities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unplanned shift from traditional in-classroom instruction to a setup with a focus on digital teaching and learning. Without a doubt, the lockdown negatively impacted the educational process, as the disruption offered no preparation and led to not only a sudden transition in terms of instructional models but also obvious detriments, as teachers lacked training while there was no unified digital infrastructure in place. There were various human factors to consider as well, such as many workers having to quit or retire due to the pandemic and taking care of themselves and their families. Meanwhile, for students, they lost the privilege of attending in-person classes, which is highly important for the educational process of some students (struggling and special education) and touches many practical fields of study (medicine, science, engineering) (Alshaikh et al., 2021).
Online learning is classified as synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous technology implies live interaction, which includes audio/videoconferencing, webchats, and live demonstrations. Meanwhile, asynchronous technology implies a time delay between instruction and when it is received. This can range from pre-recorded lectures and online homework assignments to discussion forums. Online learning has been considered an effective instructional tool, but until the COVID-19 pandemic, it has largely been seen as a supplement because of various challenges it can present, ranging from technology to lack of non-verbal communication (Khalil et al., 2020).
Digitization of education is a challenging process. Saudi Arabia was experimenting with some elements of virtual learning in the context of blended instruction at universities prior to the pandemic. Digitization of education is also important as part of Vision 2030 which not only seeks to expand access to education but offer the most forward technological tools available, including that of distance learning and virtual classrooms (Alnahdi, 2019). However, even in highly developed countries, online learning is in its infancy. Students encounter difficulties due to learning styles, lack of self-confidence, poor skills with technology, struggling internet connectivity, and underdeveloped instructional design (Maheshwari, 2021). A 300-student survey in a Saudi university by Alsmadi et al. (2021) found for the most part students agree that internet learning and virtual classrooms are effected but offer different dynamics of interaction and learning. The majority of the material is easily understood and sufficient for addressing most questions, but regarding topics or questions that are difficult to understand, it is must more difficult to clarify. The study found that lack of interaction and technological issues if they do occur (most often poor internet connection) are the primary concerns of online learning, the results being largely supported by studies from around the world (Alsmadi et al., 2021).
Without a doubt, the massive transition to virtual learning during the pandemic and the status quo expected to remain (either through blended learning or lockdowns with fully virtual learning) has led to significant developments in the market and technologies surrounding e-learning. In just Saudi Arabia alone, the e-learning market is expected to reach USD 1 billion by 2025 with the content services market and technology services expected to grow anywhere from 18 to 25% (Ken Research, 2021). For Saudi Arabia, virtual and e-learning is not just a matter of safety during the pandemic but a strategic long-term investment. With rapid population growth and the current and expected shortage of teachers, e-learning may be a solution. Saudi Arabia is experiencing a lack of space in higher education facilities and the cultural change around the world with people preferring to stay home; e-learning is a way to provide access to education to a wide variety of populations, such as family caretakers for whom it is more comfortable to remain home. As for schools, online learning may be part of a new approach to ‘smart’ education, allowing students more time outside the classroom and reducing both the logistical and financial burden on the education system (Ken Research, 2021).
In December 2020, the Saudi deputy minister of education Dr. Mohammed Al-Sudairy, indicated that hybrid learning is here to say and labeled it as the “path to the future” (Al-Shammari, 2020). Essentially, the pandemic helped to accelerate technological adoption in education and served as an experiment of sorts as all educational levels transitioned to online learning at the same time. The Ministry of Education used all its capabilities to transition students to online learning systems to ensure continuity of education and maintain its quality. According to the Ministry, great results were achieved without much loss to academic and operational efficiency. Going forward, as restrictions are lifted, these systems will be maintained to complement and enhance the in-person instructional process (Al-Shammari, 2020).
In simple terms, blended learning is essentially a combination of online/technology and face-to-face instruction, also known as hybrid or mixed learning. However, academia explores it deeper, providing a definition such as “an enriched, student-centered learning experience made possible by the harmonious integration of various strategies, achieved by combining face-to-face interaction with information and communication technology (ICT)” (Alnahdi, 2019, p.2). Blended learning environments seek to integrate the advantages of e-learning with the traditional model of traditional face-to-face teaching. While face-to-face instruction is provided in traditional classrooms, the online learning portion can take on various synchronous or asynchronous forms depending on the media and medium of technology used. Blended learning is meant to create an effective learning experience and enhance learning performance, but teachers are less willing to involve such technology in the learning process (Alzahrani, 2017).
Saudi Arabia began designing e-learning systems to be used for blended learning as early as 2006. The National Plan for Information Technology sought to encourage e-learning and distance learning in higher education institutions. A national center known as the National E-learning and Distance Learning Centre (NELC) was created to provide technical tools and support to begin developing digital content for higher education. A range of universities including well-known ones such as King Saud University and Qasssim University, began actively implementing the blended and virtual learning models for some courses in the early 2010s. Once again, while flexibility and accessibility were valued, major concerns regarding ICT infrastructure, resources, and technical support were present (Alnahdi, 2019). While the ICT infrastructure and high-speed data exchange have been developed by 2020, the technical support and software elements are still lacking in quality.
Many schools and universities currently face similar issues and challenges in implementing blending learning. It requires collaboration among all stakeholders to provide infrastructure, training opportunities, and adoption to prepare students for the future of education. The application of blended learning in various parts of the world results in development of different perspectives on a common blended learning system (Yilmaz & Malone, 2020). However, there are also similarities, as blended learning can be characterized in three categories:
- Enabling blends – focusing on issues of access and convenience, ICT used to provide an equivalent learning experience (for example, online courses or full online-degrees)
- Enhancing blends – incremental changes to pedagogy, supplemental online resources meant to enhance course instruction and learning material.
- Transforming blends – these are significant changes in pedagogy that facilitate active learner creation of knowledge. Such integrations strongly revolutionize instruction through technology. Some examples may include instructional simulations virtually or the use of mixed reality technologies (Yilmaz & Malone, 2020).
From a pedagogical perspective, blended learning is the best solution for improving education in Saudi Arabia, both in access and quality. Literature remains undecided whether the most effective approach is fully virtual or traditional face-to-face instruction, so potentially taking the best elements from each instruction type to create optimal blended learning can be highly successful. Overall, blended learning is useful in many ways, enjoyable by students and instructors, allows for flexibility and motivates students. However, effective blended learning environments have to be developed through planning and encouraging student participation (Alzahrani, 2017). Blended learning should be seriously considered by stakeholders as the next stem to academic education at all levels.
Types of Blended Learning Models
Blended learning has become a manner of an umbrella term and offers much flexibility in terms of instruction combining two pedagogical perspectives. Blended course designers are faced with unique instructional challenges: 1) distributing activities appropriately between online and face-to-face, 2) identifying the relationship between online and physical components of education, and 3) distributing time between these two components of a course (Hrastinski, 2019). Research indicates that the nature of learning activities can be more critical than the delivery mode. Students prefer activities with choice and promoting social interaction. Meanwhile, while students value online lectures, exercises, and quizzes/tests, if any issues arise that restrict their online participation without an instructor present, students may feel heavily disengaged (Owston et al., 2019).
Once a learning activity is designed in alignment with course objectives, it must be determined which mode of delivery best supports student learning. When modes of delivery are purposefully integrated, students perceive value of blended learning and recognize the advantages of both types of learning. When there is a weak connection between the two modes, students report online discussions feel irrelevant and isolated. Research demonstrates that high satisfaction stems from blended learning experience, which combines interactive face-to-face sessions with synchronous video lectures, leading to students viewing online activities as highly engaging (Owston et al., 2019).
Established Instructional Models of Blended Learning
- Station rotation – students rotate through stations on a fixed schedule where one of the stations is online learning. This is commonly done in a single classroom or facility, most commonly applied to primary education where such rotations are used for instruction and in-class supervision is necessary.
- Lab rotation – similar to station rotation, students switch between stations on a fixed schedule, but online learning occurs in a dedicated computer lab. Helps schools to take advantage of computer facilities and flexible scheduling arrangements with teachers. Helpful for middle-school students and older, who can manage operating computers independently and engage in personalized learning. The model also allows for small group interventions and guidance, if necessary, during the online instruction period.
- Individual rotation – students rotate through stations based on individual schedules determined by teachers or algorithms. They rotate only to activities scheduled, at least one of which involves online learning. This is similar to course rotation schedules used in many high schools and higher education courses, where the individualities of the student needs are taken into account.
- Flipped classroom – one of the best forms of blended learning but the relationship between classwork and homework is flipped. Students learn new material and watch content at home online, and classroom time is used to reinforce knowledge and practice via assignments and projects. This is applicable to virtually all grades beyond primary education and can be highly practical in STEM disciplines.
- Flex model – Online learning is the foundation of the flex model and allows students to move among activities on a flexible schedule, with teachers providing support and instruction on an as-needed basis while students work towards fulfilling the curriculum. It can be highly effective at all grade levels but requires high motivation and students taking agency of their education.
- A La Carte model – this approach enables students to take online courses with an online instructor while also taking traditional face-to-face courses. This is meant to provide flexibility as well as offering additional options when an institution does not provide a certain subject or educational opportunity. It is a popular model in high schools and contributes to existing blended learning models.
- Enriched Virtual Model – alternative to full-time virtual learning. School attendance only used for face-to-face instruction with a teacher, but the majority of coursework is done online outside of the classroom. Unlike flipped classrooms, does not require daily attendance but only once-twice weekly attendance. Seen as a progressive alternative model to traditional scheduled school days.
Choosing the Right Model
The models discussed above are general but, at the same time, oddly specific. As evident, some are more appropriate for specific ages and classroom set-ups than others. There is no right or better model as it strongly depends on circumstance, student age, and subject matter, among others. Given the blended learning model that Saudi Arabia will upkeep, having students in class only several days of the week, alternating weeks, rather than the traditional Monday through Friday, certain models may be relevant. Taking that into account, it is likely that most institutions will utilize either the enriched virtual model or the flipped classroom approach. Otherwise, it is impossible to set a standard for one blended learning approach across a country or district. Potentially individual schools and grade levels that better understand the extent of their resources, faculty, and capabilities can select models best fitting for their educational purposes.
Analysis of Learning Management Systems
In addition to the hardware and ICT infrastructure necessary to implement virtual education, there always has to be software support as well. Prior to the pandemic, the popularity of so known learning managing systems (LMS) was taking over in many educational institutions around the developed world. An LMS is essentially an online administrative and learning management software accessed via the internet through either browser or application. Companies design LMSs based on some unitary standards that are common in education around the world, but when a school, district, or university signs a contract with them, they personalize the system to provide the necessary design and features that are necessary for the institution (Aldiab et al., 2019). LMSs are typically highly comprehensive, containing everything from administrative aspects such as student information and attendance tracking to educational parameters such as grades, various coursework hosting and upload, and online lectures. LMS are effective as they provide various levels of administrative access; similar to that of an internal school system, it offers ease of access for faculty to do their jobs, ranging from administrators confirming student course selections to teachers posting lectures and coursework. Meanwhile, students benefit as well from a unified platform where they can view assignments, watch lectures (both synchronously and asynchronously), and participate in class discussions (Pappas, 2016). Three major LMS platforms used in Saudi Arabia education institutions are Blackboard, Madrasati, Classera, and Classview, examined and compared in detail below.
Blackboard Learn is a web-based virtual learning environment and learning management system developed by the American education technology firm Blackboard Inc. It is one of the oldest and most respectable international players in the market. Blackboard dominates as the LMS of choice among Saudi public universities, encompassing 89% (Aldiab et al., 2019). This is due to the initial development of e-learning and LMS at King Abdulaziz University in 2006 was based on Blackboard. The uniformity of features across major Saudi universities, commercial support, and the use of innovative technology such as virtual laboratories are also reasons why Blackboard has gained much admiration and widespread adoption across higher education in the country (Aldiab et al., 2019). The Blackboard software is highly customizable, built on open architecture and has a scalable design fit for any size of educational institution or district. The platform offers all standard and more advanced LMS features that are known, however the system has faced criticism in recent past due to lack of stability and security flaws.
The Madrasati Platform was created by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education as an emergency measure in response to lockdowns in March of 2020. It functions as a virtual classroom and is utilized by all public and government schools for all educational levels, 1st to 12th grades. The platform offers both synchronous and asynchronous types of learning features, providing the learner to choose the most convenience and flexibility to study material and review recorded sessions. The platform supports a range of educational and teaching tools that are compatible with digital requirements of present and future. It offers live meetings, the full Microsoft Office programs, virtual textbooks, visual media, lesson plans, and tens of thousands of digital educational content in multiple subjects. From the teacher side, the platform provides tools for educational planning and lesson design, including homework and test creation capabilities meant to enforce and evaluate academic achievements (Aldossry, 2021).
Classera is an international educational platform developed by a Silicon Valley start-up by Saudi entrepreneurs Mohammed Al-Madani, and his partner Mohammad Al-Ashmawi. Classera has become one of the platforms popular amongst private schools in Saudi Arabia who were given the choice which LMS to adopt based on their unique organizational needs. Many of the A-class private schools were already working with Classera prior to the pandemic and had established personalized relationships that were simply expanded upon as virtual learning took off (Gassem, 2020). Classera is known for its reliability and innovation. In addition to a standard set of LMS features, it has integrated artificial intelligence to guide lesson planning or the instructional process. It also uses a gamification of education approach, with students spending more on the website in the long-term.
ViewClass is a smaller platform that is utilized by grades 1-12 private schools in Saudi Arabia. It offers three interfaces, for system managers, teachers, and students. The platform is based on Microsoft services for its e-learning and virtual classroom needs. The platform takes a simplistic and minimalistic design approach, but offers a wide range of features and services. Another element where the platform exceeds is interaction and integration, seamlessly allowing to integrate external material and making the learning process as interactive as possible to maintain student interest (ViewClass, 2019).
Choosing the right LMS
As evident, all these LMS platforms are highly similar in functionality and technology on which they are based. Some may offer more personalization options than others for educational institutions, while others integrate features the likes of gamification and interactivity. It is difficult to estimate which platform is more reliable or stable without complex technical analyses. It is known that the majority of LMS and e-learning systems have experienced unprecedented pressure and data traffic as the world continues to utilize virtual or blended learning. Ultimately, it is up to the institution of choice to decide which platform best fits their needs and can be sustained financially by the organization. However, it is best that institutions of the same type remain on the same platform, such as public schools using Madrasati universally. The reason to this is multifaceted, not only does it ensure equal access to education, curriculum preparation, and testing standards across the country, but it also helps to standardize technical support and training for teachers and staff on how to use it effectively in providing the best lessons and achieving academic outcomes.
Is Blended Learning Right for Saudi Arabia?
As mentioned earlier, online education has been pioneered for more than a decade in Saudi Arabia with the purpose to be used for blended learning opportunities. Although the concept has largely remained within the context of universities until the pandemic, the 2021-2022 academic year will demonstrate the first steps of primary and secondary education transitioning to blended learning models. While the deputy ministry of education does indicate that this is the way forward into the future, the question of many concerned parents and educators arises, is it right for Saudi Arabia. Blended learning is an effective strategy taking the practicality of both worlds. It eliminates the struggles of fully virtual learning where no contact with professors usually leads to demotivation and lack of engagement. However, it also removes the dreary long lectures that can viewed online, and rather makes the best use of face-to-face time for practical approaches and discussions with the instructor (Wagner, 2015).
Technology is undoubtedly the future of education, as the world becomes increasingly digitized. People, from a young age, are expected to have computer skills and be able to interpret information from screens. That is the direction that the whole developed world is moving towards, and blended learning was the norm in many countries prior to the pandemic. Governments are investing heavily into information and communication technology systems to enrich the educational process at multiple stages (Al Saud, 2020). Innovative approaches are being developed yearly, and it may very well be that those countries that cling to traditional methods of education, will be left behind in a digital world. For Saudi Arabia, there has been a strong dedication to integrating technology with education as part of Vision 2030. In most modern Saudi schools, there are interactive classrooms, immersive computer platforms, rich online resources, and advanced educational portfolio-linked applications (Al Saud, 2020). It is aimed to create a new generation of graduates which maintain high levels of expertise and strong competency in vital digital skills, that they can then hone at universities or employment. Without a doubt, with the minor challenges that blended learning poses currently, it is an uncomfortable and forced transition. However, taking into account the futurization of education, blended learning is the step that had to be taken.
Insights and Recommendations
Educational development and pedagogy are foremost about the needs of the student. In Saudi Arabia, particular attention is given to student learning styles, particularly at higher levels of education. Students preferring and utilizing multiple styles of learning perform better across all parameters. In Saudi secondary and higher education, lectures are the dominant methods of instruction. The blended learning approach offers a diverse and objectively different means of studying the subject, with multiple opportunities present on how information can be learned and interpreted online (Alzahrani, 2017).
While studies indicate that the levels of ICT equipment are appropriate, with only a small percentage of households experiencing connectivity issues on a regular basis, when technological disruptions occur, they seem to be highly disengaging for both instructors and students. As with any technological system, it may be experience breakdowns either from the user’s device or the central system. However, most commonly the technological disruptions stem from the human factor. Both academic staff and students seem to be using e-Learning platforms and ICT with highly uneven levels of experience and competence, not just individually, but across institutions throughout the country (Alzahrani, 2017). This indicates that the are differing approaches to technology for blended learning, stemming from varying adoption rates of technology to training received by staff. As blended learning becomes nationalized it is recommended to adopt national standards of technology training among students and staff as well as facilitate exchange of data and information between institutes to identify potential repeated patterns. While differences will always remain, it will establish a baseline level of competence for technology use and provide for better adoption of blended learning.
New generations of learners are struggling to incorporate technology into traditional learning and accepting the curriculum in digital forms. The use of technology many times creates disruptions and conflict, often due to the way teaching is conducted but sometimes because of frustrating issues outside of anyone’s control such as connectivity. Nevertheless, the way that students perceive the digital learning experience as part of the blended learning environment is critical. It calls for a continually developing digital curriculum, a radical shift to how the curriculum is created (Aljaber, 2018). El-Galil (2021) also found that specific design, particularly in course design, can have significant impacts on its students and how the perceive it. Universities can collaborate to develop the best courses based on their experiences. Rather than uploading and awkwardly digitally adapting traditional education, a digital education-based education system should be created from scratch, taking full advantage of the systems’ resources and developing news sets of educational objectives given the context.
Blended learning will see an uptake across organizations because of the benefits it brings. It improves effectiveness of current learning delivery systems that is weighed down by its rigidity. It offers the potential of a broad geographical spread in terms of instruction accessibility and flexibility. Adequate evaluation of blending learning programs should be in place. Currently the market, including government-provided, is undergoing a phase of experimentation, and institutions have the courtesy of choice (Harris et al., 2009). In the future, a range of objective and subjective criteria should be developed to consider factors ranging from cost effectiveness to student satisfaction in selecting the appropriate LMS for their school.
If one thing has been learned from this review of blended learning, it is that the human factor is always present and important. That is an element which seems to be forgotten within the discussions of complex technologies and theories of pedagogy. Therefore, the final recommendation is that in the development and implementation of blended learning, the human factor should be taken into account. Blended learning should be more than a policy checklist, but an effective tool meant to aid students in growth and development within the context of modern realities. Every decision regarding the development of the blended learning program to how it is utilized (which model) should be in consideration of the participants in it, the instructor and the students. They are critical stakeholders in the adoption of blended learning for the future of Saudi Arabia, so samples from these groups should be involved in decision-making processes both at national and local levels.
Finally, once the system is in place, significant investment should be made into supporting systems. These may include ensuring the stability of ICT infrastructure, training components for staff and educators, and technical support available 24/7 to users of LMS platforms. Due to the rapid nature of change in technology, support is crucial for curriculum planning, technology-planning, and skill development. It is well-understood that the success of a blended or e-learning program depends on the availability of learning tools and technical support offered to students.
Blended learning is expected to see success and become the future of education in Saudi Arabia. Having almost a 94% acceptance and positivity rate, blended education goes hand-in-hand with the digital citizenship component. The country has invested heavily into its digital and future-proof infrastructure as part of Vision 2030. Blended learning ensures better digital learning methods, proper integration, and promoting a balance to education. The pandemic has served as a catalyst so that many people or institutions widely adopt practices such as blended learning as part of the digital revolution. The education system should be looking forward and upgrade its resources so that it could better cope with the incoming changes and to serve students and staff well.
It may seem unfortunate and disruptive that Saudi Arabia along with most countries was thrust into the state of blended learning for its education system. However, the pandemic simply accelerated the trend of technology and education that was on its way by 2030. The Saudi government was aware of these tendencies, and the country and its educational leaders have been prepared for widespread adoption of virtual and blended learning when the pandemic hit, with minimal disruption to the continuum of education to students. The Saudi education system is thriving, ranging from the availability of strong public and commercial LMS platforms to instructors being trained in the implementation of blended learning models to generate the optimal engagement and achievements from students. The system is not perfect, and blended learning does continue to pose a variety of challenges. However, these can be addressed through comprehensive stakeholder approach. As technology continues to develop, particularly via revolutionary speeds of 5G connectivity and the processing power of new microprocessors to host elements such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, education as an industry will transform at its core and a significant portion will always remain digital.
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