As regional director for the Arabian Gulf at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Baher Ezzat is trying to spread the use of virtual classrooms across the region. While the Paris-based company's networking software for schools has been used in the West for five years, the first educational institution to implement it in the Gulf was Ankabut in the Emirates six months ago. The government-owned Ankabut, aka the UAE Advanced Network for Research and Education, has connected 56 universities across the country through the software. Here Mr Ezzat talks about the virtues and challenges of a virtual classroom.
What does a virtual classroom involve?
A virtual classroom is the classroom not defined by walls but connected through the cloud and accessible by students and teachers from anywhere using a desktop or a mobile device.
It allows people to join the lecture via audio or video, ask questions, poll, solve problems, share documents, IM, form discussion groups, regardless of their medium of communication - phone, desktop PC, laptop - while enabling session recording, live streaming and accessing archived or pre-recorded sessions.
What are the virtues of a virtual classroom?
A student or a teacher can be physically somewhere else and have interaction here. For some students who have to stay at home due to medical needs, the virtual classroom will be helpful.
What are the challenges?
The biggest challenge is adapting it from a cultural standpoint. Here we think we need someone standing in the classroom for the students to pay attention. But students are welcoming [virtual classrooms] because they are into Web browsing and virtual world anyway.
Does this mean the virtual classroom technology will decrease the number of teachers?
The aim of the technology is not to decrease the number of teachers. Rather their expertise is being leveraged.
Today's teachers have to be up to date with technology and its use. They need to integrate it into their teaching methods and courses. Today's student should look at education as another way of being entertained, a way that fills their need to feel more self-belonging, control of their life, engaged. And these should not come from only from gaming but from how they are being taught and how they are interacting among themselves and with their teachers. With technologies like the virtual classroom, academic institutions now have access to qualified teachers outside the country or in another town and organise for them to teach their students from anywhere through such a collaborative system. Students, too, need not necessarily be in a 'classroom' to attend a class.
Which countries in the Gulf are the major potential markets for this technology?
The UAE is the leading country, followed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Apart from Ankabut, who are you talking to in the UAE to implement this technology?
We are talking to a couple of organisations in the government as well as in the private sector at the college level.