DUBAI // The chancellor of the UAE's first accredited online university says there is no room left for elitism in higher education.
Dr Mansoor Al Awar, the chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed e-University (HBMeU), spoke to a gathering of students and professors from conventional universities this week about the evolution of learning.
Quoting Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, Dr Al Awar said: "They say, 'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.' But I say we cannot afford ignorance and that is why we must do away with overpriced education."
Dr Al Awar believes online universities hold the key to educating the masses in the Middle East.
"The rate of illiteracy, 40 per cent - that is an alarming rate for any region," he said."Financially, we cannot afford to have this continue but can we afford to pour money into building and rebuilding schools and universities?"
A moderator began Wednesday's event by opening the floor to the audience and asking what they thought of online learning. Veronica Zyurnyayeba, the Career Department Coordinator at the University of Dubai, said: "Online education has a bad reputation; employers don't take it seriously because they want to hire someone who has practical skills."
That was exactly what Dr Al Awar expected to hear.
"We held this event because we wanted to create a platform for a discussion about conventional learning and e-learning," he said. "What we realised from that discussion is people have no idea what e-learning is all about."
By the end of the session Ms Zyurnyayeba said Dr Al Awar had won her over. "Like he said, it will take a few years but it is the way of the future."
Raniah Fattah, the manager of the International Students Services Department for the University of Phoenix's distance learning programme in the Middle East, said the public needed to change their perception of online learning.
"Here in the Middle East we are still very sceptical about things online - even purchasing things online. But I think it is starting to take off," she said.
One unanticipated benefit of e-learning, she said, was that it had allowed students to continue their education in the midst of political upheaval.
"I have students who are in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, and it is very encouraging for them to know they can keep learning," she said. "It's dangerous out there: curfews, bombs, live ammo … you don't have to go through any of that if you are studying at home!"
Other advantages of distance education discussed included giving college dropouts a chance to return, and empowering women who would otherwise be stuck at home.
Dr Al Awar praised Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, for being the first in the Arab World to set accreditation parameters for online learning.
"E-learning is not there to replace conventional learning," he said, "it is an evolution of education."