The hysteria over the arrest last month of the chief executive officer of Axact, the Pakistani software company that was churning out fake online university degrees and selling them to students around the globe, has unfortunately unfairly tainted the reputation of distance learning.
So much so, that a Twitter battle erupted recently between Shoura Council member Muwafiq Al-Ruwaili and the undersecretary at the Social Affairs Ministry Naif Al-Subaihi after Ruwaili accused Subaihi of irresponsibly encouraging distance learning.
Ruwaili has been on a campaign to stamp out fake degrees bought online, of which there are many in the Kingdom. In 2013 he told Arab News that there were 7,000 individuals in Saudi Arabia with fake educational certificates, including officials in both the public and private sectors, which they had obtained online. He also claimed that five percent of Saudi women working in the training and interior design fields have fake degrees. The obvious solution would be a crackdown by the Saudi government on these dubious sites, with the most notorious ones being blocked. Of course, there are probably far too many for the government to keep up with, so the Shoura Council’s recommendation made in 2013 to establish a national center for the attestation and documentation of university degrees should have been implemented already. Most countries require that foreign university degrees be attested by their local educational authorities before being accepted as valid. In our case, the Ministry of Education would be in charge of this attestation process of foreign degrees earned both online and off.
In the Kingdom the only local university licensed by the government to offer distance learning is the Arab Open University, which is based in Kuwait and has campuses and students in eight countries. Conceived in 1996 by Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, president of the Arab Gulf Development Program (AGFUND), the university started operating in 2002 and today has 28,460 students enrolled, and has graduated more than 20,690 students, 50 percent of which are women. It has a limited number of classrooms in Jeddah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Hail and Al-Ahsa, where students go to attend certain classes that demand their presence and to take regular exams. But the bulk of its teaching and learning is done online. It is a combination of distance and in-place learning. The benefits of distance learning are obvious: It is always cheaper than attending a university full-time, and is a good solution for students who live in remote areas and thus have no access to university campuses or for people who work and can only study part-time. Even so, degrees earned online or through the mail have always been looked down upon as being of inferior quality because those who earn these types of degrees have not attended classes on a campus classroom and had the benefit of personally interacting with fellow classmates and teachers. While this may be true of distance learning that is done entirely through mail, most distance learning today is done online where students can attend classes together online, or watch videos of lectures later if they miss the class.
Video conferencing with fellow students and teachers, as well as chat rooms online can make online learning as interactive as physically being present in a brick and mortar classroom, and perhaps even more so as one cannot sleep or not pay attention online as you need to keep interacting to make your presence be felt. To assure the quality of online learning, all end of term testing should take place in a real classroom with teachers and monitors to ensure that no cheating takes place. That is the only way to make sure that each online student has really learned all that was on the syllabus and was not asking a smart friend to do their homework for them during the semester.
Distance learning has been the great equalizer, allowing access to higher education to many poorer students around the globe for the first time in their lives. In India the Indira Ghandi National Open University (IGNOU) has 1.8 million students enrolled, and the Open University of China had a 9 percent increase in enrollments in 2011 of 467,000 students according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
And you would be wrong to think that distance learning is a recent phenomenon. The first recorded attempt at it occurred in 1728 when Caleb Philipps advertised a shorthand course by mail in the Boston Gazette. This later evolved in the 1840s to another shorthand course given by Sir Isaac Pitman in England in which he mailed students texts in shorthand, and students had to mail him back the transcriptions they made for correction. The University of London pioneered distance learning in 1858 with its External Program. The first Open University was founded in the United Kingdom in 1965 under Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Despite this long history of distance learning, it is sad that too many Saudis are so desperate to impress their employers with “fancy” foreign degrees — and so lazy — that they are ready to pay thousands of dollars to quacks to sell them fake degrees. The Ministry of Education has to do something quickly and forcefully about this veritable tsunami of fake degrees that is flooding the Kingdom. It is putting all of distance learning in a bad light and putting unqualified people with these fake degrees in positions where they could potentially harm the public at large.