e-Learning gets politicised in the Middle East


At the recent annual conference of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), entitled ‘Information Technology and the Future of Education in the UAE’, it was suggested that “The UAE has to revolutionize its education system to produce technology, reduce reliance on the West and maintain our national security.” While Dr Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of the Hamdan Bin Mohammad e-University, Dubai, may have a somewhat vested interest in a self-sufficient eCommerce industry in the United Arab Emirates, his statement does present an interesting hypothesis.

Dr Awar supported his comments by citing the US Secretary of State’s decision to replace a number of computers that were found to contain spying technology. The assertion underlying these statements appears to be that the UAE would more effectively protect its own interests if it were to develop its own e-learning content (in addition to other technology).

It’s always good to see e-learning get some press, particularly in unique forums, but the concept of a fully self-sufficient industry being built in a smaller country does lend itself to analysis.

A matter of national security?

The UAE is undoubtedly a powerful entity, exerting control and influence well beyond its size, if not its wealth. This situation presumably gives rise to secrets that are worth protecting, if only to maintain well groomed strategic positioning in global policy / commercial matters.
E-learning is often delivered in packaged software modules. The actual source code is somewhat disguised or one-step removed from the user. This has the dual effect of both isolating the software from where it can do harm and allowing a buffer under which nefarious code could be housed. Regardless, there are accompanying files that are designed to interact with databases, sometimes external to the place where the course content is housed. In short, the opportunity may exist for someone to misuse an e-learning application.

This can even happen by accident. I recall more than one occasion, albeit many years ago, where it was discovered that learner information had been exposed via some forgotten back door or overzealous personal details screen.  Admittedly, there were no Bond villains involved.

Some perspective

E-learning courses are one small part of a huge range of software applications that businesses and governments employ.  A piece of server software would perhaps be a more effective place to embed nefarious code, or a more common application, such as a security application itself. More effective, perhaps, would be the alteration / addition of hardware or software in mobile phones, or even televisions! Chinese cell phone manufacturers have, in recent years, undergone a great deal of scrutiny in this regard. And where do you suppose much of the world’s hardware comes from.
There are more universal and reliable ways to capture information than utilising e-learning as a spying tool.

E-learning is a small fish in this regard.  It is conceivable that e-learning could be used to gather intelligence; it’s just not entirely likely.

A matter of self-reliance?

It is not uncommon for organisations to maintain some degree of internal e-learning development capability. They quickly discover that:

    • The team can become highly effective at producing rapid e-learning courses focused on knowledge transfer (compliance or product knowledge, for example).
    • They cannot afford the best e-learning instructional designers.
    • They lack ability to maintain creative stimulation for the best instructional designers, even if they find a way to afford them.
    • They can rarely produce the rich media experience that they have seen available from third-party providers.
    • They sometimes end up duplicating content which is available at an affordable price from off-the-shelf providers.

Let’s apply that experience to an entire country, albeit a rather wealthy country at this time.  Affordability is not an issue in this circumstance – undoubtedly the UAE, in general, has sufficient funds to pay e-learning instructional designers like CEO’s …

Clapping appreciation from the Isolationist Club

Cool story bro.

Duplication of effort

Of more concern is the potential for vast duplication of effort caused by the investment in developing content which is already available off-the-shelf. Such content is now cheap: years of iteration and refinement of the development process have brought down prices to the extent that most organisations can afford access to libraries of such courses (provider monopoly does not help this cause, but neither does it seem to eliminate the benefits). Creating courses from scratch, with new technology and source material, would cost many multiples of the cost of sourcing very similar content from western providers.

Quality

We all remember our organisations’ first forays into the e-learning world. In the early 2000’s providers were still learning their trade. Development of a new course involved many, many conceptual discussions, content corrections and iteration after iteration. If a country without an established e-learning industry were to elect to isolate themselves from western developers, they would perhaps be electing to re-visit that era and all the consequences which come with it.
So, the security argument doesn’t seem to hold much water, and the quality concern is going to be real. Using the corporate analogy further, it is perhaps possible that there are some very real requirements for which local development options are preferable to parties more remotely located. I can think of cases where I have utilised internal teams that are more in-tune with certain requirements, and also providers which are based in-country, as opposed to those located internationally, where cultural or conceptual understanding of the content was preferable. It would seem to be within the interests of all countries to:

a)      Identify where it makes sense to take advantage of the economies of scale that are passed on by off-the-shelf courseware provides.
b)      Identify the sort of capability that is required to provide content which is quite particular to that country’s context and support the development of a suitably aligned e-learning industry.
c)      Ensure that external partners are accessible where local context is not a particular concern, and quality is of paramount importance.
d)      Ensure organisations are fully educated about all software security risks and develop the capability to uncover risks wherever they lie.

The efficiencies and quality which can be gained from the global economy are still relevant, despite some bumps over the past decade. There’s rarely a case where insular behaviour has led to an economic or security-related advantage, in either organisations or countries.

References:

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/e-learning-a-must-to-protect-national-security-1.1084799

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