In the new Millennium, learning is not subject to a classroom environment. On the other hand, because of the developments in Information Technology (IT), there are many new methods and modes of imparting and absorbing course material, which make learning flexible in nature, and also not bound rigidly by time and location. This happens to be the central point, and the essence, of distance education. Also, by its very nature, IT, and its allied breakthroughs, has made it simpler to be engaged in life-long learning. In recent years, “On-line” classes have witnessed a remarkable mix in student demographics, and have challenged old and classical notions regarding students’ gender, age, area of academic interest / concentration; familiarity with computers (by making it ever so “user friendly”); geographic location; economic constraints; and so forth.

Case in point: - With eight universities, and an ever-increasing demand for higher education, Saudi Arabia happens to be the leader among Arab countries in the field of education. Saudi oil is a depleting resource. While the Saudi government realizes the need for education as a necessary step to provide its citizens employment in non-oil based industries, a teeming and growing population, presently around 16 million, cannot obviously be accommodated in only eight campuses. Therefore, obvious is the need for Saudi citizens to acquire university education through distance-learning mediums.

A study was conducted in a Saudi university, wherein teaching as well as administrative faculty was put through a survey. It is hoped that data collected and findings reached can be extrapolated across all the universities imparting education in Saudi Arabia. The researchers remained confident that information provided on both positive as well as negative attitudes towards Saudis’ perception of long-distance learning are sufficient and – indeed-fully justify perhaps a doctoral thesis. Enumeration of negative perceptions / attitudes is especially important so that they may gradually and systematically be removed from Saudi educationists’ mindset. This study and its preparation also entails touching in fair detail upon the design and adoption of a distance-learning programme by the typical potential Saudi long distance, “on-line” pupil. Also, but not limited to, the study attempts to cover behaviours that are likely to produce a meaningful, successful, long distance pupil.

The applicability of certain previous studies in gathering data and then inferring concrete results may not be quite fully applicable to Saudi Arabia, as these studies have been largely carried out in Western cultures. Saudi Arabia is generally categorized amongst the still developing and non-industrialized nations. Further to that, Saudi Arabia has a culture diametrically opposed to Western cultural systems, in that women and men work in segregated environments, and this segregation also holds true in the educational institutions. The problem identification and the challenge addressed to a large part are to place value on “on-line” education among teaching and administrative faculties, who are products of and also operate within a unique cultural system.

As mentioned, with a population of 16 million people, and only eight universities, each university, roughly calculating, must cater to the advanced educational needs of no less than two million people.

Policymakers, students, and parents alike are also encumbered by critical issues such as the absorption of exponentially increasing numbers of high school graduates. In addition, many potential students may not have the luxury of access to a university’s campus-life, for they are dwelling in remote areas. The family system in Saudi is also such that participation in university-level education may be hindered by family or occupational constraints. The need for this - and these types of - study is, therefore, paramount, real, and concrete, for it begins to access the viability of distance learning in the unique parameters that define Saudi Arabia, its culture, its geography, and its demographics, to name a few variables. The burden on these eight Saudi universities is not only to produce productive workers, but also responsible citizens, and the pressing need for rapid spread of higher educational facilities is quite clear.

In a somewhat commercialized way of thought, Western as well as Middle Eastern educationists have been seeking information on Saudi attitudes towards distance learning, and since much information does not exist yet, this study may become a pioneer in assessing large-scale commercial opportunities.

Such may also be the need in future of other countries’ educational development – including Pakistan……..

n    The writer is a financial consultant and a teacher; and still pursues the Pakistani dream.