Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2007

Virtual Classrooms And The Flexibility Of E-Learning In The Gulf Universities

Khalid Alrawi, Khalifa H. Jaber, Al-Ain University of Science & Technology


Knowledge management (KM) principles recognize that it is important for organizations to know what they know. This knowledge of expected learner behavior translates into empathy and understanding of the skills required for academicians to deliver a dynamic classroom training message. There is increasing evidence of the success of alternate learning methods, such as e-learning, and the benefits of its growing adoption in the educational industry. It is contended that (KM) does not seem to have had much impact on the higher education sector so far, although there is some evidence of some universities undertaking research in this area. Some Universities in the Gulf region are beginning to develop e-learning courses, as part of the move to integrate IT in their higher educational systems. The purpose of this paper is to describe how academicians can become successful web instructors exploiting the similarities between classroom delivery and online instruction while maximizing the technology.

Keywords: Knowledge Management, E-learning, Universities, Technology, Environment.

1. Introduction

In today’s information driven economy, companies uncover the most opportunities and ultimately derive the most value from intellectual rather than physical assets. To get the most value from a company’s intellectual assets, KM practitioners maintain that knowledge must be shared and it should serve as the foundation for collaboration. There are numerous resources associated with KM but it is only in recent times that e- learning has been identified as a strategic resource that can be utilized in an increasing diversity of venues (home, workplace cultural and entertainment venues, as well as traditional institutions of learning, education, and training). To Gaede (2002), E- Learning is defined as the convergence of learning and the Internet. E-learning is also seen as the delivery of individualized, comprehensive, dynamic learning content in real time, aiding the development of communities of knowledge, linking learners and practitioners with experts.( Igonor,2002).

E-learning offers learners the ability to learn anywhere, anytime and at their own pace. As the economy becomes more global and the use of PCs more pervasive, there has been a dramatic increase in e-learning, also known as computer based training. E-learning is closely linked to and overlapping with, but not equal to KM.E-learning can be an effective medium for KM deliveries. E-learning is instruction that is delivered electronically, in part or wholly via a web browser, such as Netscape Navigator, through the Internet or Intranet, or through Multimedia platforms such as CD-ROM or DVD.

There is increasing evidence of the success of alternate learning methods, such as e-learning, and the benefits of its growing adoption in the universities. Failing to implement a learning technique that ensures the swift and efficient roll out of teaching methods and applications across universities can have damaging consequences. Given the complexities of installation and support, it is important to choose a partner with credibility and experience that is capable of delivering the e-learning revolution to the universities.

The Union Government in the UAE has invested heavily to reform the education sector and bring it in line with proposals to modernize information and communication technology within the public sector. A recent report (Annual Report, 2006) revealed that nearly all universities are now connected to the Internet and the average number of computers has virtually doubled, but little emphasis has been placed on learning and pedagogical knowledge development and management systems, which include explicit and implicit knowledge not to mention core, advanced and experimental knowledge. Often knowledge repositories are underutilized because they are not part of the educational communities of inquiry. However, the vast majority of universities are only beginning to tap the potential of information communication technology, and huge savings are still to be made in hardware procurement. Considering the great diversity of a comprehensive university, the strategy is to create a network of diverse self-managed groups. Through this loose coupling, interdisciplinary knowledge creation sharing can facilitated. The goal is a system that facilitates creativity and knowledge generation by supporting freedom with creativity, not a central system that is heavy on management as well as cost but light on relevant knowledge.

This paper focuses on this issue and is concerned with growing importance of E-learning as knowledge scaffolding, and the emerging significance of E-learning systems success in the universities in the Gulf region. It is the intent of this paper to look at how knowledge focuses on process such as acquiring, creating and sharing in the development of these E-learning programmers while keeping to the educational goal of graduating lifelong learners.

2. Knowledge Management Initiatives

KM is one of the hottest topics today in both the industry world and information research world. In general KM refers to multi-disciplined approach to achieving organizational objectives by making the best use of knowledge. It focuses on processes such as acquiring, creating and sharing knowledge and cultural and technical foundations that support them. Knowledge resources are key to a scholarly teaching –learning environment. However, with the proliferation of knowledge and information, made ever more accessible through the Internet, professors and students are being challenged to navigate the sea of information. An increasingly essential tool for today’s tasks within higher education environments is that of a KMS.A core function of a university is to be as intensive knowledge-sharing organization. It is thus, essential that it manages its knowledge resources. To Wenger, etal. (2002), in a university setting, faculty and students create formal and informal functional communities within the context of teaching and learning. University culture itself becomes a crucible for communities of inquiry. Communities of practice or inquiry are group of people who share a common concern or passion and work closely together within the context of a particular practice or field of study. Brown & Duguid,(2000).Garrisson etal.,(2003)stated that with recent developments in e-learning and KM, educational institutions will move from a classroom culture of information transmission to a dynamic knowledge environment characterized by the integration of content and context, reflection and action, independence and collaboration, responsibility and control. Knowledge environment is core to reflective inquiry and the traditional values of the research university. Moreover it provides a strategic differentiation for a university that increasingly must function in the higher education marketplace nationally and internationally. Inherent in this assumption is the creation of a system that builds knowledge organically and is consistent with the values and culture of the University. Because E-learning is seen as the delivery of individualized, comprehensive, dynamic learning content in real time, aiding the development of communities of knowledge, liking learners and practitioners with experts. If well developed, E-learning has the ability to deliver accountability, accessibility and opportunity allowing people and organizations to keep up with the rapid changes that define the Internet world. Learning and knowledge have a symbiotic relationship; they depend upon each other. From a slightly more complex perspective the creation, acquisition, transfer, and exchange of knowledge are all activities that are helping define the character of information, and knowledge-based economies in which the primary assets of date, information, and knowledge all manifest digitally. The technological tools facilitating much of these interactions are information and communication technologies (ICT). And it is through engaging with ICT that learning defines itself as E-learning. To Cronin & Davenport (2001), while we would need to explore technological solutions, the challenge is to design a customized yet flexible infrastructure that supports both individual and collective learning so the organization, can adapt to discontinuous change in its operating environment. E-learning will continue to drive the transformation of traditional institutions of learning and help shape a number of futures for the education sector. However, for Mason (2005), while knowledge is inextricably linked to data and information there is no simple, linear hierarchy and progression from data to information to knowledge. More accurately, there is a complex intermeshing and continuous transformation of digital bits in combination with a churning of insight, where meaning changes according to context and through conversations with different participants. In this sense, knowledge is organic and cannot be completely rendered in digital form. This has warranted the use of a new term with broader reach, e-knowledge.

3. Reflection On The Dimension of E-learning

Learning is not only a lifelong requirement; its scope and character are also changing, and is itself a term that will demand ongoing reassessment, particularly in learning context. It is little wond E-learning is taking off, because universities are not only using it to drive strategic organizational goals. Unlike so much training in the past, E-learning is capable of being tightly integrated into what the university must achieve, not what students feel is good for them.

In the universities e-learning can be used to build knowledge, skills and experience. In its simplest form, E-learning deploys electronic media in training delivery, by using computers, internet, intranet and to a lesser extent CDs. However, E-learning can also combine a variety of texts content delivery forms to offer students true blended learning as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Blending Learning

From this diagram we may conclude that:

      Learning is not only a lifelong requirement; its scope and character are also changing.

      All institutions may inherently store, access, and deliver knowledge in some manner.

      Knowledge sharing in a distributed international environment is becoming an essential part of KM.

      Knowledge comprises strategy, practices, methods, or approach. Thus, know-how for example, has a very different quality to know-what, or know-how. Likewise, without a sense of know-where or know-when there’s not much strategy in any planning. (Mason, 2005).

      It is important for organizations to know what they know.

E-learning could be a cornerstone of KM but most e-learning universities have failed to master the basic theory and practice of KM. They not only cannot intelligently speak about KM practice from a marketing perspective; they don’t even have a coherent internal understanding of KM or a serious KM strategy of their own, nor can they speak the language of business results other than in terms of ROI (return on investment), or intangible benefits, completely missing the huge strategic impact of intangibles and intellectual capital measures. What does this mean for E-learning? It means building in the capacity to profile whole community of students in the university. As educational institutions face up to modern pressure to downsize and outsource, they have lost knowledge as people leave and take with them what they know.

In our daily life, we deal with huge amount of data and information. Data and information is not knowledge until we know how to dig the value out of it. This knowledge is increasingly being recognized as an important resource and universities are now taking steps to manage it. This is the reason we need KM. Knowledge management is the broad process of locating, organizing, transferring, and using the information and expertise within an institution. Four key enablers support the overall KM process: leadership, culture, technology, and measurement. (Igonor, 2002). Perhaps, one may say one of the goals of e-learning is to package chunks of knowledge and get them to the needed audience as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that similarities between e-learning and KM are beginning to evolve for them to be effectively integrated (Barron, 2001). KM caters to the critical issues of organizational adaptation, survival, and competence in face of increasingly discontinuous environmental change. Essentially, it embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings. It seems logical to account for the human attention, innovation, and creativity needed for the renewal of archived knowledge, the creation of new knowledge in new products and services that build education share. In the context of enabling e-learning policy, the proposed conceptualization of KM is depicted in Figure 2.









Figure 2: Knowledge Management and E- Learning Policy

According to Allee (2001), e-learning could be a cornerstone of KM. In other words, quality e-learning should indeed manage knowledge. Alternatively, e-learning should have knowledge filtered and delivered to the right audience. The authors’ point of view is that most universities in the Gulf region have failed to master the basic theory and practice of KM. As public, private, and non profit higher education institutions alike respond to the phenomenal growth of online courses, cyber colleges, and virtual universities, these same reasons to adopt KM apply. It is with KM that universities will be better able to increase student retention and graduation rates, retain a technology workforce in the face of sever employee shortages, expand new web based offerings, work to analyze the cost effective use of technology to meet more enrollment, transform existing transaction-based systems to provide information, not just data, for management, and compete in an environment where institutions cross state and national borders to meet student needs anytime/anywhere.

4. Benefits Of Using An E-learning Environment

For Delio (2000), one of the attractions of the information revolution is that it moves us away from a top-heavy structure, and information acts like a force of gravity that pulls the decision-making power lower into the organization, so it has more freedom, flexibility and vibrancy. The gravitational pull is toward greater freedom and flexibility for junior personnel, and that’s very healthy. Quality learning requires quality knowledge objects. A knowledge object is any document, schematic, drawing, tool, software, job aid, or guide that helps students do their work. Too frequency training courses use obsolete materials or irrelevant examples. The best of e-learning is built around or linked in directly to the actual knowledge repositories that are continually renewed and updated by the learning students.

By integrating a University learning system with the human resources software, it is possible to provide those responsible for development of personnel with the tools to undertake their tasks more effectively, and a criteria for the university accreditation by the concerning Ministry of Higher Education . Universities can now use a centralized store of knowledge about procedures, products methods and personal development for all employees to access as and when required even on a just in- time basis. E-Learning benefits are typically exemplified in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Benefits of E-Learning

The E-Learning environment is not only scaleable, it is extendible. It can be opened to partners and other affiliated universities for example to provide product data for video conferences. Multiple corporate databases merged into large, integrated multidimensional knowledge bases that are designed to support competitive intelligence and organizational memory. These centralized knowledge repositories will optimize information collection, organization, and retrieval. They will offer knowledge enriching features that support the seamless interoperability and flow of information and knowledge. These features may include the incorporation of video and audio clips, links to external authoritative sources, content qualifiers in the form of source or reference metadata, and annotation capabilities to capture tacit knowledge. Content will be in the form of small reusable learning objects and associated metadata that provides contextual information to assist KM reasoning and delivery systems. The question is do e-learning courses filter the required information and specifically do they provide answers to the following questions:

      What is KM related to?

      What is the value of KM?

      How do universities measure the amount of KM acquired in an E-Learning process?

      What standards define a knowledge-centric E-Learning course?

An important part of any E-Learning software offerings is content. This may be drawn from a variety of sources including off the shelf packages, customized in-house learning in collaboration with content partners and access to external sources through learning portal –corporate academies, universities and specialist providers.

The work of David Harris (1996) may shed some light on making the transfer of knowledge support possible, including the filtering of information identified above. According to Harris, to support a knowledge-centric approach in an IT environment, a system needs to be implemented that will integrate knowledge, transfer into everyday activities, to be flexible, and to encourage without being obtrusive. Harris concludes that for successful integration of K into everyday activities, the support structure need three important elements: an organizational component, a process component and a technology component. The organizational component includes the adjustments to management philosophy, group member interaction and individual responsibilities. The process component includes changes to problem solving processes, decision-making processes and communication processes. The technology component requires the implementation of the technology that will become base repository as well as any other required support technology.

Based on the above discussion, along with their experience, the authors believes that the above views regarding the successful transfer of knowledge support structures for the successful knowledge-centric E-Learning programs hold extreme relevance, especially if we are to develop quality, perhaps measurable E-Learning programs in the Gulf region. As E-Learning in its simplest form deploys electronic media in training delivery, by using computers, internet, intranet, therefore, the Learning Management Systems are used to ensure effective E-Learning delivery and provide a platform to host learning content.

5. Gulf Universities Experience

The new world of business imposes the need for variety and complexity of interpretations of information outputs generated by computer systems. For most universities in the Gulf area, a major cultural shift would be required to change staffs’ attitudes and behavior so that knowledge and insights are willingly and consistently shared within a proper mechanism to promote knowledge sharing among their staffs and universities in the region. The researchers believes as they are working in the Gulf region universities, for example, both the number and internal use of a staff’s publications (a measure of knowledge sharing) is neglected as an important input to the staff’s promotion decisions. Similarly, not enhanced the appeal of knowledge sharing by revising the staff’s performance review to reward them for knowledge sharing activities. Major changes in incentives may be required to stimulate the use of new electronic networks. Universities in the Gulf region are currently grappling with the dilemma of the use of technology in teaching and learning and developing strategic plans and processes that will take them forward in sustainable ways. Denning (2000), states that knowledge sharing is a key to organizations survival. Hence organizations need to develop a knowledge sharing culture and processes. Failure to have this in place leaves room for grave consequences. The University as an organization also has a big role to play in this. If KM is to be integrated into the development of E-learning programmes, then an establishment of a knowledge sharing culture needs to be proven. It has been proven that capturing and sharing existing knowledge is not only time saving but also cost saving for any organization. Accordingly, starting and implementing knowledge sharing must be done from inside the Universities. Oliver (2001) stated that the development of knowledge-centric, quality E-Learning programs will require a look at a number of factors including the following:

      Staff experience

      Student readiness

      Technology infrastructure

      Reusable learning objects

      Reusable learning design

The researchers believe that Gulf Universities are not exactly different in this respect. Oliver clearly points out that for online teaching to be mainstream, it is necessary for educational institutions to ensure that their staffs have appropriate skills and experience not only in the delivery of on-line courses and programs, but also their design and development. Oliver further states that on-line teaching requires the lecturer to possess highly different skills set to that of conventional face to face teaching. What is required is inclusive E-learning programs designed to be student-centered. The challenge is that E-learning systems are inert and knowledge development process is too complex to be managed in bureaucratic or technical manner-learning systems need to connect interdisciplinary teams and be integrated within the universities, and to look at the students’ readiness to be a part of this learning systems. Educational institutions will move from classroom culture of information transmission to a dynamic systems characterized by the integration of content and context, reflection and action, independence and collaboration, responsibility and control. In the Gulf Universities, little has been placed on learning, student’s technological skills, technology literacy, self-regulated learning and pedagogical knowledge development which include explicit and implicit knowledge not to mention core, advanced and experimental knowledge. Often knowledge repositories are underutilized because they are not part of a community of inquiry. To Norris, etal. (2003), considering the great diversity of a comprehensive university, the strategy is to create a network of diverse self-managed groups. The goal is a system that facilitates creativity and knowledge generation by supporting freedom with connectivity, not a central system that is heavy on management as well as cost but light on relevant knowledge.

For Gulf Universities to fully embrace E-learning one of the most critical aspects is the ability of students to be able to determine and manage their own learning process. While language, which was once a critical barrier in effective teaching and learning, is being gradually managed, the other important psychological factor relating to students’ readiness for self-paced and directed learning remains unresolved. From the above discussion and for successful E-learning managing knowledge is when it is based on Oliver’s requirements mentioned above, and the necessary technology infrastructure such as coursework delivery systems, technology infrastructure and service provision.

One of the basic tasks of management is control. To exercise control over an organization in general, and new product development or software development in particular, is a challenging task, demanding institutionalized management systems containing both planning and control activity. Measurement is a critical part of any management system, and there is a growing awareness that the traditional managements system need to be replaced by more sophisticated measurement systems. (Kaplan and Norton, 1992). Implementing successful measurement programs in educational environments is, therefore, a particularly challenging problem. The American Productivity and Quality Centre (APQC) focused on how some of the most advanced early KM adopters implement a KM initiative, measure, and evolve their KM programs. (Igonor, 2002). Some of the very important measurement points from the APQC study include the following:

      Measure for progress

      Measure against a Benchmark

      Measure the business value

      Measure the effectiveness of sharing communities

      Measure project management effectiveness and intended results

Measurement needs to be made part of the day-to-day management and self-management cultures of the organization. Goals and achievements should be made visible understandable, and effectively communicated to all students and the university’s staffs.

6. Conclusions:

Universities are realizing that intellectual capital and e-learning is a valuable asset that can be managed to improve students’ performance. The focus of e-learning is connecting students, processes and technology for the purpose of levering university knowledge. The academicians of today are the professionals of the future, and they will play an integral role in making these connections possible. What is required is an inclusive knowledge management system to provide coherence and integration of all the essential components of an effective education experience. That is, a system and community where professors and students can manage and share information and knowledge with regard to curriculum, course management (e.g., Blackboard) and learning activities.

In conclusion, if universities hope to play their rightful role leading the knowledge revolution, they will have to emulate the organic systems found in life that use knowledge so brilliantly and so naturally. To make KM’s work effectively it must be local and personalized. The question is what technology and infrastructure is required to support the educational variables of inquiry that also could be grown to support broader institutional needs.

With E-learning software students and employees can log on and learn directly from their desktops, they can be trained better and more quickly at a lower cost. Yet students cannot be expected to know everything. E-learning also helps to provide effective ‘just in time’ learning to enable employees to have all the relevant skills and information in hand when speaking to customers. There is a need for developing a better and more accurate understanding of KM as enabler of information strategy for the e-learning of education. Departing from the information-processing perspective that was relevant to the educational environment, a new perspective of KM was explained and discussed. There is clearly a need to manage such knowledge and KM claims to address this in Universities and the educational environment. If universities hope to play their rightful role leading the knowledge revolution, they will have to emulate the organic systems found in life that use knowledge so brilliantly and so naturally (Halal, 2003).

This paper has attempted to review the critical success factors for the development of E-learning courses that actively managed in the Gulf area. The paper proposes some thoughts that will eventually lead to the development of quality and measurable knowledge-centric E-learning programs for the Gulf educational institutions.

7. References

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Mason, J., (2005), From e-learning to e-knowledge, in Madanmohan Rao(Ed), Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques, pp320-328. Elsevier, London.

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Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, M., (2002) Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge, Boston, Harvard Business School.

Contact the Authors:


Dr. Khalid Alrawi, Associate Professor, College of Business Administration, Al-Ain University of Science & Technology; E-mail:


Dr. Khalifa H. Jaber, Associate Professor, College of Business Administration, Al-Ain University of Science & Technology