e-SERVICES is trending in the region, and Kuwait is not lagging far behind. Some countries have already implemented eLearning in schools successfully . In this interview, Mohammed Amro Maken, CEO of Arab Information Management Services (AIMS) talks about the scope and challenges of eServices in Kuwait. His company was among the pioneers who ushered in the era of IT services in Kuwait, He remembers the first mainframe that was shipped into Kuwait for installation at Kuwait University. It was as big as a room. Amro is also actively engaged in establishing eLearning services and is optimistic about the response from the Ministry of Education. Towards that end he has tied up with SIVECO Romania, gearing for what he sees as a revolution in teaching methods at schools. In his estimate the day Kuwait will become nearly paperless is not far to come. Also contributing to this interview is the Territory Manager of SIVECO Romania, Vlad Zaharia, who was in Kuwait to sign an agreement with AIMS for the implementation of eLearning in the country. Question: What is the scope of eLearning in Kuwait when compared to the more advanced countries in Europe? Amro: Frankly, we are in the nascent stages of eLearnin g. Some ministries, especially in the oil sector, have started showing interest in eLearning. And we have signed an agreement with SIVECO Romania. It is a step taken after appreciating the growing acknowledgement for eLearning in Kuwait. SIVECO has already implemented eLearning in the ministry of education in the UAE, and successfully so. So, we are attempting to establish eLearning with the MoE in Kuwait to benefit from the vast experience of SIVECO. We are also trying to create a ready-made eLearning package for the Civil Service Commission. In its first phase, it will be aimed at training new employees in technical skills, writing skills and giving them some training in communication, English and so on. This will stand the new employees in good stead when they take on responsibilities and make them more confident in delivering their tasks. The best thing is that they can acquire these skills by sitting at home or at a coffee shop. They can decide the time and place. Similarly, eLearning can also help employees in the oil sector. At the end of the day, eLearning is about facilitating studies without classrooms or restrictive timings. For these reasons, I think it will boom soon in Kuwait. From what I see, the government is also very keen to implement eLearning. Q: As a company that has been active in the region in implementing eLearning services in the region, what in your perception is the importance of eLearning in this region? Vlad Zaharia: The Gulf region has high potential for eLearning and the local governments have allocated huge budgets for it. The need for e-learning is fast being realized by the public and private sectors in this part of the world. Some countries have already started implementing it. The UAE has allotted 1 billion Dirhams for a project titled ‘Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Smart Learning Initiative’ and SIVECO is the soul e-learning provider in this long-term project. We have been working with UAE’s Ministry of Education since 2007. In appreciation of our contributions, we have been honored as a ‘Strategic Partner of the Ministry of Education in the UAE’ by the government. In the UAE, our services mainly cater to the K-12 education.
Q: Mr. Amro, you said you are targeting the Ministry of Education to apply SIVECO’s UAE experience. How far have you progressed? Amro: We have gotten in touch with the MoE and have sent them our proposal. The ministry is open to change and have shown interest in the project. We are waiting for dates from their side to do more extensive presentations. I am very positive that it will take off eventually.
Q: When you say ministry of education, what level are you looking at? Is it schools or universities? Amro: At the moment we are only focusing on schools.
Q: How do you think eLearning will actually transform the process of learning in a classroom situation? Amro: Some of the very conspicuous changes would be that the blackboards will be replaced by laptops, which will be in front of each student. The teacher will also have a laptop. Learning will become more interactive, as students will have to explore through their subjects and become more experimental. Books will become redundant. Even home works will be done using computers, and the environment will become fully interactive. Now, these are not something out of the world. This is happening in the UAE. Our minister had recently paid a visit to the UAE to gain a deeper understanding of the eLearning systems in schools and how they work.
Q: One of the salient features of eLearning as generally perceived is distant education. So, are we going to see teachers from say Europe and America, teaching our students here in Kuwait, or is it just going to be localized learning? Amro: We will be using local teachers in most cases, except the technical aspects of eLearning which will be done in Romania. The programming of the course and study materials is what I mean by technical aspects. However, education has cultural aspects too, which are very important such as language, values, customs and so forth, which requires local teachers to guide the students. Remember, the teachers are not going to lose their jobs, just that they will have to be suitably trained to alter their methods to fit the new system.
Q: As a Europe-based company, how does SIVECO surmount the cultural and linguistic barriers which are important aspects in any form of learning? Vlad: SIVECO’s eLearning tools and platforms are tailored to suit local culture and language. We provide digital interactive content in many languages, including both English and Arabic.
SIVECO has over 1000 employees including IT experts, but also teachers and educators. This is because within SIVECO’s eLearning projects, IT services are just the tip of the iceberg and representing only 20% of our product, the other 80% being focused on the processes, people and culture to provide the best eLearning experience to the users.
Q: From the UAE experience what can you tell us about the transformation eLearning has brought about in children. Has studying become more fun and as a result made kids smarter? Have kids stopped learning by rote and moved to learning through understanding? Can you shed some light on that? Amro: Oh yes, definitely, learning has become a totally new experience. Take for example biology. In a traditional classroom, a teacher might have a diagram of a cell and explain to you its contents. In eLearning, the experience is that of actually looking through the microscope. You will be almost doing it hands-on in the virtual world. You will be exploring a cell and observing the various biological processes.
This way, students will understand things better. The interactivity makes education more fun and insightful.
Q: How will exams change in an eLearning environment? Amro: Once again, questions can involve situations where students will have to apply their logical reasoning to find solutions, and the results can be obtained much quicker. The teacher would not have to correct answer sheets, which is a laborious and time-taking process. Moreover, the correction will be a lot more accurate.
Q: Mr. Vlad, how does eLearning compare with traditional methods of learning? Vlad: Our solutions don’t replace traditional training methods. We are not changing the system; we are only enhancing it for better results. We are not looking at teacher-less classrooms or anything of that sort. However, with e-learning teachers will have more time on their hands to give more attention to students.
Q: There is this perception that eLearning is all about putting out scanned books on the internet. How far different is the real scenario? Vlad: Yes, most people look at e-learning as scanned books. But no, it’s far from that. eLearning allows students to explore their subjects on their own, making learning highly effective. We have reached a stage where we use simulations to give trainees a hands-on learning experience, which speeds up the learning process. SIVECO has already developed simulation modules for trainees in other countries.
Amro: Simulation eLearning is trending now. There’s this technology called the ‘Touch Table’ where four people can work together, each taking a corner and working on a common task. They can conduct experiments such as connecting pipes in say an oil rig and so on. That’s just an example, and there’s so much you can do in a variety of fields of study. So, scanning books is primitive. We have moved far from there. There’s a lot of animation stuff also going on.
Q: What are the challenges from a societal point of view to eLearning? Are parents receptive to this idea or are they suspicious of it? Do they think that it’s opening the doors to misuse of technology? Amro: No, I don’t think there are such challenges. Moreover, it’s not about giving free access to kids to all the sites that are there on the web. It’s a very controlled environment, where there are specific course materials which are designed to stimulate the child’s intellect and learning. Parents are going to be happy with the results.
Q: eLearning is a relatively new technology, but AIMS has been there for close to 4 decades now. So what was the mission of AMIS when it started? Amro: I established AIMS in 1980. Today, it has 1200 employees between consultants, operators and administrators among others. Our annual turnover is over KD10 million. We have three core departments, namely the projects, recruitment and sales.
The eLearning comes under training department which is part of the project department. This is for people doing Oracle, ERP or backlog projects. We provide a lot of special softwares. For example, Legal Infomatic is a software that we are highly specialized in.
We were the first in Kuwait to recruit computer consultants for ministries. We cover 85% of the government sector in the IT departments. In sales, we are the biggest HP Ink distributors in Kuwait.
We won the ‘Best Seller’ award from HP twice in Kuwait.
Q: In the last 40 years, how has the industry developed? Amro: Kuwait was keen to develop in technology. I remember in 1979, when I went to obtain the first hardware for Kuwait University, the mainframe I mean, it was as big as a room. It required special fans, and climate controlled environment and so on. From there we have reached cloud computing today. It’s a big difference and the growth in this industry is astronomical.
AIMS is now involved in eGovernment and eServices. For example, one of the major projects we are trying to get off the ground is the smart kiosk. This is from a Swedish company called Cetwin. One of our clients has already implemented smart kiosks to issue salary certificates to its employees. Employees don’t have to go to the payroll department and undergo all those tortuous procedures. You just have to slide in your ID into the kiosk and ask for the certificate, take it and leave.
This was in KNPC in 2012. KNPC won an award for the best eGovernment solution project for the smart kiosk. Now, we are expanding the applications of the smart kiosk for electricity and water bill payments, passport delivery, credit card delivery, which otherwise uses couriers.
Now, KPC and the Civil Service Commission have also asked us for these kiosks. I am also thinking of making a proposal in the ministry of education, because the minister of education had asked schools to issue salary certificates to all the teachers. Imagine how big a task that would be, considering the number of schools and the total number of teachers in each school. A teacher in Jahra would have to go to the ministry of education office in Shuwaikh to obtain the certificate. A smart kiosk would solve the problem.
Just putting one kiosk in each school would make it easy for everyone. You can also find use at airports for people to pay up debts or fines as a result of which they have a travel ban.
Q: If you will allow me to think like a Devil’s Advocate, wouldn’t technology steal jobs from people? Does it aggravate unemployment? Amro: Not really. As I told you, eLearning is not going to throw teachers out of their jobs. Their skills are required too. This in fact was an old argument that came up when IT was beginning to catch up. However, IT itself has generated many jobs, and the demand for manpower in other industries has not diminished. So, the argument has been disproved.
Q: What is your biggest impediment to implement eServices? Amro: For me, it is the slow pace of decision making in Kuwait that is the biggest impediment. The procedures are long and tardy. For the process to move from the bidding stage to the contract signing stage should be made speedier. For example, the eLearning project was tendered years ago. And then it got cancelled. Do you see my point? Probably, we thought of it even before UAE. But the procedures here are a bit complicated and that’s weighing on progress.
Let’s also not forget the political issues in Kuwait. It affects even private companies like us.
Q: Despite all these issues, what do you think is the growth trend of the IT industry in Kuwait? Is it upwards, downwards or flat? Amro: The business is booming definitely. If the business is not doing well, then companies, including myself, would move out to Qatar or other areas in the region.
Q: What is your vision in Kuwait for the next 10 years? Amro: To apply eGovernment full fledged, where all your applications and other tasks get done through eService. I am dreaming of a Kuwait where you wouldn’t have to go to any office to apply for a visa, or to obtain a driving a license.
We are heading in the right direction. The government has opened bids for a tender for an awareness campaign on eGovernment. These are signs of good times to come. Awareness is very important, because when you say eGovernment we are not just talking about the cream of the society, the educated and the affluent class, we are talking about everyone, including commoners. Everyone should be able to use it on an equal footing. It also calls for much cooperation between CAIT, which is Kuwait’s portal, and the various ministries. Life will become easier.
But as I said, we will have to speed up the processes.
Q: Are we headed towards a paperless world? biographies Amro: That’s also not a very distant dream. There’s already a lot happening in Kuwait to convert paper files and microfilms, which are difficult to store, into digital formats. Millions of files and microfilms have already been converted into digital images. And the process is continuing at a rapid pace. One of the biggest projects in Kuwait currently underway is the transition of paper files into digital images in Kuwait’s municipality. This will clean up a lot of mess. We have been involved in a lot of projects like this. We have converted loads of files, what we call backlogs, into electronic form. This is going to lead the way to a paperless nation.
Mohammed Amro Maken is a successful business leader with a track record of producing, presenting and managing the implementation of innovative business solutions. He is the CEO of Arab Information Management Services (AIMS) which he established nearly 40 years ago. His areas of expertise include strategic planning, financing, commercial operations, business development, feasibility studies, project management, operational management, Business Finance and Performance Management. Vlad Zaharia is the Territory Manager of SIVECO Romania, which develops and implements efficient eLearning, providing EAS, Document Management, Business Intelligence, eHealth, eGovernment, eAgriculture, eCustoms, and eBusiness solutions for national and international clients. By Valiya S. Sajjad Arab Times Staff