Map of Oman

The hard part of my whirlwind trip to Oman is finished after doing the opening keynote yesterday at the First International Conference of the Omani Society for Educational Technology. I survived the 16 hour plane trip with the help of the business class ticket supplied by my hosts.  The trip was scheduled on a new flight from Calgary via Emirates Air, but the dustup over landing rights in UAE meant I had to fly from Toronto to Dubai and then a short flight to Muscat, capital of the Sultanate of Oman. If you aren’t sure where Oman is (as I wasn’t), I’ve embedded the map above.

Oman is a country about half the size of Alberta with about the same population. It is mostly arid desert, with a small area of tropics in the far south that benefits from monsoon rains. Like Alberta, a very high proportion of Omani income comes from resources and particularly one resource- petroleum. Like Alberta they are attempting to diversify away from that single resource dependency. Higher education is a priority, but they have little higher education history, with the first Omani University established only 25 years ago.

Oman this week is celebrating its 40th anniversary as an independent country and so the first Ed Tech conference was designed to share the celebrations of this anniversary. Like many Arab countries, Islam figures prominently in the conference and in Omani life. I’ve seen three very large new mosques under construction and the conference opened with a reading from the Koran. The conference iself is in a new “Knowledge Oasis” which houses the campus of Middle East University of Technology. This complex, in the desert 18 kms from the City of Muscat has many new buildings occupied by computer, graphics and other high tech companies and at least two postsecondary institutions. The students and staff wear traditional clothing and there seems very minmal interaction between the women and men – both students and faculty. I couldn’t quite get over the women at the back waiting for all the men to eat, before heading to the generous buffet meals.

The theme of the conference was mobile and blended learning and my talk on Three Pedagogies of Educational technology, seemed to fit as a pedagogical focus. One of the other keynotes was by Paul Kim from Stanford. He talked about evolutionary forces in higher education with a focus on private ‘solutions”. Paul is involved in many startup universities in the US, after serving as one of the first employees of the University of Phoenix. His evolutionary analysis of postsecondary education and the need for change to adapt, resonated with me – except with the common American perception that change has to be fueled by private capitalism to work. His later examples of mobile innovations that Stanford has been involved in developing countries was VERY impressive. He demonstrated the variety of ways that students embrace mobile devices for learning, even where electricity is not available- think bicycles! A third keynote by Mourad Diouri from the University of Edinburgh, demonstrated the use of ELGG (the platform we use for social networking at Athabasca) for teaching/learning Arabic – too bad I haven’t take his course.

The first day of the conference ended with an outdoor banquet featuring the first evening of a world class fireworks contest. Much as I am impressed by Canada Day fireworks in Edmonton’s river valley, this display was quite a bit more elaborate, impressive and longer – see $$$$$ exploding!

One of the concurrent talks featured an Iraqi professor with photos and stories of the destruction of his university by American bombs and local looters. The university has only recently restarted operations and not with American aide, but with the help of Malaysian funding. It is heartening to see the ending of this war (hopefully) and the VERY slow rebuilding of this ancient nation. Too bad we have never really understood why the west needed to start this war nor held our leaders accountable. I guess oil finances more than Omani construction and fireworks displays.

As often happens it is really nice to meet people F2F who have been following my web and paper writings over the years. But I was humbled by one honest women, who told me how surprised she was that I didn’t look like my pictures on the Net – face to face I look much older!! Note to self – get new pictures uploaded or book a facelift!

One more day of the conference and an afternoon of tourist site-seeing, then I’m back home on Thursday.