Education 2.0: How the GCC's academic landscape is moving forward
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Education 2.0: How the GCC’s academic landscape is moving forward

Education 2.0: How the GCC’s academic landscape is moving forward

With the education sector having gone through a metamorphosis in the past year and a half, what does the future hold?


Robust and future-driven education systems are a vital prelude to creating thriving economies.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, new education ecosystems manifested around the world disrupting traditional methods of disseminating and garnering knowledge. As classrooms morphed into video calls, students receded to postage-stamp size images, and face-to-face questions converted into digital ones, the breadth of academia seemingly shrunk to the size of a screen.

“Education systems across the globe experienced an unprecedented impediment to learning as nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries were affected by school closures,” an Alpen Capital report revealed.

Across all countries, nearly 30 per cent of school days were lost between February 2020 and 2021, with schools operating at partial strength for 16 per cent of the year. Compared to the global average of 29 per cent, the ratio of school days lost was relatively higher in the GCC region as closures impacted nearly 50 per cent of school days in the year, it added.

However, industry stakeholders responded effectively in the form of capacity building collaborations with service providers and technology-led solutions, enabling hundreds of thousands of students, teaching professionals and support staff to switch gears and adopt digital instructions. With massive vaccination campaigns underway and easing of restrictions, students have found their way back to the classrooms. But with the education sector having gone through a metamorphic change in recent months, what does the future hold?

The GCC countries have considered education a priority and made considerable investments to curate an ecosystem that meets international standards, a trend that is expected to hold strong. The UAE allocated 14.8 per cent of its federal budget to education in 2020, while Saudi Arabia earmarked 18.9 per cent of the annual budgeted expenditure to the sector.

Despite recent challenges, the local education sector has also fared well. Student enrolment at Dubai’s private schools increased by more than 10,000 between Autumn 2020 and Summer 2021, mark-ing an rise of 3.9 per cent, according to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Dubai has a total of 210 schools, with 10 new schools set to open in the 2021-22 academic year.

Digital takeaways
The pandemic brought to the fore the significance of upgrading existing infra-structures to prep for potential future crises and enhance operational efficiencies. Which is why the need for educational institutes to realign business models has been met with renewed vigour.

“Covid-19 has highlighted the lack of technology integration into the education system, compelling governments and institutions to optimise operations and swiftly adapt to change and innovate. During school closures, the GCC governments ensured that students continued to learn through various remote modalities, such as online learning platforms, television and radio, and a range of other digital mediums. Although the adoption of edtech still remains at an infancy stage for the majority of people, such platforms are gradually gaining acceptance due to the ease of use and fun for learning. Schools and universities across curriculums are extensively collaborating with edtech platforms while also indigenously launching online mediums to conduct classes and engage students,” the Alpen Capital report read.

The corresponding rise in the demand of edtech has led to exponential user growth and educational institutes are now integrating advanced technologies such as AI/ML and robotics to improve learning as well as track students’ progress. Such advancements are likely to increase the democratisation and accessibility of edu-cation across the region, it added.Based on their ability to effectively deliver content, new educational models are also garnering substantial traction.

“While the longer-term impact of Covid-19 on education is yet to fully unfold, learning models have become more tech-centric over the last 18 months. Whilst the concept of ‘hybrid learning’ – mixed online and in-person education – has been around for several years, its use certainly became more prevalent in Gulf schools when students were only in-house for part of the week to maintain social distancing and keep down numbers,” notes Simon Hay, founder and CEO of edtech firm Firefly Learning.

“Overwhelmingly, teachers have witnessed the significant benefits that technology can bring to education. Edtech in particular has allowed schools to pro-vide greater flexibility, personalisation and accessibility, making it easier for students and parents to engage better with the learning experience. There is a better understanding, and in some cases willing-ness, to embrace new educational models, such as hybrid and flipped learning for example. Technology is making these new approaches more accessible and manage-able for all concerned and I believe we will continue to see an increase in their use.”

For many families, online schooling solved critical pain points in their children’s educational experiences, says Soraya Beheshti, regional director – MEA and Turkey, Crimson Education, which assists students to get into top global universities. “In the context of the UAE, where it’s not unusual for families to be split between countries, online schooling provided families with flexibility. Moreover, students found that when e-learning was done correctly, they had more time, greater opportunities, more face time with their teachers and a supportive learning environment.

Online private schools tend to have less bullying and peer pressure than traditional schools, while still affording students the time to pursue other in person activities, such as sports. Finally, online schools tend to be more affordable than their traditional counterparts.”

Parent engagement has seen a significant step change in its nature, with the relationship between school and home permanently changed, adds Hay. “Parents have a greater understanding and respect for what schools achieve, and teachers are able to work more closely with parents to bring about the best outcomes for their students. This looks set to continue, with the expectations of parents having changed in this area.”

The increased adoption of technological implementations has been accompanied by a surge in investment. According to a report by Global Ventures, the edtech sector started the last decade with $500m of venture capital investments in 2010 and finished 14x times higher at $7bn in 2019. Edtech companies also attracted $8.3bn of venture capital funding in the first three quarters of 2020.

Demand for tools that can personalise instruction is swelling, and technology is allowing for the kind of innovation in education that fulfills such demands, it added.

Furthermore, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) within the education sector have also gained momentum. Last year, online learning platform for course-specific study resources Course Hero acquired math education platform Symbolab, which in 2020 alone, was used by more than 50 million students to work through/understand one billion questions and explanations. Tutoring non-profit Saga Education too announced the acquisition of Woot Math, a suite of math instruction tools. The GCC’s education space also offers room for M&A activity.

Higher education 
In the aftermath of the pandemic, distance learning was adopted across the higher education space as well. And as universities look beyond Covid, they may opt to continue with online learning and other digital interventions to attract more students and gain resilience in the face of future disruptions.

“One thing that has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic began is how much more customer-focused a university has to be in order to enroll a student. Previously, universities could host an open day and that would be enough. Students would essentially come to us. Now, the pandemic has caused us to re-think how we go about this, showing us how important it is to reach our customers where they are. The university stopped only being a building and started becoming an all-encompassing digital and physical entity,” opines Brendan Vyner, director, Marketing and Student Recruitment, University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD).

“Once the pandemic started, we began offering several virtual masterclasses that gave students a chance to sample a free university class online. We replaced traditional open days with virtual open days, and introduced digital one-to-one consultations, where students can talk to admissions officers and faculty from the comfort of their own home. We also made the shift from in-classroom education towards a mix of distance and blended learning – designing learning experiences that go beyond just the technology, but including active, collaborative learning supported and facilitated by our academics. I believe these changes will be permanent once the pandemic has subsided.”

In addition to recent challenges, higher education institutes face a tough ask as they aim to prepare a generation of professionals with deep skills to essentially bridge the gap between existing skillsets and those required in the future. By 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms, World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020 revealed.

“The Future of Jobs report states that 34 per cent of businesses surveyed plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration. The current pace of technology adoption is expected to continue, thereby transforming tasks, jobs and skills by 2025. Hence, programmes in computer science, data science and artificial intelligence are highly relevant to developing skills necessary for jobs of the future,” states Professor Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

“At Heriot-Watt University Dubai, we are offering such programmes that help graduates harness the power of technology as well as develop soft skills, needed for building a successful career, especially in a post-pandemic world. In response to market demands and global trends, we are commencing new programmes such as MSc Global Sustainability Engineering, BA (Hons) Fashion Branding and Pro-motion, and BA (Hons) Communication Design from September 2021.”

He also stresses that university programmes must provide students with an understanding of contemporary developments, emerging trends, and real-world challenges – both inside and outside the classroom.Crimson Education’s Beheshti adds: “Students are leaning more towards building their skills with greater flexibility of time due to the pandemic and this change outlines the future of schools and universities. Currently, a student could learn many of the technical skills universities provided though online courses. Yet, people still apply in their thousands and invest tens of thousands of dollars to go to universities – this year, we will place more than 1,000 students in universities around the world. This is because the value of such an education lies, not only in pure information, but in the way one learns to think.”

What’s next?
The youth segment across the region is booming. By 2030, countries in MENA will see a 23 per cent increase in school-age population, resulting in the need for approximately 25 million additional students to be accommodated in the education systems. This will put an additional burden on providing quality education for all, a UNICEF report states.The region’s burgeoning youth base conflated with a growing appreciation for digital solutions offers a formidable reason to invest in and develop the formal education system. Furthermore, trends that disrupt conventional teaching methods may also gain force.

Beheshti opines that when it comes to permanent changes, the ambitions of students to pursue a quality higher education will remain – if not increase. Further, students and their families will continue to look beyond their local bricks-and-mortar high school options for the best quality opportunities online.“We will also see an increase in the adoption of blended schooling (some classes online, some at physical schools), and the recognition of the need to challenge traditional school models and embracing the benefits of edtech will also continue to rise.”

Vyner builds on it: “The increased popularity and adoption of blended learning will rise, allowing for more engagement and support between students and faculty in different physical locations. Blended learning needs to have a human-centred approach, factoring in the human capacity for learning and catering to different student capabilities across multiple digital touchpoints.”While blended learning will continue to be on offer, the ‘blend’ may change in response to the prevailing conditions, opines Kaka from Heriot-Watt.

“A key advantage of digital learning materials is the opportunity for asynchronous learning, i.e., a student can learn independently, at a time convenient to them. With additional support provided by the instructor and peers, participants can design their learning schedule to a certain extent around their own work and play. This is a particular benefit for our postgraduate students, many of whom are studying for their Master’s degrees while working,” he explains.

While the jury is still out on whether online learning will become a post-pandemic mainstay, what is certain, is that the education system of tomorrow has been changed forever.

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