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GCC’s education sector: Paving the way ahead

GCC’s education sector: Paving the way ahead

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid a perennial pursuit of digitisation to empower education, how bright is the outlook for the GCC’s education sector?

Benjamin Franklin said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Recognising education as a fundamental stepping stone to economic and social development, several nations worldwide have invested heavily in their academic spaces. Effective collaborations between the government, the private sector, and educational institutions in developed countries have helped curate thriving academic ecosystems to further develop technologically advanced and sustainable economies.

Regionally, the Gulf states have also recognised the significance of creating a progressive academic infrastructure and earmarked a sizeable chunk of their budgets for educational purposes.

For 2020, the UAE government allocated Dhs10.4bn ($2.83bn) towards public, higher education and university programmes. Of that amount, the estimated costs for public education programmes stand at Dhs6.7bn ($1.82bn) while higher and university education is expected to cost Dhs3.7bn ($1.01bn).

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia allocated a whopping SAR193bn ($51.38bn) for the education sector in 2020, amounting to 18.9 per cent of the annual budgeted expenditure.

“Sector priorities for 2020 budgeted expenditure are consistent with recent years, with education, military and healthcare accounting for more than 50 per cent of total allocations,” a KPMG report read.

“The education sector plays a vital role not only in increasing the employment rate in Saudi Arabia, but also in increasing the desired skills for the labour market. The Ministry of Education has taken numerous initiatives to improve the education sector such as the Teaching Staff Proficiency Development project that aims to raise teaching and leadership competencies of the teaching staff,” it added.

In Oman, social spending covering education, healthcare, housing and social welfare continues to increase and totals 40 per cent of public spending in 2020.

“According to the latest statistics by the Statistical Centre for the Cooperation Council for the Arab Countries of the Gulf (GCC-STAT), in the academic year 2017/2018, there were a total of 35,250 schools in the GCC compared to 31,515 schools in 2014/2015, recording a positive CAGR of 3.8 per cent,” Aditi
Gouri, associate partner, Strategic Consulting and Research, Cavendish Maxwell notes.

During the academic year 2017/2018, Saudi Arabia had the highest number of schools in the GCC comprising 87.2 per cent of the total schools followed by Oman at 4.2 per cent. In the UAE, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE), the total number of schools stood at 1,262 during the academic year 2018/2019, of which 619 (49 per cent) were public and 643 schools (51 per cent) were private.

The total number of students enrolled in private schools accounted for 74 per cent (810,537 students) while those enrolled in public schools accounted for only 26 per cent (288,794 students).

Factors such as a growing expatriate population, high proportion of wealth and income levels, and demand for quality English-medium education from expats and locals has led to the proliferation of private schools offering international curriculums, explains Gouri.

Distance learning protocols
Similar to how technology has changed the way we live, gadgets have altered the way we learn. As the concept of  e-learning gained momentum in recent years, several edtech (education technology) companies and tools surfaced, effectively digitising physical classrooms.

While e-learning was still finding solid ground in the region’s dynamic academic space, it was thrust into the spotlight by the recent Covid-19 virus spread. The pandemic altered, among other things, the way education was imparted, forcing institutions to adopt and improve distance learning methodologies.

In the wake of the UAE government announcing that e-learning would continue until the end of the current academic year, over 1.2 million school and university students across the UAE entered their virtual classrooms on March 22, Cavendish Maxwell’s Education Market Report 2019-2020 revealed.

“There is no denying the fact that online learning got its moment due to Covid-19. In our opinion, post-Covid-19, blended learning will dramatically increase. Remote teaching and learning have the potential to cater to the needs of all kinds of learners as it enables them to study at their own pace and level. It is easier for individuals to access a range of relevant, engaging and motivating educational programmes and to select the options that best suit their specific needs,” notes Majid Mneymneh, vice president, Higher Education and Corporate, Pearson Middle East.

Lamia Tabbaa Bibi, co-founder of Little Thinking Minds, an education resources company, concurs: “Schools and governments have accelerated their investment in e-learning solutions recently due to the circumstances – this has shown the world how important it is to keep the learning process alive, whether students are in classrooms or not.

“We believe the appetite for education technology will keep growing, at a slightly slower pace perhaps but growing, nonetheless. Today we have seen how important technology is to engage students and the learnings will remain with us and will only help us advance and flourish.

“More importantly, today a school can’t afford not to have an edtech solution for all their subjects, should another crisis take place or should schools move their models to a more blended learning one, with students attending some subjects at school and continuing work at home. This is a model that is being discussed globally,” she adds.

Little Thinking Minds’ products are being used by over 140,000 children in 300 schools in 16 countries, with over 3,000 teachers using its Arabic educational resources to enhance their classrooms, the co-founder notes.

In the wake of the pandemic, as distance learning protocols came into effect, parents scrambled to scour for homeschooling content to productively engage their children and effectively educate them too – this granted several e-learning pioneers a window of opportunity.

In March, YouTube launched [email protected], a website populated with educational resources and content for parents and children. Meanwhile, registrations for early e-learning hub Khan Academy’s online classes grew 20-fold in recent weeks and its YouTube traffic increased 80 per cent, Bloomberg reported in April.

Cody Claver, general manager, iCademy Middle East expands on it: “The pandemic has forced traditional schools to completely change their interactions with students and families. Students are now sitting at home awaiting the lessons from their teachers. Direct instruction is almost negligible, and in some cases, non-existent. Students and parents are left to try and figure out how to keep kids engaged in learning activities for extended periods of time.”

Claver foresees the opportunity for schools to re-make themselves and creatively educate students in a way that is both rigorous and flexible.

“Schools that adopt a fully digitised curriculum will have a USP in that their education will be available to students at anytime from anywhere. In essence, schools can become pandemic proof,” he adds.

According to Claver, iCademy Middle East is the only licensed online school in the UAE.

“iCademy Middle East is like any other school just without the trappings of the brick and mortar space. The school is NEASC accredited. We have fully certified teachers assigned to every student. The curriculum is aligned to US state standards and US Common Core State Standards. iCademy Middle East is licensed by the KHDA which includes us teaching Arabic language to both native and non-native speakers, Islamic Studies, UAE Social Studies and Moral Education. iCademy also provides full counseling services to students,” Claver adds.

Embolden digital offerings
In its wake, the Covid-19 virus has altered the world – academically, the pandemic socially distanced students and teachers, prompting them to shun traditional methods of learning and interaction, and adapt new ones at an unprecedented pace. But on a positive note, it has also enabled schools to step up efforts to embolden their e-learning strategies and techniques to avoid disruptions in imparting education during the outbreak as well as for future academic purposes.

“For school education, the habit created by online learning through Covid-19 will help many schools adopt technology quicker, especially those that might have been historically resistant,” says Philip Bahoshy, founder and CEO of startup data platform MAGNiTT.

Governments have also played a key role in supporting the transition for students and facilitators.

“After a successful pilot programme, the UAE’s MoE announced the launch of its ‘Learning from Afar’ distance learning programme for students for the full duration of school closure. To ensure that teachers too were ready for this transition, the ministry, in cooperation with Hamdan bin Mohammed Smart University, extended a free e-training course to more than 42,000 teachers and academic staff. The How to be an online tutor in 24 hours course was designed to teach the skills required to manage classrooms remotely and utilise other digital teaching tools,” Gouri notes.

Several digital education providers also spearheaded the role of leading the move to this alternative academic ecosystem.

“During the past few weeks while children are learning online and teachers are using remote learning, many of them for the first time, we are running free webinars for all teachers to show how they can use the various features on our platforms to serve them during this distance learning phase,” Tabbaa Bibi opines.

What’s brewing?
While e-learning and supporting educational technologies have gained momentum in the aftermath of the virus, technological advancements, in the recent past, have paved the way for new educational models such as a flipped classroom.

A type of blended learning, this model facilitates the seamless integration of digital resources into a traditional classroom setting. Inverse to the convention of introducing new content at school and then assigning tasks to students for home, a flipped classroom model introduces content to students at home which they then practice at school, allowing for a more personalised learning experience.

“As a region with one of the highest mobile phone penetrations in the world, accompanied with the shortage of qualified teachers, deploying education technology inside and outside the classroom is a no-brainer. Technology has given teachers access to endless resources and new teaching techniques such as flipped classrooms, which allow students to get creative and become engaged,” Tabbaa Bibi opines.

While the jury is still out on whether e-learning in the post Covid-19 era will or should continue in its holistic form, there is no denying that social distancing in recent weeks and investment in the region’s edtech space have hinted at its significance and continued growth in the coming years. As many as 222 edtech firms currently operate in the GCC while in Q1 2020, $2m was invested in edtech startups in the GCC, MAGNiTT revealed.

The pandemic may also have triggered growth in existing education models such as homeschooling, prompting parents in the region to take it upon themselves to educate their children, given its financial benefits.

“Homeschooling has been on the rise globally for the past few years due to its affordability and flexibility amongst other reasons. E-learning tools have been a major factor of that boom and will still play a huge part as parents take it upon themselves to teach their children in the convenience of their homes,” Tabbaa Bibi adds.

“I believe that those who have always homeschooled will continue to do so. Parents who have experienced the lifestyle of online learning now realise they have a choice. Parents will first make that choice based upon the safety of their children. Secondly, they will put into context their economic position and what they can afford for schooling. Parents will need to develop a relationship and build trust with their online teachers and school. Online schooling will need to meet the rigours of licencing and accreditation so that students graduating from the programme are ready for university,” Claver adds.

However, what is clear is that e-learning won’t replace schools and that children still yearn for social engagement, argues MAGNiTT’s Bahoshy.

“Another revelation, though, is the use of e-learning platforms by adults to learn new skills. In previously hectic lives, adults did not have the time to learn new habits. These times have brought awareness to the adult e-learning industry as well,” he adds.

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