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TEST: How a revolution in education in the Middle East will shape the sector post-coronavirus
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 09 - 05 - 2020

DUBAI — The closure of schools in over 177 countries around the world has affected approximately 1.3 billion learners — nearly 72.4% of total enrolled learners worldwide — according to UNESCO. This has disrupted traditional methods of education and led to a shift towards distance learning platforms.
Having taken an in-depth look at e-learning — including where we are at the moment and what could happen as a result of the far-reaching impact of the novel coronavirus—here are some predictions.
Current Situation
1 Quick adoption
Digital learning is being adopted fast. Some Arab countries have been quick to take action, and are providing alternative learning tools using e-learning platforms and TV channels. However, others have been much slower due to Internet capabilities and other barriers. Saudi Arabia launched a comprehensive system in March, which includes 20 TV channels, a YouTube channel, and an iEN National Educational Portal.
In the UAE, the Ministry of Education, in cooperation with the Hamdan Bin Mohamed Smart University, provided a free course in March on how to become a distance teacher in 24 hours. As of March 16, more than 42,000 people had undergone and completed the online training.
2 Challenges at all levels
With subscriptions and other online payment models in use, the best online courses can still be perceived to be the most expensive. Users can be manipulated by corrupt parties. Corporates can try to bombard students with marketing. Privacy, security and regulatory measures need to be universal.
Studying together teaches students soft skills and enables them to form human bonds. We know that living virtually through social media is not a suitable or sufficient substitute. Efforts need to be made by students and parents to ensure real-life human connections are still encouraged and valued.
With less support from schools, online tutorials also require parents to help teach. This is difficult in households where both parents work, but to address this, and recognizing the advantages learned during the lockdown, companies are introducing flexible hours, or remote working for staff.
3 Government support for ed-tech
Education receives one of the highest budget allotments in most MENA countries. The UAE allocated about 14.8% of the federal budget to education in 2020, while Saudi Arabia allocated nearly 19% of total government expenditure. So far not a lot of it has gone into developing technology. That will change as, with governments spending considerably more on education technology. The value of the UAE's ed-tech market alone is forecast to be $40 billion by 2022, according to a Dubai Future Foundation report.
4 Free education
The new system means that education will no longer be a commercial opportunity for corporates. Students and parents are not looking for expensive certificates, they are looking for real opportunities and high-quality experiences anywhere in the world that they can access from home. Free e-learning platforms will continue to arise. Students can currently access free online courses from the world's top universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Boston.
5 More flexibility and time
With students embracing distance learning, the need to move away or travel far to school or university is becoming less necessary. Online education is giving students more flexibility and time, and providing them with money and energy for activities. It could also affect international students with regard to searching for opportunities abroad and traveling. Searching for accommodation and spending time obtaining security visas and approvals for some countries could be a thing of the past.
6 Tech-focused next generation
Students are now more familiar with ed-tech, and will no longer just be curriculum-oriented learners. The new generation will be tech-literate and more independent, with experience in new apps for studying. Before, only high-standard educational institutions were really using tech, but now it is a must-have for all entities.
Young students are using devices for more than just entertainment. The new generation is developing very advanced skills at a crucial age where they are able to absorb information and learn quickly.
7 Accessible quality content
New learning programs will adopt smart strategies in building content using the latest apps from startups and established players in the market. Creative tools will make teaching and learning more fun and easier. This will improve access to education, creating more equal opportunities.
Technology will enable students from remote places to access the same quality of education that students in the most advanced countries have. Technical tools such as laptops, tablets, and internet connections will need to be provided at a lower cost, as they become part of our basic human needs and not luxury items.
8 More global competition
Schools, institutes, educators and ed-tech platforms have to compete with others from around the world. We will no longer see institutes competing through luxurious university buildings and construction. Universities globally will focus on attracting human talent, using money to invest in providing teachers and professors with state-of-the-art technology to provide high-quality distance education.
9 Creative ideas and smart initiatives
Global technology companies are proving that they are able to offer support. Amazon is donating 8,200 laptops, worth more than $2 million, to elementary students in Seattle public schools to help towards continuous learning during the pandemic. And Intel is investing nearly $40 million in response and readiness tools, and online learning initiatives.
10 Media and tech partnerships
Media and technology startups are partnering with education providers to share expertise and give learners the best experiences. For example, in March Jordan's Ministry of Education partnered with Abwaab, Mawdoo3, Jo Academy, Edraak and the Ministry of Digital Economy & Entrepreneurship to launch two TV channels and an e-learning platform (Darsak). Darsak recorded more than 23 million views in its first three weeks, according to the Ministry of Education.
What Lies Ahead
1 Infrastructure assessment
The region's educational infrastructure will need to be reviewed, evaluated and restructured to support the transformation in the education system. High-speed Internet networks will need to be provided to all for free or at affordable prices. Investment will need to be made in increasing teachers' tech skills.
2 Focused activities
Although generic subject learning will mostly occur remotely, the youth will still come together for team games, socializing, music, and physical activities. Talent will still need to be found in sports, the arts, athletics, etc. Schools may be converted to recreational centers.
3 Growth in investment
There will be fewer acquisitions of schools and more investment into startups and technology. The global e-learning market is estimated to surpass $300 billion by 2025, according to a 2019 Global Market Insight report. The 10 most funded ed-tech startups in the Middle East have raised nearly $45 million — this amount will increase, and more new companies with new tech ideas will emerge.
4 Fewer costs and expenses
With students accessing learning from home, pressure on attendance and classrooms will reduce. Costs connected to building maintenance, supervision, uniforms, travel, housing or visas, will decrease. This will be reflected in the fees. Budgets can be directed to other areas, such as field trips and new technology.
5 New curriculum trends
In traditional systems, every child of the same age learns the same curriculum at the same speed, regardless of their individual interests. Curriculums are currently set by each country, but in the future, students will have a choice. They will be able to learn at their own pace and pay attention to what they enjoy.
6 Growth in private tutors
Private tutors will be increasingly found and employed to offer tailored assistance to students across the world and maintain relationships between the individual and their school or home country.
7 Growth in STEM subjects and specialist institutes
There will be an increased demand for STEM programs, at the cost of social sciences. Demand for highly-specialist subjects could be filled by corporates with dedicated infrastructure.
8 Market immunity
With the new system based on technology, education will be able to be accessed and guaranteed regardless of what else is happening in the world. The system will become immune to weather conditions, global pandemics, wars, or other life-changing events — as long as the Internet can still be freely accessed.
9 Higher quality of life
With fewer students commuting, traffic on the roads will be reduced. There will be an increase in international travel as students and their parents are no longer tied to school term timetables. Families can relocate as desired without needing to worry about students staying in their chosen school.
10 Big data
Governments and investors need to seriously consider the changes that must come as a result of lessons learned during the pandemic. If we are looking to advance the world of education, governments need to allocate a budget for research and development that will provide real, credible and transparent big data. We need to analyze this big data to build a practical and bright future that benefits students and teachers.
Conclusion and recommendation
All stakeholders in the education sector should embrace e-learning with open arms, putting systems in place to provide it as an alternative and equal option for parents and students to choose.
This TEST report highlights the need to not hesitate in making smart investments. Now is the time to build on current successes and look beyond traditional education systems to the future of learning.
Let's work together to provide equal education opportunities for all.
— the writer is Forbes Middle East's editor-in-chief

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