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The Gulf education sector witnessed a seismic transformation during the Covid-19 pandemic as schools quickly introduced technology to adapt to restrictions on in-classroom teaching. About one million student schedules were disrupted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, according to government data.
The Middle East has since emerged as a fast-growing market for education technology (edtech) companies, with global players citing a 500% increase in subscribers from the region in 2020 compared with 2019, according to a report from RedSeer Consulting.
“Demands for a highly skilled workforce in the country, a pro-education government and ease of doing business enable the edtech sector’s favourable growth opportunities in the UAE,” said the study.
According to Senthil Nathan, managing director and co-founder of education consultancy Edu Alliance and former deputy vice-chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology Abu Dhabi, before the pandemic, online education had been “looked down upon or, at best, treated as supplementary assistance”.
“Today, the same regulatory agencies not only permit fully digitised education but actually enable, encourage and facilitate it both at early schooling and in higher education,” said Nathan.
“Though this was forced upon ministries – due to public health considerations – this experience has helped them to fully appreciate the potential advantages of edtech, as well as the possible pitfalls, through their own experiences, rather than by reading case studies from other countries.”
According to a recent IDC survey, the pandemic pushed 72% of Gulf educational institutions to bring forward their digital initiative roadmap by at least a year.
“As the situation stabilises into the new normal, most educational institutions in the Gulf intend to operate more like a digital enterprise,” said Jebin George, programme manager, industry solutions and smart cities (META) at IDC.
In the new scenario, ICT will act as a “cognitive companion” in a blended learning environment, he added. “Institutions will rely on digital tools to engage students, manage homework and tests, and carry out digital models of ancillary activities, such as virtual campus tours and virtual campus recruitments.”
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According to the IDC expert, Gulf educational institutions are rolling out broad-sweep digital initiatives that cover: rapid assimilation and adoption of digital education technologies; enhanced digital data governance and trust; and increased automation and process re-engineering for digital campuses.
“When it comes to the use of emerging technologies in education, artificial intelligence shows significant potential,” said George. “While the early use cases focus on automation of tasks such as attendance tracking and test grading, some of the forward-looking institutions in the Gulf are already experimenting with more advanced use cases, such as personalised and adaptive learning.”
Although the longer-term impact of Covid-19 on regional education is yet to fully unfold, learning models are set to become more tech-centric and incorporate a range of blending techniques.
According to Simon Hay, founder of UK-headquartered Firefly – a company that creates technology for learning continuity and parent engagement in the Gulf and globally – the concept of hybrid learning (mixed online and in-person education) has been accelerated rapidly by the pandemic.
Partnering with more than 600 schools, Firefly is used by more than a million students, teachers and parents, including in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The company saw its normal peak usage increase by 12 times as schools moved learning online during the pandemic.
“Hybrid learning has definitely become more prevalent in schools, with students only in school for part of the week in many cases as schools looked for ways to maintain social distancing and reduce the numbers in school,” said Hay.
“Firefly provides a platform which allows schools to extend learning beyond the classroom, with online access to the same learning resources, straightforward assignment management, feedback and tracking, and, crucially, the ability to engage parents in the learning conversation.”
The arrival of a regional vaccine programme will hasten the transition back to more “in-school” teaching, said Hay, but adoption of new technology means “schools are now in a better place to manage disruption, and keep the learning process going whatever the situation”.
Simon Wensley, export sales and product development administrator at blended learning solutions firm HME, which provides futuristic artificial intelligence labs to UAE universities, the Gulf has demonstrated a “strong uptake” of edtech systems, compared with other global regions.
“The region has shown a quicker adaptation to edtech learning, with students being given greater access to IT hardware and communication systems, so they are able to fulfil their curriculum learning in an engaging environment,” said Wensley.
“I believe the edtech delivery process will become endemic within schools, allowing students to develop in a conducive learning environment that suits them. This has been practised in our higher education establishments for many years, but now school educators will also work with a more flexible approach to engage with students using an online and traditional teaching matrix.”
Baptism of fire
According to Edu Alliance’s Nathan, the region’s teachers witnessed first-hand the tangible benefits that digital technology can bring to the classroom during the Covid crisis.
“For many faculty members, it has been a baptism of fire,” he said. “The majority of faculty members in early learning, as well as higher education in this region, have been resistant to even blended learning. But they had to embrace this change in a matter of few weeks.
“Increasingly, in public schools and colleges, teachers have also come under stricter scrutiny for the effectiveness of their online teaching. They have had to make choices to sink or swim. And almost all of them have learnt to swim in this new online education environment.
“As I have known for over a decade, digitally native students of the region have always been more than ready for fully online education. Our challenges have always been first with faculty development. Today, there has been a fundamental transformation of both groups in this region.”