Making the grade: Public and private partnerships to improve learning outcomes

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting disruption to physical interactions caused complications for all sectors of the economy. In the education sector, the pandemic created challenges to learning continuity as schools and universities had to suspend in-person learning for long periods. However, this disruption has accelerated the digitalisation of education and could strengthen the system over the long term.

Continuity Solutions

During the first phase of the pandemic, when the entire society was under lockdown, the government and educational institutions sought to maintain continuity through digital channels. Since people were confined to their homes, institutions began using platforms such as Blackboard, Moodle, Zoom and Microsoft Teams as their primary method of conducting classes, communicating with students and facilitating online exams.

At the same time, public education provision continued the delivery of traditional classroom lessons through television and streaming services. A total of 238 courses were delivered on YouTube, with another 383 broadcast on TV. These measures allowed education providers to teach eight-hour lessons through television in both English and Arabic, covering the entire school day. In addition, the government introduced three different virtual channels to facilitate interaction between educators and students. One of these initiatives allowed teachers to give lessons using Microsoft Teams and Office 365 while specialised support staff answered students’ questions.

Online Portal

Although the closure of educational institutions at the start of the pandemic severely disrupted plans for students, parents and education sector employees, institutions quickly teamed up with technology companies to ensure studies could continue. About a month after institutions were first closed, the government announced that nearly 150,000 students had been able to continue their education through a series of virtual learning initiatives.

To carry out this strategy, the Ministry of Education and the Information and eGovernment Authority, in collaboration with international cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services (AWS), created a dedicated electronic education portal.

As of the end of March 2020 more than 146,000 students and over 18,000 instructors had used the portal. Teachers would upload supplemental material daily, which included 6600 lessons, 754 sample questions and exams, 372 e-books and miscellaneous educational materials. Parents and administrators could also access the portal to monitor progress.

As in other countries, the pandemic highlighted the importance of information and communication technologies in Bahrain’s operational activities. Thanks to its digital infrastructure, the kingdom maintained essential educational services and provided education continuity. The kingdom benefits from an internet penetration rate of 99%, meaning that students generally did not face the same accessibility issues prevalent in less affluent emerging markets.

As of May 2022 Bahrain ranked 21st in the world for mobile download speeds and 76th for fixed broadband speeds, with average speeds recorded at 62.62 Mbps and 47.63 Mbps, respectively. Reliable and fast download speeds were important for delivering online lessons without disruption. Performance in both of these metrics has improved considerably since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cloud Benefits

Educational institutions leveraged the kingdom’s robust digital infrastructure and ICT policy environment to support their mitigation and adaptation efforts. Bahrain’s government operates a cloud-first policy that requires government bodies to consider cloud-based solutions when undertaking ICT procurement (see ICT chapter). This helped spur AWS into opening its regional base in Bahrain in July 2019, enabling start-ups, non-profit organisations, educational and government institutions to run their applications and serve end-users from AWS data centres located throughout the kingdom.

The University of Bahrain (UoB), the kingdom’s largest university with over 28,000 students, leveraged cloud options to ensure educational continuity, providing online courses and remote technical assistance to help students adapt to the new situation. As part of its digitalisation efforts, UoB migrated its entire IT infrastructure to AWS. In doing so, it became the largest university in the Middle East to migrate its core applications, which include a student information system, a correspondence management system, a homepage portal, a subdomain and back-end systems.

As a result, UoB has reported several benefits, such as cost savings, increased security, and the agility to develop and launch new projects quickly. In addition, core applications on AWS are optimised, resulting in performance improvement of more than 40%. The migration also reportedly resulted in a 50% performance improvement for the university homepage. Elsewhere, research timelines for post-graduate students have accelerated as they now have access to artificial intelligence, machine learning and high-performance computing tools that allow them to engage efficiently with large datasets and interact more easily with international collaborators.

In preparation for this transition, UoB invested in training its IT team to attain AWS certifications. The migration is a continuation of UoB’s cloud computing strategy that dates to 2017, when the university introduced the AWS Academy programme to equip students with the skills and certifications to pursue a career in cloud computing. In September 2019 UoB became the first university in the Middle East to introduce a cloud computing degree programme, and in October 2020 it launched a Cloud Innovation Centre in collaboration with AWS and Tamkeen, a semi-autonomous state agency tasked with the development of the private sector. The centre focuses on accelerating the digital transformation of the public sector by using cloud technologies to address real-life problems and opportunities facing government organisations.

Future Competitiveness

The lessons learned in transitioning to e-learning and distance learning at educational institutions across Bahrain can help to strengthen the long-term competitiveness and effectiveness of the education system and create an inclusive young workforce that is better equipped for the needs of the future economy. With educators now more adept at delivering lessons and engaging with students through digital tools, they can offer tailored and differentiated assistance to individual students using digital support mechanisms. At the same time, it is clear that Bahraini education institutions are now more in tune with developments in the digital economy, both in terms of the services they offer and curricula content.

Looking ahead, Bahrain is undergoing a period of economic reform as policymakers seek to ensure a sustainable recovery from the pandemic. These reforms are apparent in the wide-ranging Economic Recovery Plan that includes six medium-term strategies for the following sectors: oil and gas, tourism, logistics, industry, financial services and the digital economy. Although the education sector was not part of the revised medium-term strategy, work is under way on a new approach that reflects the evolving demands on the system. Curricula and teaching methods must align with the needs of key sectors, where employees capable of working with advanced technologies will be increasingly important.

Indeed, the Economic Recovery Plan aims to create 20,000 jobs annually for citizens through to 2024, underscoring the importance of local human capital development to fill these roles. According to the Supreme Council for the Development of Education and Training, the priorities for the education sector’s next strategy will be building on past successes, ensuring sustainable development, following international best practices, providing the best opportunities for learners and trainees, and linking education output to labour market needs and national economic development priorities and aspirations.

Regional Role

In June 2022 Bahrain played a regional leadership role by fostering agreement among Arab countries to improve the integration of in-person and online teaching and establish a more effective regional system. As the host of an Arab League meeting titled “Bahrain, a Gateway to Developing Education in the Arab World”, it led Arab League members in signing a declaration designed in partnership with UNESCO as well as other regional and international organisations. The aim is to use and develop the knowledge gained from online teaching methods, integrate them into classroom learning, and create a new hybrid way of supporting tomorrow’s leaders and innovators. Applying the lessons learned from the accelerated digitalisation of education during the pandemic will support Bahraini citizens to fulfil their potential and meet the country’s economic goals.