One of the main objectives for the Ministry of Education (MoE) in the National Transformation Programme (NTP), the kingdom’s development plan to 2020, is the continuation of a “shift to digital education in support of both teachers and students”. This ambition builds on major investment in recent years aimed at bringing the electronic classroom to life, whether in primary school or teacher-training college. The plan aims to equip all participants in the system with the skills necessary for a digital age, while streamlining procedures and ensuring a much more accurate and transparent information flow to policymakers and planners. At the same time, certain institutions are busy taking the idea of digital education to new levels. Through institutions such as the Saudi Electronic University (SEU), pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees online and taking lifelong learning courses are increasingly popular choices.
Many Saudi school students will undertake the 2017/18 academic year in a largely paperless classroom. As part of phase one of a new scheme, 150 schools will drop all print books and replace them with digital versions. Under phase two, 1500 more schools will be brought into the programme, and by 2020 every school in the Kingdom – approximately 30,000 institutions – will have moved away from print books. A number of higher education institutions have also embraced the digital transformation, with King Abdulaziz University (KAU) among those aiming to convert to a paperless model.
The MoE has allocated SR1.6bn ($426.6m) towards the scheme, which aims to change not only the means, but also the mode of teaching delivery. “We want the teacher to change his role from instructor to mentor, and we want the student to transform his role from a passive recipient to an active participant,” Ahmed Aleissa, the minister of education, told local media upon announcing the new scheme in March 2017.
When used well, advocates argue that ICT in the classroom can transform the traditional, rote-learning model, whereby learning is largely based on memorisation and repetition of information. This model has been long discredited, however, and is particularly inappropriate for an era in which critical and innovative thinking holds the key to economic success. ICT use can enable students to interact with each other and the teacher – and indeed, with students, teachers and other learning sources around the world – while also enabling much more rapid feedback and assessment, creating opportunities for more tailored learning and continuous assessment.
Such an outcome depends on a variety of factors, however. A recent Boston Consulting Group project, in collaboration with private operator Riyadh Schools, found that unleashing the full potential of ICT in the classroom occurs if four building blocks are in place: a shared vision for teaching and learning; capacity building for leadership and teaching staff; the technology itself – from fast, reliable internet to an adequate supply of digital content, a learning management system and ICT devices for the participants; and support building blocks, consisting of policy, governance, metrics and assessment services, funding and industry partnerships. Most importantly, the approach – a closed loop instructional system – places strong emphasis on the deployment of technology itself, making it available across the entire educational ecosystem.
The success of this model does not simply depend on the deployment of more computers to the classroom, however. It also depends greatly on capacity building among teachers, school leaders and administrators, which addresses a challenge for the education system as a whole. For schools to fully benefit, there must be changes to the curriculum at teacher-training colleges to give new teachers an understanding of how to implement ICT-based approaches more rapidly. This would be complemented by the training of existing teachers, and continuous updating of staff as the technology develops. “As part of Vision 2030, the Saudi government’s long-term development plan, the MoE has started a capacity building project that entails sending 1000 teachers to top education institutions abroad for one year to learn best practices that can be taught and replicated domestically,” Mohammad Alzaghibi, CEO of Tatweer Company for Educational Services, told OBG.
At the same time, the approach requires investment in IT infrastructure, with this a particular challenge in rural areas that may not have access to high-speed broadband. Vision 2030 and the NTP recognise the latter challenge. The NTP sets the goal of boosting internet user penetration from 2016 levels of 63.7% to 85% by 2020, along with 80% broadband coverage in densely populated urban areas and 55% in other urban areas. The participation of the private sector in this rollout is also seen as key. Indeed, in March 2017 telecoms company Zain Saudi Arabia was awarded a contract to construct the Kingdom’s first high-speed broadband project for rural areas, with some 140,000 people in 13 provinces to receive the service.
Riyadh Schools is an arm of the MiSK Foundation, which in 2016 signed an agreement with US private education company Udacity to establish the Udacity Connect Campus in Riyadh. The programme on offer in Riyadh was initially aimed at 150 students, followed by 2500 more in the 2017/18 academic year. The campus offers Udacity’s Nanodegree course in android development, web development and data science – a programme developed in cooperation with tech giants Google, Facebook, IBM and AT&T. The course is expected to produce graduates highly skilled in the latest ICT trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and self-driving car engineering.
Indeed, linking digital-economy businesses directly with educational programmes is a key government goal. A recent example in this field was the March 2017 deal between the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) and IBM. Over the next four years IBM will train more than 38,000 people in various ICT programmes, to be done via 30 new educational institutions, with the first batch of 19,000 trainees expected to graduate by 2020. The programme will help the MCIT address a local skills shortage in the ICT sector, as well as boost the level of understanding of tech-related issues among the population.
Also, assisting with build up of ICT skills is the SEU. Set up by royal decree in 2011, the SEU is the only specialised distance learning university in the Kingdom to offer graduate, undergraduate and life-long learning programmes. Four colleges have been established within the SEU, offering courses in computing and informatics, as well as science and theoretical studies, and administrative and financial sciences. There are a number of campuses and branches across the Kingdom, with major sites located in Dammam, Jeddah, Medina, Al Qassim, Tabuk and Jazan.
The SEU represents the latest chapter in the development of e-learning in Saudi Arabia, with electronic distance-learning programmes stretching back to 2002, when KAU first set up a separate department and began the delivery of online courses. Distance learning tackles several issues in Saudi education, including the large size of the country and the wide dispersal of many potential learners. As long as ICT infrastructure is in place, this learning method can potentially bring many more people into the higher education system. To this end, the National Centre for e-Learning and Distance Education was established in 2008, a key body in the sector’s development, providing a Centre of Excellence for assistance in the development of digital content, while running training courses and activities, along with technical service support.
In 2010 the then-Ministry of Higher Education, which has since merged with the MoE, issued a set of regulations and laws governing such programmes. The following year guidelines on issuing licences for e- and distance-learning institutions were also released.
Now, while the SEU is the only dedicated e-university, many other institutions offer e-learning programmes, including King Faisal University, Al Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University and many others. There are also two institutions – the Arab Open University and the Knowledge International University – that offer courses globally, but are licensed in the Kingdom. The expansion of e-learning and the move towards the e-classroom are likely to continue in the years ahead, offering a wide range of opportunities for investors. These include those providing content, as well as hardware and training. ICT offers major opportunities for education policymakers, as data can become more easily accessible and distributed in real time. This is particularly important when the education system is faced with the task of becoming more closely tied to the requirements of employers. E-learning holds the potential to be linked directly to the shifting needs of businesses.
With these education reforms in mind, the future of the Kingdom’s education system looks increasingly likely to have a strong digital and technological component.