Driving forward with reforms to modernise teaching, measure standards and improve spatial diversity by educating people in all corners of the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia is using technology to provide solutions and alternative ways of teaching and learning.
Khalil Al Ibrahim, rector of Hail University, told OBG, “In higher education, knowledge moves quickly, technology changes and it is incumbent upon universities to keep up with these changes. This requires investment in top technologies and equipment, as well as research programmes.”
In the Middle East, revenues from e-learning are expected to rise from $443m in 2013 to $560.7m by 2016, according to a report by electronic education solutions provider Docebo. The e-learning market in the region is set to expand by 8.2% annually as governments invest heavily to support the segment.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs), where a dedicated online portal is used by hundreds or even thousands of students to attend virtual lectures and webinars, have offered many Saudi women – on whom strict restrictions are placed outside the home – an opportunity to access education and training without having to leave their home. More than 600 Saudi women took a free four-month MOOC course on entrepreneurship called Hadafi, which ended in 2014 with an awards ceremony. The course was sponsored by Zain, Dell, Intel and Harvey Nichols and organised by potential.com, which plans to offer its courses across the MENA region. In September 2014, another MOOC portal was launched after an agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labour and a non-profit online education venture founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called edX. Saudi Arabia invested in Open edX and as part of the deal its instructors will receive support from the company as original courses are developed exclusively for Arabic-speaking students and aimed at groups in society most affected by unemployment including young people, women, people with disabilities and people in rural communities.
“Through extending educational opportunity to the people of Saudi Arabia, the initiative will help provide the skills necessary for economic empowerment,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX.
A shift to a bring your own device (BYOD) approach in Saudi classrooms and lecture theatres could facilitate the planned transition towards student-centric learning methods by 2017, according to a GCC study carried out by market intelligence firm IDC for Intel. The “Role of Technology in the Education Sector” survey found that the education sector accounted for 10.3% of all tablet shipments to the Middle East in first-half 2014, up from 2.2% for all of 2013. IT infrastructure has also been ramped up to support the increased usage of devices for teaching and learning purposes. “Quality education is the foundation of a country’s development and prosperity, and technology is key to unlocking its potential and reach,” said Frederico Carvalho, META regional business director at Intel Corporation Technology.
The survey showed that although tablets are popular for reading and primary school work, laptops remain the device of choice for written work in secondary schools. Over 60% of institutions interviewed encouraged a BYOD policy, while the remainder of schools allowed students to use their devices without putting in place a formal policy. Fewer than 30% of the institutions used interactive white boards, but most of them had LED screens to which teachers could connect to give presentations.
Schools are also increasingly adopting private cloud structures to facilitate content access and manage device use among users, according to the report. “The development of e-portfolios, which help students compile all their courses and skills, will make their CVs much more comprehensive and sophisticated,” Abdullah Al Megren, director-general of the National Centre for E-learning and Distance Learning, told OBG. “These sorts of solutions are how we can use technology adoption to benefit our students.”
School Inspection Software
A British firm that has developed software to help head teachers cut down the hours spent in preparing for government quality control visits has been in discussions with the Colleges of Excellence (CoE). Mesma’s self-assessment and planning software was launched in the UK in 2013. The company’s director, Louise Doyle, visited Saudi Arabia in January 2015 and hopes the CoE, which regularly reviews the teaching standards at 37 new colleges, and the international providers delivering the courses will see the benefits of the software. “Easy-to-use and cost-efficient self-assessment and improvement planning like ours can provide benefits to Saudi Arabia education and inspection authorities as they look to establish new institutional review methods to assess the quality of student training,” said Doyle. “It meets evolving requirements in the KSA for software that helps providers better prepare and be ready for inspection regimes.”
Face To Face
Although he has witnessed online delivery methods such as MOOCs save training businesses in the US, Alwaleed Aldryaan, CEO of Al Khaleej Education and Training, says the adoption of this approach has been slower in Saudi Arabia. In the US, the main drivers of this trend have been price, convenience and the ability to train without taking time off work. The market in Saudi Arabia has tended to cater to large numbers of young people whose training is being subsidised or paid for before they enter the job market. “Here it is still looked at like, ‘I’m not sure I want to attend an online course’, but nevertheless it is here and we see it coming that eventually instructor-led [courses] are going to drop as they have in the US,” Aldryaan told OBG.
Opportunities & Challenges
Technology and solution providers also see significant potential for growth in the Saudi Arabian educational sector. In a recent interview with local media, Mohammed Alabbadi, general manager at Cisco Systems Saudi Arabia, said that education offered one of the greatest opportunities for growth. “By partnering with educational institutions, government administrations and community-based organisations, we are delivering ICT education through effective in-classroom learning combined with innovative cloud-based curriculums,” Alabbadi said in June 2015.
One of the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia is ensuring its educators have the necessary skills to use the new technology. This is less of an issue in fully compartmentalised packages, such as many of those utilised in the corporate world, where learning can be conducted fully online. However, in schools, where there is more interaction between educators and students and where learning makes use of digital tools rather than being online, ensuring teacher quality will be of the utmost importance.
Academics agree that improving support mechanisms for teachers and providing a professional support base for e-learning are both imperative in the Kingdom. “Organisational support, in the form of incentives, was found crucial to motivating faculty members to engage in distance education,” according to a paper entitled “E-learning in Saudi Arabia: Past, Present and Future” that was featured in the Near and Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education.
“There is a need for qualified teachers and instructors who can understand and implement the technology to deliver quality output.”
To answer this challenge, the state-operated Tatweer Company for Educational Services (T4EDU) has stepped up its teacher development programmes. In conjunction with educational services provider Pearson, T4EDU is working to sharpen the focus on training educators, who in turn will provide courses to teachers on the latest developments in teaching science, technology, engineering and maths. Some of those digital tools are already in place, while others – in particular software packages as well as the policies for their use – are still being developed.