Conservative dress codes hid a highly progressive approach to education during a meeting in Giza during November last year, which was trying to sell the concept of self-directed education.
The session was part of a series organised by the startup Egyptian Network for Self-Directed Education to promote the option as an alternative to conventional schooling.
“It is all about learning how to learn,” said the organization’s founder Nariman Moustafa. “Through self-directed education the students are able to discover their own passion, away from the common paths imposed by society, and also enables them to evaluate their progress. It also turns teachers into facilitators.”
As internet access expanded around the world, self-directed education concepts, such as online distance learning and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), spread. It allows students to choose their entire educational path, either as a complementary system to a state system or completely outside it.
State of failure
Self-direction learning startups in Egypt emerged as part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem after the 2011 uprising, but it’s taken a long time for startups to make any money out of it.
They all tend to fall into tutoring or information discovery and supplement the state schooling syllabus, such as Nafham, Tutorama, Tqweem, Da7ee7, the Arabic Homeschooling Network and Tahrir Academy.
Nafham is one example of how hard it can be to make money from online education tools. It started out intending to be a money-making venture, somehow leveraging its crowdsourced video lessons, but ended up becoming an NGO in part because of the difficulty in finding revenue streams.
Yet that’s not to say it isn’t successful or that demand is not there. Five years after it launched, Nafham has become the region’s largest education platform.
These platforms arose as a solution to stem Egypt’s frighteningly high school dropout rate and fill glaring gaps in the sector.
In October last year Minister for Education Dr Hilali Al-Sherbini said Egypt’s school dropout rate was close to 115,000 per year, and a Unicef report put the number of primary and preparatory school dropouts at 228,000 in 2014, or about 4-5 percent of students.
Egypt primary education ranked lowest in the world in the latest Global Competitiveness report, with government spending on the sector barely reaching 10 percent in the 2014 fiscal year. A Population Council survey in 2012 found that only 58 percent of Egyptian university graduates thought what they learned was actually useful in their careers.
And families spend an estimated 45 billion Egyptian pounds (US$2.4 billion) a year on private tutoring to help their children pass final examinations.
Entrepreneurs see opportunity
Recognising the high demand for private tutoring and the widening gap between formal educational curriculums and labour market needs, e-learning platform Tyro is one company that has gone the usual route of building an online tutoring marketplace.
Tyro launched a beta platform in November last year connecting students with qualified, freelancer, tutors, and plans to fully launch in February.
“It allows students to have a more personalised learning experience and ensure they can better interact with instructors, additionally help them learn what they actually want,” Mokhtar Ayman Osman, cofounder of Tyro, told Wamda.
However, old internet infrastructure and the recent currency devaluation were challenging Tyro’s growth.
“The internet speed required for Tyro is lower than the average internet speed here. Also, users are able to test their internet connection speed to see if they’re able to conduct the online session or not,” Osman said.
“The current economic instability happening here in Egypt made it a lot more difficult to conduct online payments for our business,” he said. For example, only in August did banks start raising limits on foreign currency withdrawals
Alternatives to the state
Moustafa’s Egyptian Network for Self-Directed Education officially launched in August 2016 and has held information and training sessions across the country, from Cairo to Suez to Upper Egypt.
It has a revenue model similar to that tested by other startups in the same field, of charging parents, but will operate outside the Egyptian curriculum. This means students will have to attend normal schools and complete state qualifications in order to enroll in local universities.
However, Mostafa hopes she can form partnerships with universities that will allow students to gain admission without having to enter the formal system.
As such, it will take time to win over Egyptian mothers.
Asmaa Arafa, a mother of a three year-old-girl, told Wamda the she might enroll her daughter in the network’s new school Sajiya, but would will also enroll her in a normal school at the same time.
“I believe self-directed education will help my daughter realise her full potential, which is needed, but I don’t know where this might lead me. We live in a society that does not accept a child without an accredited certificate,” she said.