The rise of the Arab MOOCs. Will education in the Arab world ever be the same?

Empowering the future generation through technology. (Image via Pixabay)

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In the past 10 years alone, tech invaded classrooms and played a crucial role in disrupting the way knowledge is consumed worldwide.

Benchmarking this with what’s happening in the edtech scene regionally, Arab innovators and educators are not standing still one bit. Success stories like online educational platform Rwaq, which has 1.9 million enrolments in 300 courses since it started four years ago, or big initiatives like The One Million Arab Coders launched by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum to train one million young Arabs on coding, reveal that the MENA region is well on its way to becoming an edtech leader.

The education industry started evolving much quicker following the era of the 3 Ws and online access to education got much easier. The launch of Khan Academy in 2006 was a leap towards a new way for consuming educational content called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This online platform for educational tools offered people the chance to learn about different subjects outside of the typical classroom. Perhaps, this idea was an evolution of the 1953-televised courses that were introduced by the University of Houston.

It was from then onwards that many platforms started to find a safe ground to launch and flourish and even pivot.

In 2002, MIT started its OpenCourseWare project, which offered online course materials from its undergraduate curriculums for free to everyone.

In 2010, the first iPad was introduced to the market and adopted in a number of schools in the UK.

Global online courses platforms like Udacity and Coursera (2012) were launched to bridge the knowledge gap. The first raised $105 million in 2015, with a $1 billion valuation making it a unicorn company. Coursera, on the other hand, raised $64 million in June 2017, at an $800 million valuation.

Bill Gates visiting Khan Academy's offices. (Image via Khan Academy)

While we are yet to see such MOOC valuations in the Arab region, a number of initiatives are playing a leading role in educating people, in Arabic.

In 2014, Queen Rania Foundation for education development launched Edraak in Jordan, a MOOC platform that offers a variety of courses in Arabic.

Today, the platform has 1,400 new registered learners a day and is reaching over 1.4 million Arabic speaking learners from all over the world, and over two million fans on social media channels, according to Shireen Yacoub, CEO of Edraak. The platform features over 76 different courses in various topics. Edraak joined forces with Google.org to create an online educational platform for Arabic open educational resources (OERs), targeting K-12 students and their educators across the Middle East and North Africa region, said Yacoub.

“Today, an estimated 13 million MENA children, equivalent to 40 percent of the school age population, are missing out on education because of conflict and displacement. The refugee crisis has also strained existing education systems in host countries, like Jordan and Lebanon that have taken in large numbers of refugee students, compromising the quality of education offered to both local and refugee children,” she explained.

The content of the new platform will include videos, automated assessment tools, mini-games, and reading material.

Saudi Arabia’s Rwaq is one of the largest MOOC platforms in the Arab region. With 1.9 million enrolments in 300 courses since it started four years ago, Rwaq has been focusing on providing high quality Arabic content. “By far, technology courses are the most demanded. We had 50,000 enrolments in Java courses taught by Dr. Mohath Alkhalaf,” said cofounder Fouad Alfarhan. “It’s becoming clearer that nanodegrees/specialization programs are the most promising model. The initial model where student could take MOOC course and convert it into university hours is not working that well,” he commented on the evolution of MOOC usages, hinting at its role in building employees capacities. “The collaboration between MOOC platforms and corporates to create online educational programs is working well. Corporates might find MOOC platforms the best place to prepare their future employees or current ones.”

Perhaps this move is what the region needs, when over 22 percent of companies already use MOOCs to develop employees, added Yacoub pointing at the knowledge gaps currently seen across the MENA.

In order to roll out nanodegree programs, Alfarhan told Wamda that he is in the process of signing a sponsorship deal with an international organization and hoping the program will officially launch in December 2017.

Under the same goal, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Saudi Arabia launched Doroob, in partnership with MOOC provider edX, to offer entrepreneurs the necessary tools to build sustainable businesses.

Nadrus and Dawrat are other MOOC examples from the Gulf. Dawrat offers movable educational workshops in different locations in Kuwait. The last one was at 360 Mall. “People would sign up online or even on the spot,” explained Dawrat cofounder Mohammad Al-Suraye. “Each room accommodated around 20 people. We had 15 workshops over three days and over 400 people overall.”

One of Dawrat's movable workshops at 360 mall. (Image via Dawrat)

Nadrus as a platform has served more than 600,000 learners over the past four years, with more than 200 Arabic courses (public and private) and serves over 100,000 registered users, according to cofounder and CEO Ahmad Fahad Al-Shagra.

When asked about the future vision of MOOC, Al-Shagra spoke about ‘Intajy’, their white-labeled cloud training engine, which includes personalized learning through artificial intelligence. He said that now they have colossal sums of data to teach their algorithms, and that they will be launching their gamified mobile application in Q1 2018. “SaaS is the best way ahead with Intajy leading the path in the region to empower Arabic skills training,” he added. They are working closely with ministries across the GCC region to scale their impact. “Emirates Driving Institute [...] uses Intajy.com as its official e-learning platform to deliver thousands of hours of training every month to their customers in Arabic, English, and Urdu.”

The DIY era

New tools and inventions are being put into practice to elevate the education process into a more enjoyable experience. The do-it-yourself approach started to gain traction as pocket-sized computer Raspberry Pi was launched in 2012.  It included a wifi and a bluetooth connectivity, a MicroSD Card, a hard drive, and cables among other things.This kit taught the basics of computers and is used in robotics.

Award-winning startup littleBits was launched in 2011 by Lebanese-Canadian Ayah Bdeir. It is an open source library of electronic modules that snap together through magnets. It provides different types of kits, such as Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit, which topped the holiday toy list this year.

“Designers make tables and chairs, and now they’re designing DVD players and coffee makers and Nests. So they need to prototype with electronics; littleBits was a tool for prototyping. It was never really meant for kids,” explained Ayah Bdeir in an interview on how her startup changed its marketing strategy to target kids.

Serving the same purpose, The Little Engineer debuted in Beirut, Lebanon in 2009, and is now available in India, Singapore, Kenya, Nigeria and soon in the Gulf. This startup started by offering courses, kits, and workshops in science, technology, engineering, and maths to kids at their offices. Now, the startup  is working with private schools in Lebanon by giving them the tools and curriculums, and is also training teachers on how to use them. This year, founder Rana El Chmaitelly  started working with few public schools after getting the permission of the Ministry of Education.

“We work with a network of schools that has 20, 40, and 50 schools,” said El Chmaitelly in a chat with Wamda. Her plan is to expand within Lebanon, starting within Beirut and going to Bekaa, the Shouf and the North. “I can invest in a competition in China but that’s not my goal. I want to invest in my own country despite all the challenges. I prefer to use the money to equip a public or private school here,” she said.

Getting funds to buy the expensive material to build robots and get corporates to support education in the country are two key challenges she is currently facing. She believes the local education system is about to expire and needs to become more technologically advanced. Currently operating in the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon and soon in Kuwait, The Cosmic Dome is another example of a startup working in the edtech field. It installs domes of different sizes indoors or outdoors, to project educational subjects during events, marathons, or any national competition or activity. “The use of calculators in schools resulted in revising the math instruction methods in the 70s. I believe that the next trend will go for the immersive experiences, VR, and 3D printing,” said Mohamad Abbas, CEO of The Cosmic Dome. “The immersive experiences like the ones simulated inside a planetarium [a domed-building in which different types of data is visualized] allow learners to be immersed in the projected environment. As for the VR, I believe no student will have to physically go to school in the future as all classes would be delivered through a VR interface and it would virtually place them in an almost real classroom environment. Perhaps the most important advantage of using VR in the future would be saving the time learners take to travel to and from their schools and investing it in actual learning,” he explained.

Abbas is already working on installing his project in different schools and training teachers to use them. “Each school must have a small to average sized planetarium to fit an average of one class. The planetarium can be visited by science classes, art classes, music classes, and others.”Initiatives on a larger scale

When governments and big companies get more engaged in contributing to a better educational system, things move much quicker.

Smart Learning initiative, a program launched by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has an ongoing partnership with Microsoft Gulf. It includes equipping over 145 schools, 3,500 teachers, and 24,000 students with Windows-enabled devices that have built-in educational apps, according to Ahmed Ameen Ashour, head of education sector at Microsoft Gulf. The latter also signed an MoU with Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to deploy Office 365 in schools, enabling around 150,000 students and 13,000 teachers to collaborate and innovate. It will also bring Bett MEA to Abu Dhabi for the second year, to gather education leaders and stakeholders and share case studies and best practices.

Ashour believes there are three main pillars for edtech. The first being immersive learning, “with VR advancements permeating industries across the world. VR can be implemented in gamified solutions, stimulating visualizations for picture storytelling, for performing lab experiments in physics, medical, astronomy, and biology. Wearing headsets, students would be able to clearly see how a chemical reaction takes place and form a new concentrated solution or the way rats breathe and perform the respiratory activities,” he clarified. He also has high hopes in gamification methods and cloud computing, which provides students with “a digital library and relief from heavy textbooks. Quality content is yet another milestone that has ignited a new trend in the edtech industry,” Ashour added.

HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has also launched The One Million Arab Coders initiative, to train one million young Arabs on coding.

“We expect an increase in e-learning and online training initiatives across the region simply because with online training the results are easily measurable, cheaper, and consistent from a quality perspective,” commented Al-shagra on the initiative launch. “We have seen some impressive breakthroughs in Arabic Speech Recognition from relatively small players in Jordan. Mobile learning and gamification with spaced repetition are becoming more reliable across the region.”  

Her Excellency Dr. Sahar Nasr, the Minister of Investment and International Cooperation in Egypt and Higher Education Minister Khaled Abdul-Ghaffar, have recently signed a cooperation protocol to support university students studying entrepreneurship. It is part of an initiative called Fekretak Sherketak (‘Your Idea is Your Company’), which was launched in September 2017. It aims at connecting entrepreneurs with government entities and offering consultancy services and trainings. The agreement will allow university students to work in startups and receive technical training and financing.

A trip back in time

The introduction of education technology (edtech) goes back to the early twenties. The first teaching machine was patented in 1928 by Sidney Pressly. It had multiple-choice questions and moved when the student picked the right choice. In the early 1930s, IBM released an 805 test scoring machine, which was intended to read pencil marks left by students on exam papers and grade them.

In 1960, PLATO (programmed-logic for automatic teaching operations) was designed and built by the University of Illinois. It came with a television set and offered courses for students and certain local schools.

Between 1961 and 1968, a new program called The Flying Classroom started broadcasting on Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction as part of an educational program given to schools back then. Speak & Spell, a small electronic device with a visual display, came to life in 1978. It was the first of three-educational toys series: Speak & Read and Speak & Math. The toy helped kids aged up to seven years to learn spelling and pronouncing over 200 common misspelled words.

Also in 1978, Apple, which was already two years old, supplied Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium organization with 500 Apple Computers II in order to distribute them to schools. In 1981, BBC Microcomputer Systems was released. It consisted of a series of microcomputers mainly focusing on education, and was adopted by many schools in the UK. Ten years after, in 1991, the worldwide web era began on a global scale, and also spread to become a primary education tool.

It will take years for schools and universities to be entirely disrupted by technology, because digital transformation drastically changes the way they operate. It also touches upon the mindset of teachers and people in charge and how they are able to change kids’ mindset through technology. This means installing computers at schools would not be enough if students did not focus on the required skill sets. Yet, emerging countries regard this transformation as a competitive edge. We might not get rid of all school subjects any time soon, like Finland intends to do, but we’re making small steady steps towards that goal.

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