Educational technology (EdTech) is filling a gap where traditional models have become obsolete. As innovation becomes a key pillar in national and educational agendas alike, the education industry is turning to EdTech startups to bring emerging technology to the region’s millions of students.
Emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are taking root across industries and throughout the world. The days of static technology and analogue collaboration in the office are gone, giving way to virtual collaborative spaces, VR business modeling and AI-powered data analysis. As these technologies are adapting and developing at lightning speed, the education industry has the unique task of preparing students for this new world of business. Exposing students early and often to emerging technology not only disrupts traditional models of education, but also brings education “out of the box”, allowing students to see the possibilities that technology itself can hold.
The challenge for modern educators is two-fold - administrators and educational stakeholders have been tasked with leveraging emerging technologies for education, and students must develop the 21st century skills and technology know-how that will support their success in these modern workspaces and fuel innovation in the future. As the region fights to fill the skills gap, both public and private education systems are turning to some 300 EdTech startups operating across the Middle East.
According to the GCC Education Industry Report published by Alpen Capital, the total number of students in the GCC education sector is projected to reach 15 million in 2020, making it one of the fastest growing student populations in the world.To prepare the talent needed for the digital economy, educators are adapting their curricula to include tech-powered educational tools that will positively impact areas like curriculum applications, universal access to classrooms, data applications, lifelong learning applications, supplemental applications, and behavioral analytics applications.
According to the World Economic Forum, 75 per cent of educators and students feel there is a gap in their ability to meet the skills needs of the modern IT workforce. Governments across the region have turned their attention to bringing their educational systems into the 21st century with the hopes that updated curricula will both meet the demands of the growing student population, and arm them with the skills that will set a foundation for innovation.
“EdTech startups have brought much needed innovation that can potentially disrupt education and change the way teachers deliver lessons,” says Hind Al Mualla, chief of creativity, happiness and innovation at Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in the UAE. “Education is no longer confined to textbooks as a new wave of connected classrooms is helping teachers adapt innovative ideas. EdTech innovations are creating better hands-on activities and educators have a wealth of data to measure the impact of their teaching. As a regulator, we want to disrupt the traditional model for education and inspire new possibilities for education providers.”
In line with the UAE Vision 2021, nearly one-fifth of the nation’s federal budget has now been allocated to the education sector. The UAE Innovation Strategy refines these efforts, promoting innovation in the classroom and beyond by introducing creative teaching methods and techniques. The demand for emerging education technology is such that incubators and accelerators are on the hunt for promising startups that aim to disrupt traditional models of education.
“Innovation is a crucial factor in enhancing competitiveness in a globalised economy and the innovative capacity of a nation is conditioned by the level of digital skills of its population. Therefore, the role of education in promoting innovation through a technology-powered system is critical,” says Saleh Al Hashemi, managing director of Krypto Labs, an Abu Dhabi-based tech incubator that has recently announced its EdTech Innovations Startup Contest which will award up to US$150,000 in funding to the winning startup.
EdTech startup Alef Education has recently signed a strategic partnership with the UAE Ministry of Education to modernise classrooms with the implementation of its Alef Platform in 10 UAE public schools.
“About 6000 students will experience and benefit from the Alef Platform [in 2018],” says Geoffrey Alphonso, chief executive officer at Alef Education. “Our educational approach, based on learning science, is to build specific digital learning experiences that engage students in academic subjects through videos, ‘interactivities’ and games, in addition to more traditional academic content. The core essence of the approach is breaking the content for bite-sized consumption by the students of the digital era.”
Partnerships with EdTech startups and the implementation of emerging technology in the classrooms of both public and private schools have allowed educators to reach their students in new ways, fostering an educational environment that supports innovation. Once implemented, many schools are finding that their entire educational environments are adapting to house emerging technology and to encourage students to create their own innovative solutions.
“Children have to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship at an early age. For this purpose we have set up a Global Centre For Innovation & Entrepreneurship on our campus. This is supported by a well-equipped ‘Immersion Center’ that provides unique immersive experience to children on the subject matter. Our independent AI lab also supports the centre on various aspects of AI and coding,” says Amol Vaidya, director of operations at Global Indian International School (GIIS). GIIS, like many other tech-forward schools, has partnered with a range of EdTech startups to prepare their students for the modern era.
Beyond the classroom
The use of emerging technology in education is not limited to the K-12 curriculum - universities and continuing education providers are also modernising the distribution methods and content of their programmes. Educational technology, when applied at the university level, can address traditional issues of access as well as expand degree options.
“Students are no longer only consumers of facts,” says Fehmida Hussain, head of computer engineering and informatics department at Middlesex University Dubai, which has recently launched a Masters degree programme in robotics. “They are active creators and shapers of knowledge. Teachers today are reinventing themselves and their occupation to serve schools and students better, they adapt and adopt new practices that acknowledge both the art and science of learning.”
Continuing education and distance learning can stand to benefit from tech-powered education as well. For students seeking to enrich or continue their education, access can frequently be a barrier to success. EdTech startups that bring the classroom into the home or office are particularly beneficial in the Middle East, where distance and lack of access has, in the past, prevented some students from continuing their education. “It is very exciting to be a part of the change in the region and making sure everyone has access to education as well as the right expert,” says Thea Myhrvold, chief executive officer and founder at GetBee and TeachMeNow, a startup that provides a global marketplace for live and on-demand learning. “Our platform showcases experts, tutors or mentors, automates booking and billing as well as delivers live and interactive sessions on any device. We have empowered many companies, initiatives as well as schools to scale their impact further.”
EdTech startups are in high demand in the Middle East and North Africa region, as they can focus on the entire education spectrum from public and private schools, to direct delivery, to university studies and continuing education. As the education field collectively realises the potential of educational technology as learning tools, public and private schools, as well as the students themselves, are turning on and logging in to learn. Early exposure to emerging technology as an educational tool not only disrupts the method of knowledge-exchange, it also puts modern technology at the forefront, setting the stage for innovation from today’s students in the future.