Wamda hosted an online panel discussion in collaboration with Columbia Global Centers Amman, to address the future of education in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region and globally in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The webinar, “Edtech and its roadmap to new realities”, featured Safwan Masri, professor and executive vice-president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University and Mounira Jamjooom, founder and chief executive officer at Saudi Arabia-based edtech startup Aanaab and Fadi Ghandour, executive chairman at Wamda.
As the Coronavirus swept across the world, forcing people into lockdown, schools and universities were among the first institutions to close their doors. According to UNESCO 80 per cent of the world’s student population, about 1.4 billion learners, stayed at home where they attempted to continue their education.
Schools and universities that had invested in the technological infrastructure had the means to provide distance and online learning. Those with the budgets turned to education technology, and the winners, particularly in the Middle East were the edtech startups that had previously faced difficulties in raising investment.
Back in 2017, just $2 million was invested in edtech startups in Mena. So far this year, some $23 million has been raised according to Wamda Research Lab. We expect VC investment into edtech in Mena will rise to $35 million by the end of the year if the same momentum continues.
“Everybody thought this was going to be a long process, eventually people will go online [that] it’s nice to have distance learning, it’s nice to have digital capabilities,” said Ghandour. “[The coronavirus] forced us into a two-month experiment to actually become digitally-enabled immediately. This experiment basically accelerated everything that we thought was going to happen in 10 years or even more and basically said: it's here, it's here right now, and it forced adoption.”
Schools and universities around the world had to offer online and remote education overnight in mid-March as lockdown measures were implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Within three weeks, Columbia University overcame the challenge by offering 9622 courses online to its undergraduate and graduate students.
“It has been a very difficult transition, but it worked. It worked very smoothly. And it did because the university mobilised its resources very quickly, and because we have the technology infrastructure that allowed this to happen,” said Masri.
While the move was necessary, the experience of learning online presents its own issues according to Masri.
“The challenges I think, have had to do with one - the pass fail system. We went to a pass fail system that is competitive. High achieving students look for their relative performance in a classroom to distinguish themselves so that went by the wayside. One other challenge has been the synchronous versus asynchronous components of it. Third issue is the way that you deliver a class in person may have to be adjusted. How you deliver, how you interact with the students, how you manage the classroom discussions.”
For Aanaab, which offers online upskilling and reskilling courses in Arabic for teachers and educators, Covid-19 had a more positive impact. Interest in the platform grew, but the company had to begin offering different courses to reflect the shift in education.
“We had a larger number of teachers interested in coming and learning online. We recently learned that just in the past three months, teachers spent between two to four hours a week on online learning programmes, which is unprecedented for Saudi teachers,” said Jamjoom.
There was an overall growth in the number of registrations, enrollments and interest in professional learning according to Jamjoom.
“We had to adapt very quickly and develop weekly webinars for teachers to learn specific skills, like how do I have effective distance learning? How do I ensure that all my students are learning equally?”
Impact of Covid-19 on e-learning
It was the higher education sector that saw the fastest growth in online learning. Before the coronavirus, only 30 per cent of higher education students took an online course. During the lockdown period, this shot up to 100 per cent of university students who were enrolled in online courses.
“It’s a massive shift in the higher education sector, it trickles down to schools and teachers and how we do education in the future,” said Jamjoom.
Yet online education still accounts for less than 2 per cent of the global higher education market according to Masri.
“So the market is unquestionably ripe for a disruption. The global higher education market was valued just before the pandemic at $65.4 billion in 2019. And this was projected to reach 118 billion dollars by 2027,” said Masri.
“I think the shift will last, I do not think that the K to 12 is going to go fully online for a very long time, but I think we will find hybrid models. And we will find more interest in secondary online schooling, which is something we are seeing increasingly... the younger students still need to go to school and still need that schooling experience. But secondary online schooling, we think there might be a growth in that as it links very nicely to higher education as well,” said Jamjoom.
This shift will undoubtedly open up opportunities for the edtech startups in the region. Just a couple of years ago investors shunned edtech startups primarily because the education market is led by the government, so as a sector it “was no unlocked by the private sector”, said Jamjoom.
“It really makes me very happy to see the recent investments in edtech companies at all stages, at seed stage, we've seen Series B now. However, the investment needs to be supported by policy changes. So we need to see this policy change at the government level to support the companies to grow,” she said.
Governments in the Middle East have begun to implement regulatory changes to recognise online courses.
“What we are seeing is that scalability is going to become easier over the next couple of years because we're already seeing regulatory changes that are encouraging the sector or people in the ecosystem to go online. So for example, just in the last two months, we've seen the ministry in Saudi Arabia starting to test higher education certificates and approve higher education degrees that have been taken online. This wasn't the case prior to Covid-19,” said Jamjoom. “We've seen new regulations that link online professional development to actual career progression. Again, this encourages people to go online and to seek online degrees and professional development. So the more we see enabling policies when it comes to decentralisation when it comes to support when it comes to public private partnerships, with governments I think that's definitely to support with scalability and adoption. And this would encourage decentralisation.”
According to Ghandour investors are now ready and “watching” the developments in the industry.
“It's going to be two-tiered, I think the sovereign wealth funds of our region, I think governments in our region will need to start thinking strategically about how to enable the online experience,” said Ghandour. “If you're a president of a university and you don't have a strategy for distance learning, you shouldn't be the president of that university. You've been caught off guard. You didn't take this seriously. We as investors and as fathers, as people that care about our communities, we're so happy that we have [online learning]. This gives global access that democratises education.”
According to Masri, online education can democratise access to education.
“Only 40 per cent of students from lower income households in arecent survey have reported being able to get the necessary equipment for remote learning, and only 56 per cent of students from low income households reported having reliable internet access. And an even smaller number reported that their home environment will support remote learning,” he said. “If we're looking at democratisation, then we have to make online education a viable model and to look at some structural aspects.”
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can help push for greater access online and recognise digital access as a global human right according to the panelists.
“Teacher training is enabling our teachers to teach our kids skills that you can have access to globally, you can do it through an app, you can do it through any platform. And that's the question of access and democratisation,” said Ghandour.
Online Vs Offline
“I don't think we will ever go to an exclusively online environment in education. I personally don't think we should,” said Masri. “There is something that is lost when everything happens online. There are some limitations to online learning. I can teach math, teach chemistry online, but cannot teach some humanities courses in music, for example, or art online.”
University education in particular comprises more than what is taught in the classroom argued Masri.
“One of the frustrations of students, one of the concerns is what they're missing out on the college experience by doing everything virtually. I've always believed that you learn more outside of the classroom at a place like Columbia than you do in the classroom. And what you learn inside the classroom is quite substantial, but it is not the entire experience of learning,” said Masri.
To counteract this, we are likely to see education becoming more localised, that is “pop-up centres” from elite universities around the world emerging in countries and areas where there is demand as a way to override the travel and visa restrictions.
“What we’re doing is leveraging locations around the world and exploring pop-up centres in areas we do not have a university presence depending on location conditions,” said Masri. “We’re trying to be creative in terms of offering students opportunities to come together.”
Universities will need to adapt to this new environment and combine greater aspects of technology into their teaching, those who do not keep pace, will be unlikely to survive.
“The elite universities will have to become far more adaptive. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a considerable number of universities in North America shut down, and I think that we should expect to find some universities shut down over the next 10 years. But at the same time, you will find other universities that prove to be robust and agile, and technologically savvy, that will re-emerge or will emerge to follow along the path that the Western observer is projecting, and that is to become largely online deliverers of education, which will shift the entire business model of the universities and schools,” said Masri.
As new online platforms appear, offering more affordable courses, university tuition fees are likely to drop. For Columbia University, tuition fees account for 26 per cent of revenues, with other sources of revenue coming from endowments, gifts, research revenue and its clinical practice.
“A university like Columbia cannot afford to only put things online, but also has to enhance the pedagogical experience and complement it with other non-pedagogical aspects of the college experience,” said Masri. “There are some aspects of the physical that are more expensive because certainly there's facilities and so on. But it really all depends on what it is that you are offering, what your value proposition is that can justify the same tuition rates, and in many cases, you will not be able to justify that. So what you will have to do is when I go to the secondary universities, you have to massively increase your scale and be able to reduce your tuition charges. So, I think you will have the two tier model.”