Teachers, technology and tortoises

Teachers, technology and tortoises
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Nafez Dakkak is the managing director and CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development. 

It all seems so obvious now.

It almost always is in hindsight. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, you can only connect the dots looking backwards

The Middle East and North Africa's (Mena) edtech moment is here. 

Whether it’s the now regular announcements of edtech startups raising new rounds, or the growing adoption across the region, the momentum is unmistakable. 

Not so long ago though, talking about the future of edtech or education technology in the Arab world put you in a somewhat of an awkward position. Investors and philanthropists would pitifully smile, shake their heads, and either wish me well or openly suggest that I dedicate my efforts to something with “real potential.” 

Though everyone believed education was important of course, no one believed that the marriage of education and technology would yield fruit across the Mena region - and not for a lack of glaring problems to solve. Even when Edraak launched in 2014, the most frequent question we would get was whether “Arabs were ready to learn online”. Over 4.5 million learners later, that’s no longer the right question to ask. 

The Mena region is edtech’s sleeping giant; that giant is starting to wake up. As the pioneers behind the region’s efforts chart their journeys, the right questions for policymakers and investors to ask them are about their experiences, the lessons they learned along the way, their biggest challenges, and their future plans. The momentum is exciting, but it by no way guarantees progress. We need to understand the powers at play, to continue guiding the momentum in the right direction. Edtech has had many false dawns before.

Working with Sowt, an Arabic podcasting company, I interviewed education pioneers across the Mena region to try to better answer these questions. The entrepreneurs we spoke to came from different walks of life and worked to solve problems around different educational pain points from poor teacher training, low-quality classroom education, and a focus on rote learning. It is hard to distil rich conversations into a few lessons learned, but there are key points that I will continue to dwell on for some time. 

Connecting the classroom to the boardroom to find the right exam questions 

Good founders build their startups around a deep understanding of a problem - not an obsession with a certain solution (especially a technology). This has been a particular problem in education, where a focus on shiny new tech continues to cloud the specifics of which problems to solve. In education, many of those with the closest understanding of the problem are teachers. As such, it is a logical conclusion that educational startups should look to recruit from within the classroom. 

One of our podcast guests, Dr. Mounira Jamjoom, a former teacher herself, and the founder of Aanaab.com, goes even further. She argues that several of the skills required to be a good teacher lend themselves quite well to the realm of entrepreneurship. It was encouraging to see that in fact many of the entrepreneurs we spoke to transpired to be former teachers themselves. It was clear that their past experiences gave them a uniquely close understanding of the problem and the ability to better empathise with relevant stakeholders (especially other teachers and students). 

We still have a long way to go in creating more pathways from the classroom to the boardroom, but the region has come a long way since an investor told teacher-turned-entrepreneur, Siroun Shamigian of KamKalima that instead of launching her company, she should “leave education entrepreneurship to people with a business background”. I’m sure her users (and current investors) are glad that she persevered. 

Pedagogy, over technology 

The lack of deep pedagogical expertise among many entrepreneurs and policymakers across the Mena region has been a problem for some time. It became more starkly apparent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to education technology expert, Nidal Khalifeh, the different actors across the education systems of the region showed that talk of “innovative pedagogies” focused on deep learning was primarily lip service. As the pandemic broke out, startups and governments across the region deepened their reliance on didactic pedagogy focused on rote learning. This manifested in asking young learners to sit behind screens for hours on end. In the background, ministries flouted “viewerships” to measure progress as opposed to educational outcomes. As Khalifeh puts it, “you are not Netflix or Disney+, you should be measuring learning not the number of views on your channel”. 

Covid-19: A double-edged sword 

Digging deeper, the pandemic appears to have had a mixed effect on the adoption of edtech across Mena - especially within K-12. On one hand, the pandemic has made it clear that technology is no longer a luxury. When it comes to the adoption of technology in education, “Covid-19 has been the employee of the year” - as Dr. Aziz Al Saeed, co-founder of Noon Academy puts it. The ability to deliver remote instruction is an essential capability that parents will come to expect from every school (public or private). 

On the other hand, because the transition has happened in response to a pandemic, adoption has been haphazard, piecemeal, and often lacking on the most essential element of any reform effort: capacity building. Many educators were thrown into the deep end of a quick shift online without the needed training, support, and scaffolding to make the transition successfully. The hope is that this will be remedied now with better training, and a clearer delineation of functions and areas of expertise. 

Ambitious tortoises and butterflies ahead

To be clear, these are all still very promising signs of a rapidly maturing ecosystem. The depth and thoughtfulness of the debate around education and education technology bode well for the long term. The path of educational progress “more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet”. Serious change, at a scale that matters, is a long, and slow process. We will only move forward through deliberate and careful trial and error. 

As Dr. Mounira put it in our discussion, “when it comes to education technology, slow and steady wins the race. I’d rather be a tortoise than a hare”. The instruction to “move fast and break things” might be a great motto for e-commerce, but it’s not what we want for our children’s education. We also shouldn’t mistake moving deliberately and carefully for a lack of ambition. These are pioneers with global aspirations. As Dr. Aziz puts it, “we aim to be the number one social learning platform in the world”. 

This article was originally published on Nafez Dakkak's Substack and has been reproduced by Wamda with some edits

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