Reshaping learning in the region

02 November 2010

There is a growing interest in using technology to improve education provision in the Middle East, but political will is crucial to speed the uptake of new technologies

Investment in education in the Middle East is on the rise. Billions of dollars are spent each year on building new schools and improving existing facilities. Some of this is being used to develop the role of information and communication technology (ICT) as a learning tool.

There is an increasing need to deploy and incorporate technology within the learning environments

Aaron Fright, Smart Technologies

The increased used of technology is key to enabling the region’s schools to move from a traditional teaching approach, based on rote learning, to more modern forms of education, where the focus is on creativity and analytical thinking. Computer-based learning and interactive media can enrich the educational experience and stimulate young people’s minds, at the same time as allowing teaching professionals to benefit from international expertise and classroom materials. There is already a willingness to embrace new technology in some parts of the region. 

Education attainment in MENA (weighted average)
No schooling40%40
Primary dropouts29%29
Secondary completed9%9
Primary completed8%7.5
Secondary dropouts8%7.5
Post-secondary completed4%4
Post-secondary dropouts3%3
Mena=Middle East and North Africa. Source: Barro and Lee

But knowing how to use technology effectively and efficiently is where the challenge lies. Hala Taweel, president of the University of the Middle East Project, which has offices in the US and Spain, says the whole region needs to play catch-up when it comes to learning and ICT.

“We are so [far] behind in the number of computers in classrooms, in households, and in access to technology when compared to Europe. It’s depressing in a way,” Taweel says.

BETT Middle East event

This month, the BETT Middle East exhibition will make an important contribution in bringing educators and technology companies together to share their expertise and experiences. The educational technology event, which has its roots in the UK, will come to Abu Dhabi for two days from 21 November.

Youth population (percentage of total population)
e=Estimate; f=Forecast. Sources: World Bank, UN 

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), a sponsor of the event, has 36 schools under its management in the UAE capital.

As part of the government’s public-private partnership programme, the council has been working over the past four years with the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) to apply international best practice to improve teaching and learning methods in its schools. But the use of technology in some classrooms is still limited.

Public spending on education (Percentage of GDP)
Saudi Arabia5.6
*=Oman figure from 2006. **Qatar figure from 2005. ***Tunisia figure from 2007. GDP=Gross domestic product.  Source: Unesco Institute for Statistics

“The concept of ICT in education and learning needs to be developed,” says Estelle Burton, ICT adviser for the CfBT. “That to me is a big issue and one for focus and debate. Investment is not there just for students to learn about using ICT products. It is about using technology to engage learners and support the learning that is taking place. It is not just for the pupils, but also for the teachers themselves.”

Jordan education sector progress

Elsewhere in the region, progress has been faster. Over the past seven years, the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI) has been working to improve innovation in schools in line with the government’s vision for education reform. Investment in human resource development through education is seen as key to the future growth of the country’s economy, as Jordan is a non-oil-producing state. In particular, information technology (IT) has been identified as a sector where Jordan can develop expertise.

The country already has a vibrant ICT sector and major technology players such as Microsoft, Cisco, Smart and Intel sell products to the education sector. In 2009, the JEI earned the Unesco King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa Prize for ICT in Education. Unesco promotes education for sustainable development across the world.

Haif Bannayan, chief executive officer of the JEI, says local providers have just as an important part to play in the region. “Countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and others have good local ICT companies and this region is their market,” he says. “It pays to have the big companies to get to know the local companies. We need to showcase local providers in the region and help them demonstrate their expertise, put their education solutions into the mix and share and build on differential value. It is important to ask how can education in the region be improved and what solutions are out there to help this process.”

Bannayan says even the best technology solutions will not have the anticipated return on investment without effective strategies for integration. “Some countries who have invested a lot of money in the latest and greatest technologies have found little gain, or little adoption by the educators. This is down to the fact that there are no effective integration strategies. At the JEI, we have developed our own strategies that we are ready to deploy in any education system. We know what to expect when we go to a school, the kind of resistance we may face, and we have effective solutions that can help us overcome them.”

Awareness of cultural issues in the region will also help with integrating technology into schools. The interactive whiteboard maker, Promethean’s director of education, Jim Wynn is a former head teacher with extensive experience in the region with both Microsoft and Cisco. Its whiteboards replace traditional blackboards with colour images and sound using the power of a computer.

“The days of ICT companies ‘selling’ to schools are over,” he says. “You have got to show people that you can empathise with the things they have to do: improve maths teaching or science teaching. This is what points to a return on investment. Getting teachers to change how they teach is a journey and we need to be respectful of the cultural issues involved.”

Reforming education in the Middle East

The development and transformation of education continues to be of paramount importance in every country throughout the Middle East, says Aaron Fright, regional director for Dubai-based Smart Technologies. And technology providers are responding to these needs. “There is an increasing need to deploy and incorporate technology within the learning environments,” he says.

Smart Technologies has a range of education tools for the classroom. Its Smart Table is the first multi-touch, multi-user interactive learning centre that allows groups of early education students to work simultaneously on one surface.

But influencing policymakers to institute change in the region will be necessary to speed the uptake of new technologies. “The political will to drive change is crucial for education,” Taweel says.

“We will continue to lag behind unless we follow up today on what’s happening elsewhere and we won’t be able to unless the policies of our countries move direction.”

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