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Bringing Arab Education Online

DUBAI – Education has long been a challenge in the Arab world, with inadequate access to high-quality schooling contributing to a widening skills gap that is leaving many young people, even graduates, unemployed and hopeless. In a region plagued by conflict and disorder, addressing these problems will not be easy. But, with a bold and innovative approach, it can be done.

Of course, no single strategy is guaranteed to resolve the Arab world’s educational challenges. At the newly created Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which has $1.1 billion and a mandate to broaden opportunities for young Arabs by providing them with scholarships, we have given a lot of thought to the effectiveness – and cost-effectiveness – of the various possible approaches. And one option stands out: online learning.

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Already, Arab countries are making rapid progress in expanding Internet connectivity. By 2018, there are expected to be some 226 million Internet users in the Arab world, amounting to more than 55% of the population – almost 7% higher than the global average. But the vast majority of young people use the Internet for social media, rather than for economic or educational purposes. In this sense, they are missing out on a major opportunity, especially given the strides that have been made in improving the effectiveness and appeal of online learning.

Nowadays, the world’s top universities teach computer science and engineering classes online. And, contrary to popular belief, these are not two-hour-long online lectures with no practical component. Rather, they comprise short video tutorials, interactive activities to practice concepts in realistic scenarios, and quizzes and peer assessments that provide valuable feedback to students. Thanks to this fast-evolving model, online learning is now a better alternative to traditional education than ever.

This is great news. After all, delivering education via Internet technologies resolves some core challenges facing Arab countries’ education systems today.

For starters, there is the sheer number of young people who need affordable access to education. Once a community has Internet access, as the Arab world increasingly does, scaling up online learning to reach the millions of young people who are currently out of school or do not have access to high-quality institutions can be done at relatively low cost.

The Arab world’s few strong institutions of higher education certainly could not accommodate that many students. And even if they could, they might choose not to. We have seen firsthand how universities in the region and around the world have shut their doors in the faces of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, forcing them to overcome huge bureaucratic and financial hurdles.

The second challenge is the low quality of education currently being delivered. For far too long, the region’s post-secondary institutions have operated without having to prove that the education they provide aligns with global quality standards and expectations. Through online learning, it would be far easier to measure progress and ensure that students are acquiring knowledge and skills they can actually use.

Meanwhile, online learning can facilitate the introduction of new and innovative teaching and learning methods. For example, a reduction in traditional lecturing and rote learning could create space for the kinds of self-paced and personalized learning and assessment tools being used by professors delivering Massive Open Online Courses on EdX and other online educational platforms.

Third, the Arab world faces the challenge of delivering continuous learning. In order to thrive in today’s fast-changing economic environment, where technology is making many jobs redundant and rewarding greater specialization, workers everywhere must consistently upgrade or expand their skill sets.

As it stands, only wealthy young people in the Arab world, without personal commitments such as families and jobs, can pursue continuous learning, in the form of graduate degrees from top universities. Open online courses can level the playing field by offering professionally recognized credentials that boost a person’s career prospects.

Taking all of this into consideration, we have created the Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program, aimed at making some of the best education in the world available to Arab youth through online degree programs. We are setting the bar high, by establishing our first collaboration with MIT, a leader in open online learning.

Together, MIT and the Open Learning Scholars Program will create two new “MicroMasters” programs consisting of five 12-week courses in so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that are not currently taught in the Arab world. We expect these programs – accessible to young people in Arab countries and beyond – will attract significant interest from students and strong support from employers.

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But, in order to maximize the impact of our investment, perceptions of online learning must change, which will require a joint effort by educational institutions, government, and the private sector. Indeed, Arab educational institutions must begin to explore the development of high-quality online programs. For their part, governments should reconsider their position on recognizing online learning delivered by credible and internationally accredited institutions. As for private-sector actors, the key will be to reward employees with degrees and certifications received through online programs.

In the meantime, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education will embark on a concerted effort to make innovative STEM degrees offered online by the world’s best universities available to Arab youth. Not to do so would risk allowing the majority of Arab young people to be left behind.