By Karim Aly, Rasheed Eltayeb and Ahmed Mokhtar
Of all sectors in the GCC, education was among the least prepared for a disruption like COVID-19, and the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With almost no advance notice, a well-established model of in-person learning was forced to shift entirely online, sending 2.75 million children home. As a result, there is a risk of a decline in long-term learning levels, along with a potential increase in the gap in digital literacy among children. Governments must take short- and long-term measures to prevent such negative outcomes.
Most schools, leaders, and education ministries have already taken significant steps to provide the best education possible under the circumstances. However, there have been profound challenges including insufficient digital preparedness impeding the teaching process and students struggling to log onto e-learning platforms due to poor connectivity. Countries that had already made major investments in digital learning, such as China, Singapore, and South Korea, also experienced significant problems. Meanwhile, in some countries, public schools were closed and the school year terminated.
Most education ministries in the GCC are now working hard to set the right conditions for reopening schools after the summer, a critical short-term imperative, which means enhancing online learning, teaching, and materials. However, given the likelihood of ongoing disruptions to in-person learning in the future, governments should adopt longer-term measures to improve online learning by building digital infrastructure and providing universal access to online resources.
First, governments and schools should improve online learning to minimize the drop in the average learning level. Education ministries should treat e-learning as a supplement that leads to better outcomes, not as a substitute or replacement for classroom learning. That means that education ministries should modernize traditional pedagogical methods by establishing national guidelines and standards for online education. School systems should provide educators with digital literacy training through media campaigns, tailored workshops, training programs, and regular e-learning forums and webinars.
As with traditional education, governments should establish an accreditation scheme for online institutions and programs, to regulate offerings and ensure quality. Teachers who undergo formal training should receive an e-certification, with mandatory staff quotas that increase over time. For example, 20% of a school’s educators must be e-certified after one year, 40% after two years, and so on.
Governments will need to create digital materials to support online learning, potentially by working with private-sector providers such as Google or Coursera. They should offer tailored online quizzes and exams, with a recording application to ensure academic honesty. A central online platform can provide many of these offerings and feature national curricula, prepared lectures, and segmented levels of access for teachers, students, and parents.
Second, along with improvements to online education, governments should make long-term efforts to reduce the digital literacy gap between privileged and underprivileged children. A key factor is access. Education ministries should ensure that all students have a laptop or equivalent electronic device to attend online classes. As part of broader digitization agendas, governments should partner with national telecom companies to increase broadband internet coverage, offer discounted rates for low-income families, and establish public WiFi hotspots areas with high concentrations of students. Schools can provide some classes and content through dedicated television channels, further increasing accessibility.
In particular, governments should ensure that all students have access to online resources. Online libraries can give students access to textbooks and other resources. Students should also have the software and tools they need for projects, along with subscriptions to leading global newspapers and magazines. For example, virtual reality programs can be critical resources that allow students to perform physical activities such as chemical experiments or sports.
The pandemic has been a massive disruption for GCC governments, demonstrating the need to be prepared for future problems. If education ministries are to fulfill their mandate in such circumstances, they need to adjust. By reshaping the education system to mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19, they can integrate online learning and create an education system that is ultimately better for current and future generations of students.
This article originally appeared in Education UAE, September 2020.