Education chiefs said that hybrid learning could transform the educational landscape across the Middle East over the next decade.
They warned on Tuesday that many pupils could be left behind because of poor internet access and digital infrastructure. They urged governments to do more to resolve these “alarming inequalities” the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed.
It came on the first day of the Maple Virtual Conference organized by Quacquarelli Symonds, a global education research consultancy.
The dawn of hybrid learning – where pupils divide their time between face-to-face lessons and online classes – dominated the agenda.
“This pandemic has revealed alarming inequalities within and across countries which must be tackled immediately,” said Hakima El Haite, Morocco’s former environment minister and president of Liberal International, a federation of the world’s liberal political parties. “Have we compressed 10 years in one? I will say that maybe yes for some countries,” she said.
El Haite said many schools in the Middle East and North Africa have been unable to fully hold online learning due to lack of digital infrastructure and internet access and she called for more government support to boost education. “In some countries in our region, the digital infrastructure was and is not available,” said El Haite.
“Many countries still lack the basic capacity and infrastructure and need to guarantee and embrace digital learning. We will for sure shift to a hybrid system after the pandemic.”
“It will require political will, vision and bigger financial efforts from our government and educational institutions.”
El Haite said in Morocco, for example, many educational institutions were simply not ready. She also highlighted the challenges faced by families who had several children and had to manage online education. “Online courses were a nightmare,” she said.
Sonia Ben Jaafar, chief executive at Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, one of the largest philanthropic education initiatives in the Arab world, said things were not going to revert to old models after the pandemic ends.
“If we are serious about quality education for all, then we need to address the needs of marginalized communities,” said Ben Jaafar.
“If we are serious about inclusive and equitable quality education for all, then we need the ecosystem that supports that vision.”
Ben Jaafar said UAE universities were already ahead of their peers in the region since online learning has been on their agenda before Covid-19 and the Ministry of Education had accreditation channels for online degree programs.
Prof Tony Chan, president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, said that the Covid-19 pandemic had forced universities into new territories.
“Hybrid is a very definite thing and there will be a mixture because we have seen the advantages [of it],” said Prof Chan.
Instead of just putting a lecture series online, they use online spaces for brainstorming or discussions, he said.
“The other thing we are looking at is how to make our laboratories more remotely accessible?”
Flexible working opportunities at universities was another aspect under consideration.
“Flexible working has been adopted by many companies around the world the because it’s good for work-life balance,” he said.