The future of Arab higher education .. The Internet is not the best answer
Higher education will not return to what it was before the Corona pandemic. This is a fact the more we realize it and start dealing with it faster, the greater our chances of integrating and progressing within a scene in which we will see rapid and severe changes.
Traditional education in its current form is no longer able to keep pace with the rapid changes, and the solution is not completely dependent on online education either.
In fact, most of the images we see now of higher education are no longer viable for continuity, competition and the graduation of students who are able to efficiently engage in the labor market, as they were made for societies and labor markets that are no longer available.
Traditional education in its current form, based on gigantic university buildings, thousands of students, lectures and attendance, faces existential challenges. Governments will not be able to continue forever in opening universities, expanding buildings, increasing branches, and providing educational cadres. This is an expensive model that requires continuous and escalating financing structures, and most importantly, it does not provide equal opportunities for learning due to limited seats, and there is currently a great international debate about its feasibility, and the outcome is not in its favor.
Online education appeared 20 years ago, achieving remarkable numbers and multiplying as an industry by more than 900% since 2000, with a growth rate of 19% annually, but experience has proven the need for many scientific disciplines to enhance students’ skills under direct supervision or through working with groups in addition to the need to enhance some soft skills such as working with a team, success in solving problems, communication skills, and negotiation ability, which are necessary to advance in the labor market.
In addition, between these two models, we have seen during the past five years a continuous growth in the role of blended education, and the pandemic has revealed many of its advantages, and most educational institutions have adopted it, and I see that it will shape the future of education in general.
Blended education takes advantage of all the features of online education, and it provides the best of what is offered by face-to-face education, but with higher efficiency and lower cost.
For example, this model of education allows maximum use of university buildings, as one building within this educational system can serve nearly five different universities, and one academic cadre can cover the needs of several universities, provided that it is proficient in the tools of its time.
Blended education also gives students access to the best universities, ease of choice of study paths, support for self-learning, with lower fees, and greater efficiency in time management.
Blended education saves billions on governments directly, such as the costs of constructing and maintaining new buildings, and securing increased salaries for academic and administrative cadres. Blended education is that it transfers knowledge and learning resources to the learner wherever he is, and whenever he wants, bypassing the obstacles of time and place. In other words, it enables the learner anywhere and at any time.
Although, after the pandemic, everyone has become more accepting of the idea of blended education, whether students, teachers, parents, or governments, there are remaining challenges before us in our Arab world. The first is the rejection of the “old guard” of the idea of developing the education system, and the adoption of the Internet as an essential element in it. In addition, there is a weak digital infrastructure in many countries, and the need for long-term investments to develop it, and this transformation in the form of education must be accompanied by a shift in curricula, its form, contents and teaching mechanisms.
There is also a real funding gap in student loans that must be investigated. Some families and students still struggle to meet the technical requirements needed to benefit from online education, and grant programs are currently limited to covering tuition and personal expenses at a minimum.
I would like to highlight some points that we must work on together.
Arab academic leaders need to accept and interact with the global changes taking place in education, and to reconsider their convictions about learning mechanisms. I also call on decision-makers in every Arab country to start serious research on the mechanisms, opportunities and challenges of implementing blended education in a broad and rapid manner.
We also need to activate a comprehensive partnership between the private sector and academia. Developing digital infrastructure, improving curricula, and expanding online education will not succeed without a partnership with the private sector, and the third (non-profit) sector which has a role in developing programs to empower poor communities and the most vulnerable groups. There is a need for integration into digital education, as education an essential pillar for breaking cycles of poverty and achieving sustainable development.
Finally, there is an essential role for the media to support decision-makers through educating those who reject integration and change, encouraging the private sector to engage in the development process, and opening a dialogue that leads our societies to realize the need to develop our educational system, and its benefits at all levels, and the losses that we will suffer economically, socially and humanly, if we were reluctant to change.
Delaying making pivotal decisions will cost us a lot. It is unreasonable for the forms of production, markets and knowledge to change, while education remains in its place.
Abdulaziz bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Arab Gulf Program for Development (AGFUND) .. Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Open University