Shireen Yacoub, the chief executive of Edraak, called the growth in adult learning via online courses “one of the most inspiring observations we’ve had during the curfews and lockdowns.”
Even so, she worries about what she calls the “equity gap” when it comes to who is able to use the organization’s free courses. Most of Edraak’s users get to its platform through their smartphones, she added, and low-income families may have three or four kids all needing to share a phone. Computers and home Internet access are too costly for many, she adds. “We need to advocate for more equity in Internet connectivity,” she said. “Their lives will often depend on it. It’s not a luxury.” (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
Coursera has 3.4 million users in the Middle East out of approximately 70 million learners worldwide, according to Betty Vandenbosch, the company’s chief content officer. About 400 colleges and organizations in the region have signed up for a free program that lets them offer Coursera online courses to their enrolled students. That means that the colleges—including Al Hussein Technical University in Jordan—are offering at least some online courses based largely on content provided free from Coursera.
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And she says that in recent months, Coursera has seen more interest from governments and organizations in the region to form partnerships. Such deals typically mean that governments and organizations pay Coursera a fee to get free access to Coursera’s online degree programs for their employees. That was starting to happen even before the pandemic: Last year the company announced a deal with the Abu Dhabi School of Government to train 60,000 government employees in data science, digital transformation and other high-tech skills.
“The governments in the Middle East are recognizing the challenges they have with their economies,” Vandenbosch said. “Some of those governments are saying, ‘Gosh, we really need to upskill our workforce because oil is not going to be there forever.”
New Attitudes Toward Online Learning
Experts in education technology say that the pandemic may end up being a turning point for online education in the region.
John Schwartz, head of Enterprise Global Business Development at edX, said that colleges in the MENA region have recently adopted the platform’s online courses as well. “Virtually no university had the time and resources to turn all their classroom content into online courses, so edX was able and continues to fill a large void,” he said. “In addition there has been a significantly higher degree of interest from the region’s schools to not only use edX content, but to put their own quality content online, as a partner on the edX.org platform.”
The most popular edX courses by students in the region are an introductory computer-science course by Harvard University and a course from the University of Queensland that prepares students to take the IELTS test of English-language skills.