The shift to online learning that the Covid-19 shutdowns forced on universities and schools has created particular set of challenges for technical and vocational schools in the Middle East and North Africa region, where lack of access to digital devices, poor Internet connections and a widening digital divide are causing some students to fall behind.
Many technical and vocational courses rely on practical demonstrations that are difficult to translate to a digital environment, and the programs typically attract students from low-income backgrounds who are less likely to have access to digital devices.
With Covid-19 caseloads climbing and many students unable to attend class, there is concern that these young people, many of whom already live in challenging environments, will suffer a lasting impact on their education.
“There is a huge need to build digital skills amongst the most vulnerable,” says Sonia Ben Jaafar, chief executive of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which provides scholarships and skills training to underserved students in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Jordan.
“What the Covid crisis exposed was an increase in the gender digital divide (which) adversely affects gender gaps in education, violence and higher risk of female drop-outs,” she says. “The result is girls are left behind and cultural norms dictate that online learning remains in the male domain.”
“The new Covid-19 reality taught us to re-emphasize the importance of being a flexible donor … and provide grantees with the opportunity to be creative in exploring solutions.”
Danah Dajani, Director of philanthropic partnerships of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education
In response, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation has enabled its grantees to repurpose funds and buy laptops and data bundles for students to continue their education during the pandemic.
“The new Covid-19 reality taught us to re-emphasize the importance of being a flexible donor … and provide grantees with the opportunity to be creative in exploring solutions,” says Danah Dajani, the foundation’s director of philanthropic partnerships.
Mistrust of Online Learning
This hasn’t been easy, though. Despite the recent efforts to create functioning virtual classrooms in response to Covid-19, online learning remains far from mainstream for many schools across the Middle East and North Africa.
A survey of 1,000 Arab university students conducted by the Al Ghurair Foundation between October 2018 and January 2019 found that, while many students were willing to top up their studies with online courses, “Arab youth still have misconceptions around online learning, which seem to limit their openness to pursuing it for traditional degrees.”
This hesitancy seems particularly strong among students in vocational and technical schools.
In Sudan, Hamdan Mohamed, a student at the Department of Telecommunications Engineering at Gezira College of Technology, in Khartoum, says the online method has failed the more vulnerable in his community. “We will not benefit. The Internet is weak in Sudan and students do not have the means to afford it,” he says. Worse, additional charges have been levied for courses going online. “I decided to stop studying this year because I need to earn money,” Mohamed says.
Others struggle to engage with online lessons. In Egypt, Ahmed Saeed, 19, has been trying to keep up with his first-year mechatronics course at Beni-Suef University of Technology from his home in Alexandria, but says online teaching is no substitute for in-class training. “I am a technical high school graduate and I do not like theoretical study,” he says. “I do not feel that I have absorbed the lessons well … but we had no other solution.”
Even students who succeed in completing a program online may face frustrations as they start new jobs from home.
Two weeks into his new role as a software engineer at an IT services company in Jordan, Osama Mousa is becoming familiar with the demands of his job, but he misses the buzz of an office. “I like to be in an environment where I can mingle with friends and enjoy my work,” the 25-year-old says. “I’d prefer to prove myself in the office, but they told us that to stay safe we have to work from home.”
Mousa is in a better position than most. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Jordan, prompting one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in mid-March, he was already halfway through his course at the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair School of Advanced Computing, part of Luminus Technical University College, in Amman. The school switched to virtual classes, delivering 170 laptops to students so they could continue their studies online. “It was difficult at first but after that we learned how to communicate and ask questions virtually,” he says.
Reaching More Students Remotely
Even institutions that were operating a blended learning model before the pandemic have found the sudden shift online disruptive. Zeina Saab, the co-founder of SE Factory, which runs coding bootcamps for refugees and vulnerable youth in Lebanon, recalls a conversation with colleagues in early March, when the rising Covid-19 caseload began to have a profound impact on everyday life.
“We were really concerned. … A lot of these students needed to be in class in person. The question was how to make this experience really valid and maintain the quality of the course, even if it went online.”
At first, the dropout rate increased as power cuts and poor Internet connections interrupted classes and teachers struggled to keep students engaged as they logged in from homes that were often crowded and noisy.
It was a stressful period, says Saab, but over the last few months it’s become clear that online learning brings benefits, too, like allowing the organization to reach more students in remote areas and reducing costs for rent, transportation and refreshments. Interactive online tools like Miro, a visual collaboration software that facilitates brainstorming sessions and workshops, have also helped keep students engaged, while English classes have boosted their ability to navigate the digital space.
“The Covid crisis forced people to speed up to online. Resistance was not an option.”
Sonia Ben Jaafar Chief executive of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education
It has also helped change attitudes toward online education. “Remote learning has really been validated, even remote work. This wasn’t a culture that people openly embraced even before Covid in Lebanon,” Saab says. In the future, she feels a blended learning model would be best. “Online alone won’t work,” she says. “Even with the pandemic, people are not yet ready to go fully online. It needs to be blended.”
But the pandemic has sown the seeds for a new era of education in the region, accelerating a digital uptake that was long overdue. “The Covid crisis forced people to speed up to online,” says Jaafar, of the Al Ghurair Foundation. “Resistance was not an option.”
‘Tech Is the New Reality’
The shift comes at a time when pressure is mounting on Arab education ministries to upgrade outdated learning models and modernize curricula as labor markets evolve and job requirements change. According to a report published by the Al Ghurair Foundation, 47 percent of work activities in the region’s largest economies are likely to become automated in the coming years, requiring new skill sets that will transform the way people work.
“If not addressed, Arab youth’s lack of readiness for the labor market may be further exacerbated in the medium or long term,” says the report, titled “Online Learning in the Arab World: An Educational Model That Needs Support.”
Vocational education—which has typically prepared Arab students for low-paid jobs such as carpentry, construction, sewing and salon work—runs this risk, limiting the opportunities available to young people and failing to address market requirements by churning out hundreds of graduates for roles that are already over-subscribed.
“We need to make sure all TVET (technical and vocational education and training) courses are aligned with what the market demands and needs,” Ben Jaafar says, and “ensure the private sector is engaged from the onset.” Otherwise, it becomes the same mismatch in skills between many higher education institutes and the workforce, she adds.
And the future is decidedly online. “Tech is the new reality,” she says. “You can’t get a job and improved livelihood if you don’t have digital literacy at a minimum.”
Currently, there’s a high demand for programmers in the Emirates, where the emphasis on theoretical over practical learning at the university level leaves many graduates ill-prepared for the jobs sector. This creates a gap that organizations like Luminus, which is one of the Al Ghurair Foundation’s grantees, hope to fill.
“We’re seeing this with students graduating from the programming and software development courses, who are getting jobs they would never have been able to access previously, and they are getting them really fast, even in a pandemic,” Dajani says.
Ready for the World of Work
Since funds were repurposed during the pandemic, 150 students have been able to take online courses at the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair School of Advanced Computing, at Luminus Technical University College, and 22 have graduated so far. Of these, 14 have gained full-time employment at companies including Amazon, Bank al Etihad, and Bayt, a major Middle East job platform, with salaries starting at $1,000 a month, approximately four to six times the average wage in Jordan.
A month before finishing her course at the advanced computing school, Hidaya Syam, 22, had already landed a job doing coding work remotely for a company in Canada. After graduating from the Jordan University of Science and Technology earlier this year, she was apprehensive about her prospects. “I had a lot of fears about how I could get a job after uni because all universities in Jordan focus on theory not practical studies and I wasn’t prepared to get anything in the job market.”
Syam, who is Palestinian and lives in the Jerash refugee camp in northern Jordan, says a lot of young people like her struggle to find work, despite having degrees in relevant sectors. But since taking the course, she’s mastered some of the soft skills needed for the workplace. “After I started with ASAC I felt, OK, I can go to the job market with confidence.”
In wealthier countries, too, efforts are underway to bolster the vocational sector and furnish students with practical skills for the changing world of work. The U.A.E. government says the country needs to produce 10 Emiratis with vocational skills for every university graduate in order to achieve its goal of creating a sustainable and diversified knowledge-based economy. With a focus on new and emerging technologies, materials and systems, it is now a national priority to ensure the Emirati population is armed with skills to drive the economy of the future, beyond oil.