The Middle East is primed for an ed-tech revolution. Now it needs to build on that momentum

A global crisis galvanised teachers and students to embrace digital. Making the transformation permanent is the next challenge.

At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, 84.8% of the world's students – the equivalent of some 1.48 billion children and young people – were dealing with school closures. One year on, nearly half the world's students remain affected by schools that are partially or fully closed, UNESCO reports, leaving a question mark dangling over the prospects of more than a billion children who've lost vital learning to COVID-19.

Technology has played a pivotal role in keeping education afloat over the past year as well as helping students, teachers and parents adjust to these new, pandemic-induced realities.

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Data from mobile data and analytics platform App Annie reveals that downloads of education apps were up 90% globally at their highest point in March 2020, compared to the weekly average for Q4 2019. Meanwhile, during a national lockdown in Qatar, telecommunications provider Ooredoo witnessed an 11,000% increase in video calls and a 3,500% rise in online-learning sessions, according to the GSMA – testament to the unprecedented demand placed on internet service providers as a result of remote working's meteoric rise.

Digital transformation by necessity

Governments, telecommunication companies and NGOs across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) rallied to support the needs of learners with a set of broad-ranging measures.

Educational YouTube channels were created for teachers and students in Iraq and Algeria; Tunisia and the UAE launched government-endorsed online-learning platforms; while TV channels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt broadcast lessons to children learning from home.

Mobile operators also stepped up, offering free access to health and education websites, increasing data limits and offering support for new online-learning and digital health portals.

It remains to be seen what the legacy of the pandemic will be, but Mona Younes, an advisor on education in emergencies and ed-tech in the region, believes the crisis could represent a paradigm shift that drives both supply and demand for online and technology-enabled learning.

"The pandemic helped to shift the population's view towards technology," Younes tells ZDNet. "Parents, teachers as well as students throughout the MENA region have now, after the pandemic, a much wider understanding of e-learning and its tools."

Clearing old hurdles

Yet in order to realise the full potential of ed-tech, digital divides – which have become achingly clear during the pandemic – need to be addressed, with issues of cost, availability and skills among the most urgent issues.

"By the end of 2020, nearly 280 million people in the region (45% of the population) will be connected to mobile internet," the GSMA wrote in its latest mobile economy report. "However, COVID-19 has highlighted the impact of the digital divide for the nearly 350 million people in the region still unable to connect to mobile internet."

While smartphones have become more affordable, handset affordability remains a barrier to mobile ownership, observes Jawad Abbassi, head of MENA at the GSMA. At the same time, a lack of literacy and digital skills in low- and middle-income countries means uptake of devices remains low.

Access to the equipment needed to get online – such as smartphones and laptops – is also a major issue in families with more than one or two children, Younes says.

She points out that internet connectivity often remains a big challenge in rural and conflict-hit areas, as well as in urban areas in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

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Data costs in MENA also remain prohibitively high, which is a long-standing challenge in the region. Although this has encouraged innovative ideas, such as teaching lessons via WhatsApp, some communities risk being left behind.

As UNICEF points out, internet penetration is below 70% in 10 countries across the region. In some countries, including Sudan and Yemen, the figure is lower than 30%.

MENA nations impacted by civil wars or an influx of refugees face even more challenges. School closures due to COVID-19 lockdowns have not only deprived students in refugee and conflict-hit regions of access to learning, but also robbed them of what is often their only opportunity for safety, protection and empowerment, says Abbassi.

UNHCR estimates there are 26 million refugees and nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world, with nearly 9.5 million refugees in the Middle East and North Africa alone.

Young people are disproportionately affected. "At the end of 2019, around half of refugees were children, compared to an estimated 31% of the world population," UNHCR reports.

Beyond bedtime stories

Some of the efforts to address the world's widening digital divide pre-date the COVID crisis.

One initiative, Storyvoice, began life in 2018 when founders Mike Clarke, Ahmad Ghizzawi and Leen Naffaa were researching and prototyping a tool to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon practice reading English.

Supported by the MIT Media Lab - Refugee Learning Accelerator, Storyvoice was designed to read bedtime stories to children who didn't have access to books, or anyone to read with.

Yet Clarke and his team faced challenges from the outset. "Many of our early users joined our sessions from informal refugee settlements scattered across remote areas with weak signal strength," Clarke tells ZDNet. To address these challenges, the app would alter the user experience based on their internet connection.

"Good internet meant access to all of the in-app effects, animations and live formats; poor internet meant less features and a focus on just the audio experience," Clarke says.

Storyvoice went live in summer 2020. To date, over 100,000 children across 35 countries have used the app, and the team hopes to reach one billion children in the next five years through their live reading events and partnerships with organisations like Teach for India, Teach for Lebanon, and Scholastic, the world's largest publisher of children's books.

"If you can build it in Lebanon, you can build it anywhere," Clarke says.

Answering a call to action

The COVID crisis has shone a spotlight onto the stark educational challenges facing children all over the world, and in doing so has stimulated action from a broad range of stakeholders. But in order to sustain this momentum, these efforts need to continue, including tackling the systemic issues facing access to digital skills and technologies. Ways of teaching will need to change too, given that what works in the classroom doesn't necessarily translate to the online world.

At the very least, the way forward is looking a little brighter. "In an environment of more acceptance and less resistance, there is a huge opportunity for ed-tech companies to flourish, especially if done in a linguistic and cultural sensitive manner," says Younes.

As one parent in rural north-east Syria told her in a forthcoming report for the British Council: "We started to realise that learning is not equal [to] going to school, and that it can happen beyond the walls of the educational institution".

What has happened so far are just baby steps, Younes cautions. But if MENA can continue the ed-tech revolution sparked by COVID-19, the sector may soon be standing more comfortably on its own two feet.