Why Edraak is the future of online learning in the Arab world

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 17 December 2014 19:42 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At Edraak, we are now only 6 months in and already have almost 120,000 learners. It is clear that there is a big hunger for high-quality educational online content in Arabic,” explained Nafez Dakkak, the founding director of Edraak.org, an online education effort of the Queen Rania Foundation aiming to provide free high quality online and blended education to Arabic speakers across the region. In an in-depth interview, we discussed the origins of Edraak, key trends, challenges and opportunities in education across the Middle East, the future of online learning in the region, how best to connect curriculum to careers in order to tackle the youth unemployment crisis, and much more.

What was the motivation behind launching Edraak? 

The origins of Edraak stemmed from the vision of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan for improved access to quality education across the Arab world, where an overwhelming majority of people only speak Arabic.

According to the English Proficiency Index, the Middle East and North Africa are the weakest regions globally when it comes to English proficiency. At the same time, Internet and mobile penetration rates across these regions are higher than they have ever been, potentially allowing people to benefit from the global rise in education technology and access to open education resources.

In 2013, the United States Department of State began some efforts in this regard when they launched the Open Book Project. Back then, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) technology was still in its infancy, but with the open sourcing of the edX platform there arose an opportunity for the region to develop its own MOOC platform, and to buck the trend of being consumers to being producers of this content. 

We launched Edraak because we wanted to play a role in a regional educational transformation that could propel the region forward. We launched it on OpenEdX because the region has always been a late adopter of technology. With open source, everybody can be a co-creator and we can ensure that the technology is customizable and therefore can be tailored to the needs of the region.

When you look at the issue of education across the Middle East, what kinds of trends are you noticing?

While demand for education at all levels has steadily increased over the past 40 years, the World Bank figures show that access to tertiary education (all post-secondary education) across the Middle East remains one of the lowest in the world. 

There has been a steady but slow rise in educational technology startups, mimicking the growth of startups in other sectors across the region. The rise of education startups is perhaps the most important trend given how critical the sector is for regional progress. On the negative side, the lack of professionalized teacher training, rising numbers of out-of-school children and low-investment in early childhood education continue. 

Is the opportunity for digital education the most ripe for innovation and creativity?

I’m not sure if that can be said definitively, but at Edraak we believe so. Internet penetration across the region is rising at 20% annually. That means in less than 4 years the number of potential online learners will double. In parallel, the region is adding over 300,000 learners annually. That translates roughly to over 12,000 new classrooms that need to be built every year. While there is certainly a lot of value in face-to-face learning, we need to come to terms with the reality that learning as we do it right now hasn’t changed in a long time and is not scalable.

At Edraak, we are now only 6 months in and already have almost 120,000 learners. It is clear that there is a big hunger for high-quality educational online content in Arabic. There is still a long way to go, and we believe blended learning experiences are the way to go but online will certainly play a big part. 

With online education and Internet access going hand in hand, what can you tell us about digital penetration and usage in the region? 

It is no secret that both internet and mobile penetration across the region is rapidly rising. A good case study is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a very young population that is super connected and hungry for content. Saudi Arabia currently boasts the highest number of YouTube video consumption per capita, globally. Riyadh, the capital, is one of the most active cities when it comes to volume of tweets. Riyadh is obviously ahead of other cities in the region but they are all heading in the same direction, and they are all seeking Arabic content.

As with anything new, there will be uncertainty, but what are some of the specific challenges you'll have to overcome for Edraak to be successful?

There are certainly several challenges with Edraak. The important thing to emphasize is we do not believe Edraak is the silver bullet for education reform because there are no silver bullets, and because there remain several structural challenges that will need to be addressed by different stakeholders.

Going back to Edraak, the five primary challenges are access, lack of existing quality Arabic content, novice online learners, and sustainability. First, even with over 125 million internet users across the region and over 50 million using social media, access to the internet in most countries remains an issue and access to the bandwidth to stream video (like many developing regions) is an even bigger concern. We are currently working with telecommunication providers in Jordan to explore different ways to offer free access to Edraak courses, including the utilization of existing technology centers and community based infrastructure. The idea would be to pilot such a program in Jordan and then find champions and partners in each country. We are also following edX’s lead into looking at enabling users to download videos, which removes the burden of having to stream them live. Finally, we are working with a mutli-stakeholder team on a project called x2go that aims to allow people without internet to access courses.

Second, whereas startups like Thinkful in the US are monetizing the curation of high quality open content there is still a severe lack of quality Arabic content both online and offline. While this is an opportunity in itself, it does make it much harder to create courses.

Third, Edraak needs to work with different stakeholders to create a true culture of lifelong-learning across the region. This is one of the foundations of a true knowledge economy, and a critical factor if the Arab region is to ever to be competitive on a global scale. There is a strong culture in the region that highly values education and that is a great base to build off of, but we need to shift the value from “paper qualifications” to a focus on skills and an understanding that you can never afford to stop learning. There are also clear challenges, at least in the beginning, in get users acquainted with learning online.

Finally, Edraak is a not-for-profit effort and we are completely committed to offering access to quality education free of charge. This presents some challenges in terms of ensuring sustainability and we are working to address that beyond depending on grants and donor funding. We like to think of ourselves as a startup with visionary and patient investors in the future of education across the region.

How will this educational effort be connected to real employment opportunities for youth?

The fact that employers across the region, and perhaps the world, are unhappy with the skills of recent graduates has become a well established fact. A lesser-known fact is that according to the World Bank, Arab employers are the least to invest globally in skills development. Edraak provides employers with a lean and flexible opportunity to create online and blended learning experiences for both prospective and current employees.

We are already in talks with some major employers in Jordan and across the region about creating such courses and recognizing the value of the existing ones. The interesting part about this is that because they can be open, large employers that invest in creating these courses can glean from the top those candidates they need while the remaining candidates remain as part of the employment pool to work at small and medium enterprises, or maybe even start their own companies. It’s a tide that will raise all boats if executed successfully, and at Edraak we realize that is a significant ‘if’. First and foremost, there are challenges about ‘identity' in online education that will need to be sorted out and we have ideas about using testing centers to get over that challenge. We’ll have to tinker with opportunity in consultation with employers to find out what works best.

Finally, we hope that through Edraak, we can also empower women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors, by equipping them with the tools and recourses needed towards their professional development under more flexible learning structures.

Finally, looking ahead 5 or 10 years, what are your ambitions for Edraak?

It is always extra challenging to give such predictions, especially 10 years into the future. Five years from now, we envision Edraak as a provider of education to different learners across the region, working in close coordination with employers and academics to create high-quality, relevant educational experiences. We would like to be working with universities to create exceptional blended learning experiences, with employers on helping them invest in the talent and skills they need, and with aid agencies to offer educational experiences to disadvantaged populations, especially refugees, across the region.

Finally, we hope that Edraak will also go a long way in bringing together communities of excellence from across the region on these different topics. One of the region’s challenges has always been its fragmentation. By creating an online hub for education, we can bring together prospective and current engineers, scientists, poets and artists all into one location. We can tap not only into those luminaries in the region, but also those in the diaspora.