For many, the word education is synonymous with teachers, lecturers, books and classrooms. In the traditional mindset, waking up at a certain time and spending half a day at a learning facility was the only way they could ever imagine growing their knowledge and pursuing a better tomorrow. That notion, as with most things in life, has seen dramatic changes over the past decade with the ongoing revolution in technology. Mobile phones, tablets and laptops ceased to be mere devices of communication, but also ushered in a new era where all the education one needs could be obtained from the comfort of their own homes.
The existence of such technology, however, did little to persuade many in our part of the world to change their perspective of what ‘real’ education should be like. Despite the increasing availability of online learning tools, most stuck to what they know best – getting dressed and off to school.
One of those days, the world woke up to a different reality. It is now the era of COVID-19, and everyone just had to figure out a way to keep life going. Much like businesses and government institutions, schools and universities were quick to shut their doors for the safety of their students. But the lingering question remained; how can we continue learning without being in a classroom? Little did they know, the solution already existed: Edtech – AKA online learning.
“You have as early as 2 to 5 learn preschool they can learn basics of math and reading and writing through gamefied methods, and then the whole K to 12 segment that seek support with learning, and that is a huge segment because you have tutoring, support in and out of school,” recently explained Hamdi Tabbaa, cofounder and CEO at Jordan-based Edtech platform Abwaab, at RiseUp virtual summit. “Then there are university students, then the segment of professional up skilling and training. Today we live in a world in which continuous learning is needed.”
A number of platforms were sprung up on the world wide web over the past couple of decades, and if you’re an English speaker who’s interested in learning, educational websites offering courses covering every aspect of learning had already been accessible to you.
“Arabic is the 4th most spoken language globally with close to 500 million speakers, with very minimal real presence in the Edtech industry, which is growing very fast,” says Basil Khattab, cofounder of new Arabic Edtech and professional development platform Zedny. “To really make a mark in this business, we needed to disrupt it and make it not only with high quality content in Arabic but also very affordable to the masses. We intend to make it the business of the future.”
Zedny is a platform launched last September and as the market gap was made all the more clearer with the impact of COVID-19, it hopes to capitalize on the growing need for remote learning tools. “Our market segment is any learner who is about to enter the workforce or started their career already up to becoming top management – basically, anyone of age 20 years and up whose mother tongue is Arabic,” adds Khattab.
Market (or lack thereof) barrier
As Zedny strives “to get the best content from all of the world and adapt it to the e-learning standards and Arabize it”, they quickly came into another hurdle: “No one has done it this way before and hence the people we had to hire, develop and grow were not available in the market here. It took a lot of trial and error to get the right people then develop them to get us to where we are today.”
“We find many other players but with no artificial intelligence, with no gamification techniques, and even with no Learning Management System (LMS) to give control to the companies to assign, track, monitor and interfere in the learning process with their human capital.”
Despite Egypt’s large and young population, its Edtech market is still dramatically underdeveloped. But Khattab is confident this won’t be the case for long. “This is changing very fast as many have started in progression learning and hopefully soon will see others like us in the post grad learning.”
How established programs are adapting
The lack of a big competitive market doesn’t mean there aren’t big players in the field. The American University in Cairo School of Business, with a renowned executive education program, has made strides in the professional upskilling field, and the onset of the pandemic has pushed it to speed up the full implementation of online versions of such programs. But as with most post-grad education in Egypt, significant barrier remains. “The main barrier in my opinion is a true passion for learning. Unfortunately, some of the ExecEd seekers are in it for the framed certificate and stamp of approval rather than the knowledge and value itself,” explains Mohamed AbdelSalam, executive director of the AUC School of Business Executive Education program.
Like other learning institutions and platforms, COVID-19 has done magic in attracting new learners to its programs. “Moving to online/live virtual classroom sessions has helped many join ExecEd programs from the convenience of their offices or homes without having to waste long hours in traffic between their base and university campuses. Not only that, we have witnessed an interest from participants from outside of Egypt in joining our online live programs.”
“Before trying online live sessions and realizing their advantages, participants were skeptic of the value they can expect from online courses. Having been forced to try them out, they have quickly become advocate of online learning.”
The pandemic helped the program executives identify certain fields that “should be taught exclusively online. For example we are introducing an Africa Regional Trade program, and its main value would be realized when participants from different countries across the African continent interact in the classroom.” says Abdelsalam, “Something that would have been quite costly if only offered in face-to-face format.”
Given that many participants, for purely professional reasons, care as much about the certificates as they do about the learning outcome itself, Abdelsalam sees the need for a public policy change.
“Traditional ExecEd diplomas were certified by the Supreme Council of Universities as post-graduate Professional Diplomas, which is based on a defined [offline] structure of contact hours, learning objectives and duration of study. This certification has always been quite important to many of our participants, especially those being sponsored by their organizations or the ones traveling for appointments in Arab States,” explains Abdelsalam.
“In order to implement the next phase of flexible certificates and diplomas, we need for the certification system to evolve in line as well.”