Interviews

COVID-19 Has Led to a Major Turning Point for Modern Education

Ozhan Toktas, the Managing Director for Middle East and Africa at Pearson, speaks about the effects of pandemic on the education sector

How has the pandemic affected the education sector in the region?
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the largest disruption that education systems have witnessed in recent history. In Middle East, we saw every stage of learning being affected —from preschools to universities— and at the peak of nationwide lockdowns and movement restrictions, this affected the education of appx. 110 million children and young individuals in the region.

Naturally, the process of adapting to the “new normal” of learning has been a challenging one. However, having said that, it is also important to note that the pandemic has led to a much-needed acceleration of digital transformation and the education sector is witnessing a gradual uptick in the usage of online and blended learning platforms. While the initial assimilation had been slow and difficult, the learning curve has now kicked in and learners and educators are accepting the fact that there is a place for constructive, screen-based learning at home.

There is a broad acceptance that can be seen from the governments as well who are understanding the benefits of online education and considering blended learning as an option to deliver learning content. The kind of regulatory frameworks and springing investments we have seen in the last few months is a proof point for this. Thus, we can say that Covid-19 has led to a major turning point for modern education and has revolutionized how learners in UAE will gain 21st-century knowledge and skills in the future.

What sort of opportunities do you see in the regional education sector?
The pandemic has definitely uncovered a plethora of opportunities for new and ingenious ways of learning and is acting as a catalyst for innovation and digitization in education systems around the globe. According to the recently launched Global Learner Survey 2020 by Pearson, 88% of the learners, globally, agree that online learning will become a permanent part of learners for all age groups and will lead to a more quality education and learning experience in the future.

Apart from this, there is a growing focus towards gaining new skills which have become critical in the current environment and students and working professionals across the world are looking towards a more practical kind of learning experience through vocational courses, trainings etc.

Particularly in the UAE, the shift to virtual learning on the whole has been well managed and well received, from both students and educators. Demands for blended learning, professional upskilling programmes, remote assessments, teacher trainings etc. have been on the rise and a lot of focus has come in from govt. bodies, which might lead to a greater role of public-private collaborations or partnerships in the education sector in future.

Being the world’s learning company, we have a whole team of experts working round the clock to keep the learning curve intact. From the onset of the pandemic, we have been engaging with all the stakeholders including teachers, educators, academicians, institutes, corporates and so on to understand their needs and provide them with the required products and services to ensure the continuation of learning. Going forward, we will continue to explore these emerging opportunities and remain steadfast on our aim to provide a quality, equitable and accessible education to all.

Is there a digital disconnect despite tech tools being available for distance education?
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the digital divide more obvious between those who have the technology for learning and those who do not, as highlighted by the Pearson Global Learner Survey 2020. Furthermore, it’s critical to understand that in terms of digital divide or disconnect, it’s not only about people having the access to technological tools but also whether they have the necessary knowledge to use those tools effectively or not.

According to a report by UNICEF, half of the parents in MENA region said that distance learning was ineffective, due to lack in resources, limited access to internet and difficulties in connecting with teachers. And while there have been concerted efforts by the public and private authorities to expand this reach and access, the question of whether the people have the required knowledge to use these tools effectively still remains, which further leads to a widening digital divide.

How can this digital disconnect be bridged?
Although many people may have access to technological resources at home, scaling these tools on a larger level entails that a wider population uses them as well. This will include a greater prioritization of the Education sector at the national level and adopting long-term measures to improve online learning by building digital infrastructure and providing universal access to online resources. Apart from this, there have been profound challenges with regards to insufficient digital preparedness among teachers and students while using e-learning platforms which is why it’s critical to provide educators with training, tailored workshops, etc. to make them digitally literate.

Pertaining to the nationwide lockdown which began in March 2020, Pearson, as the world’s leading learning company, proactively and instantaneously stepped in to empower educators to use online learning platforms and teach students digitally and effectively during this critical time. Each week, we kept adding multiple resources, helpful links, live webinars, how-to videos and more, which covered various distance learning topics including digital communication, online assessment, strategies for teaching online and engaging students in live, virtual classes etc. Our intention was to share different experiences from all stakeholders and hopefully help all of us enhance and optimize our approaches, initiate discussions, bridge the digital gap, and focus on what matters the most i.e., learning.

STEM has risen as the go to stream of education during the pandemic. What importance does STEM have in developing the skillsets of a student?
Learning of STEM subjects is identified as one of the most important sectors for future job needs in many gulf countries, and even more so now amidst the evolving situation. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort by the government as well to work closely with the Ministry of Education (MoE) and develop STEM Skills in students, especially Science and Mathematics.

The primary aim of placing this huge emphasis on STEM is that it better prepares students for future university study disciplines such as Engineering, Medicine, Natural sciences etc. and make them ready for the 21st century workplace. In fact, exposure to STEM skills has also been deemed important by experts in order to build critical thinking skills, develop innovation & teamwork among students and give them an opportunity to increase science literacy, develop attention to detail and a critical approach, which in turn empowers the next generation of innovators.

Do you use solutions today to make STEM learning a seamless experience?
As we work with multiple education stakeholders, we make sure to help learners bring out their talents and put it to the right use. There has, of course, always been learner exposure to mathematics and the sciences, but what’s newer – and extremely welcome – is this significant drive by Pearson to ensure that these subjects are really recognized as the gateway to future employability, which is why we have our digital solutions such as Pearson MyLab and Mastering which provide a seamless learning experience for STEM knowledge.

Our focus is on harnessing the STEM capabilities of students in the best way possible- so that they are able to propose ideas, generate & test solutions, and make decisions based on data and lead the welfare and progress of the nation.

What about the security aspects of online learning. How can that be addressed?
Online learning, while having many benefits has its own set of challenges. From a student perspective, security, authenticity of learning content, data privacy etc. is a big concern. However, these can be addressed by following some simple steps such as keeping your login credentials or account logins safe, restricting online activity to only those online resources that are related to course work while using a school/public network etc. Apart from this, choosing the right platforms and e-learning solutions becomes critical when it comes to the credibility and authenticity of learning content.

At Pearson, we have always strived to add value to the learning material by creating quality content, collaborating with renowned authors and providing credible learning resources for the students. We employ the best of editors, digital content creators, and developers to create a seamless and secure tech interface of our products.

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Chris Fernando

Chris N. Fernando is an experienced media professional with over two decades of journalistic experience. He is the Editor of Arabian Reseller magazine, the authoritative guide to the regional IT industry. Follow him on Twitter (@chris508) and Instagram (@chris2508).

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