The region is leading the way when it comes to the adoption of new technology to teach today's schoolchildren with innovative methods.
Middle East is making the grade in e-learning
Global IT giants such as Microsoft are in talks with Middle East governments and educational institutions to bring the latest digital electronic learning systems, known as e-learning, to the region. "With e-learning, students can learn at their own pace, get immediate feedback and repeat tasks they don't understand," says Azza el Shinnaway, who leads Microsoft's education initiatives in the Gulf. "They're also free to study in class, the library and at home via the internet or mobile phone."
Ms el Shinnaway adds the technology will allow Middle East schoolchildren to "listen to an English podcast on the bus; complete a science practical online; practise French live [in a] videoconference". The global IT industry is now also starting to turn its attention to education through innovative learning techniques such as using gaming technology to teach complex subjects including mathematics.
The UAE's Advanced Network for Research and Education (Ankabut) is in talks with Microsoft to promote collaboration and innovation in education. And the whole region is becoming increasingly active in realising the benefits of e-learning. The Middle East E-Learning Association (MEEA) was launched last February and has so far attracted members from Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Malaysia. MEEA is a non-political, non-profit body that aims to promoting e-learning throughout the region.
Despite the challenges of the global economic situation, Gulf countries are increasing their investment in education. Saudi Arabia, for example, which has a young and growing population, has announced that education budgets this year will rise 13 per cent to US$36.7 billion (Dh134.80bn), accounting for more than a quarter of the country's entire budget expenditure. These initiatives are not the result of the Arab world playing catch-up with practices in the US and elsewhere, but rather of using new learning technologies in innovative ways. Key to the success of these initiatives is exploiting the potential of the internet as a communications tool to link students with teachers and teachers with parents.
"We wanted to move the country to the new generation in which the internet is in the school and knowledge can be accessed from everywhere," says Ahmed Garib al Hadi, a teacher with the ministry of education in Oman. But the ministry had a problem. In addition to internet access, the schools needed a uniform e-mail system to link teachers, administrators, students and parents. Its research showed that creating its own IT infrastructure to support e-mail and internet access would be prohibitively expensive. It also looked at working with third parties but costs were still a concern, as was the restriction of limited storage space offered by vendors.
"The local internet service provider could only offer 30 megabytes of storage per e-mail account," says Sultan al Wadhahi, the head of the educational portal system at the ministry. In the end it selected Microsoft's Live@edu, a free hosting service for primary, secondary and higher education that provides staff and students with long-term primary e-mail addresses and other services. The ministry began by providing the service to teachers and administrators before extending it to more than 500,000 students. Each e-mail address can store 10 gigabytes of data, several times the usual allocation for e-mail boxes.
Oman is also taking advantage of other elements of the Live@edu suite of products including Windows Live SkyDrive, a file storage service that provides each user with 25 gigabytes of storage. "We deployed Live@edu as a means for facilitating the collaboration between schools and educational zones," says Mr al Wadhahi. "Our people now have the ability to communicate and interact with each other using Live@edu to exchange ideas and share their knowledge, skills, and experience.
"This is such an improvement over the previous situation where perhaps only 10 per cent of our teachers had e-mail or were able to use the Web." The system enables seamless communication between teachers and parents. Where teachers once had to summon parents to discuss a particular pupil's needs, they can now ensure that parents are included in an information loop that includes everyone connected with the child's education.
Middle East students in higher education are becoming increasingly demanding of the technology used in teaching. Research by the US-based O'Reilly Radar reveals that the highest age demographic of Middle East users of the social networking website Facebook is between 15 and 25 years old. Many in this group are students who expect academic environments that allow the same level of interactivity and collaboration as that available on Facebook, YouTube or MySpace.
The next trend expected to hit the Gulf education sector comes from the leisure industry. As well as their interest in sites such as Facebook, many students also spend long hours playing computer games. The US military paved the way for this type of e-learning with a technique called "militainment". While its detractors said that the training could not simulate the real-life dangers of the battlefield, the military is saving millions of dollars on training.
Companies such as the package delivery giant UPS have followed the example and now it is the turn of education. While there have been attempts to produce educational games since the mid-1990s, their popularity has fallen far short of those designed simply for entertainment. But the industry is now determined to make education fun. However, some experts foresee problems. Will Wright, the designer of the best-selling Sims series, has been critical of education games.
"Because they're serious subjects, there's a tendency to treat them too seriously; to say 'let's not be too playful or flippant about this'," Mr Wright says. But the developer Dreambox, for example, has launched a maths course wrapped in adventure-style games. These comprise an "engine" that constantly assesses each student's mathematical understanding while offering hints and encouragement to help students calculate the right answers.