Economic Update

An increased emphasis on e-learning in Saudi Arabia’s education system, coupled with targets to modernise teaching methods, underpin a wider drive to diversify the economy away from oil and create more jobs.

Last year, a five-year SR80bn ($21.3bn) plan was approved to develop Saudi Arabia’s education sector, in addition to the annual allocation to the Ministry of Education. As part of the plan, 25,000 teachers will be trained overseas and resources are to be allocated to improve the online capabilities of educational institutions and promote e-learning.

The government’s ongoing commitment to education was underlined in the budget for 2015, when it received a quarter of the total government spending allocation, or SR217bn ($57.8bn), up 3% on last year’s allocation.

E-learning drive

Governments, private schools and corporations are also moving to adopt a digital approach to education. In the Middle East, revenues in this segment are expected to rise from $443m in 2013 to $560.7m by 2016, according to a report by electronic education solutions provider Docebo. The e-learning market in the region is set to expand by 8.2% annually as governments invest heavily to support the initiative.

Saudi Arabia in particular sees digitalised education as a means to reach more citizens and broaden their knowledge base. Ten years ago the government created the National Centre for e-Learning and Distance Learning (NCEL) which is tasked with implementing the national plan to develop e-learning in the Kingdom.

“The government has taken a comprehensive approach to the e-government rollout by emphasising e-services, e-commerce, and e-learning,” the centre’s general manager, Abdullah Al Megren, told OBG. “Creating an entire online library accessible to all Saudi students, both throughout the Kingdom and overseas, has been a great step in the right direction. This is giving students equal opportunities of access regardless of location.”

University education in particular has received a boost in recent years, according to Abdullah Al Mosa, president of online higher learning institute the Saudi Electronic University. “E-learning is now growing faster than ever before in the Kingdom, especially with a greater emphasis being placed on the sector’s development by the ministry itself,” Al Mosa told OBG.

Initiatives include working with partner universities as well as developing up to a quarter of courses online. “We are also seeing that local universities are working with their foreign counterparts in developing suitable e-learning curricula, such as our relationships with Colorado State and Franklin University in the US.”

Opportunities and challenges

Technology and solution providers also see significant potential for growth in the Saudi educational sector. In a recent interview with local media, Mohammed Al Abbadi, general manager at Cisco Systems Saudi Arabia, said education offered one of the greatest opportunities for growth. “By partnering with educational institutions, government administrations and community-based organisations, we are delivering ICT education through effective in-classroom learning combined with innovative cloud-based curriculums,” he said in June.

One of the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia is ensuring its educators have the necessary skills to use the new technology. This is less of an issue in fully compartmentalised packages, such as many of those utilised in the corporate world where learning can be conducted fully online. However, in schools where there is more interaction between educators and students and where learning makes use of digital tools rather than being online, ensuring teacher quality will be of the utmost importance.

Academics agree that improving support mechanisms for teachers as well as providing a professional support base for e-learning is imperative in the Kingdom. “Organisational support, in the form of incentives, was found crucial to motivating faculty members to engage in distance education,” according to a paper entitled “E-learning in Saudi Arabia: Past, Present and Future” by the Near and Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education. “There is a need for qualified teachers and instructors who can understand and implement the technology to deliver quality output”.

To answer this challenge, the state-operated Tatweer Company for Educational Services (T4EDU) has stepped up its teacher development programmes. In conjunction with educational services provider Pearson, T4EDU is working to sharpen the focus on training educators who in turn will provide courses to teachers on the latest developments in teaching science, technology, engineering and maths. Some of those digital tools are already in place, while others – in particular software packages and the policies for their use – are still being developed.