Lilac Ahmad Al Safadi, President, Saudi Electronic University (SEU)

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On leveraging online learning and narrowing the digital equity gap

How would you describe the state of e-learning at higher education institutions before and during the Covid-19 pandemic?

LILAC AHMAD AL SAFADI: Before the pandemic the Ministry of Education (MoE) had taken steps to modernise higher education institutions and meet the rising demand for post-secondary education by promoting e-learning. Because of this, Saudi higher education institutions had sufficient digital readiness to handle the temporary cessation of in-person learning due to the pandemic, and to move learning online within 24 hours of the ministry’s decision to close schools. 

During the pandemic Saudi Arabia upgraded its online-learning infrastructure to handle remote and concurrent instruction on a large scale, and conducted professional development trainings for educators to further develop their online teaching skills. The MoE created a strong governance framework that continuously assessed education continuity and took quick action to ensure the sustainability of systems, while providing both students and faculty members with a quality e-learning experience. In addition, the MoE reformed some regulations to promote multiple learning modes and enforced quality criteria. These forward-thinking actions and other moves that helped control the crisis facilitated the continuity of safe education.

Saudi Arabia’s recovery strategy aims to maintain and even expand upon the achievements gained during the pandemic. This means extending digital education initiatives beyond the immediacy of the crisis to meet the goals set out in Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s long-term development programme.

What are the limits of remote education, and when is it best to combine online lessons with in-person learning?
Physical and virtual classrooms offer different learning outcomes. Online learning can be a disadvantage for teachers with less training, as they need to be equipped with specific online-teaching strategies, as well as for students, who must have strong time-management and self-directed learning skills. Moreover, some classes require active and hands-on engagement with students. However, it is important to acknowledge that traditional classrooms are not perfect. They do not always provide rich interaction and engagement for students, and often focus on providing information and awarding credentials rather than involving students in meaningful, interactive learning experiences. Commoditised courses and personalised learning, conversely, can best be delivered online at the student’s convenience, at scale and at a much cheaper cost.
Online learning involves transformational thinking from time-based, teacher-centric learning applied in the physical classroom, to mastery-based, student-centric learning. The latter aims to achieve competencies through flexible, collaborative, engaging, motivating and personalised learning, where students are given control over the time, place and content of their education. 
SEU adopted blended learning over a decade ago to harness the best of both worlds, and is currently adopting advanced models in this area – such as flipped classrooms and collaborative experiences – for more effective and efficient learning. SEU’s new digital transformation strategy aims to further explore bionic learning use cases to fully integrate technology into the learning experience and transcend traditional boundaries associated with education.
Which segments of the population stand to gain the most from online education?
Online learning has the potential to increase access to higher education among students who need flexibility, such as candidates with family obligations, those in remote areas, individuals with business responsibilities that do not fit around traditional university schedules, and students with physical disabilities that require personalised services. These people stand to benefit significantly from e-learning.
Moreover, the digital-savvy generation that was raised on virtual connectivity, user-generated content and flexibility is widely represented in the Kingdom. This generation is also generating increased demand for online learning as they search for more innovative and accessible ways of studying.
To what extent can Saudi Arabia’s experience with remote education advance Vision 2030’s goals?

AL SAFADI: Vision 2030 spurred Saudi Arabia to modernise all governmental services and encouraged countrywide cooperation among government institutions. Education is prioritised in the framework to ensure that the population has the knowledge and skills required in the future economy. This means providing a solid and quality educational base to all segments of society.

Education was one of the most efficient sectors in responding to Vision 2030’s targets. Efforts have been under way to leverage innovation and technology to modernise the sector and fulfil the vision’s commitment to provide citizens with equal access to education, diversify the economy and equip young students for the jobs of the future. Education modernisation efforts have included establishing online teaching as a key component in education in accordance with international standards to ensure optimal learning, rather than temporarily shifting to remote learning in response to a crisis.  

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