The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp disruption to education all over the world, including in the Gulf region and the broader Middle East. Due to this disruption, difficult conversations about the machinations and mechanisms of the educational system are surfacing into mainstream discourse. Having revealed enormous gaps within and between education systems in the Gulf States and neighboring countries, the current crisis may serve as a catalyst for a much-needed public discussion on the future of education in a post-COVID-19 world.
At the forefront of these emerging discussions are the issues of public safety, organizational responses, and (in)equality in accessing technology and online learning across socio-economic groups. In dealing with the crisis, schools and institutions of higher education resorted to the emergency response of shifting to online education and keeping hundreds of thousands of students, staff, and faculty at home. This shift has amplified inequality gaps in education within and among the Gulf states, exposing the states’ poor infrastructure for equal education accessibility.
The Transition to Virtual Education Highlights Socioeconomic Gaps
The GCC countries were, for the most part, able to effectively respond to the sudden shift in education mode, while other Gulf countries such as Iraq and Iran are struggling to provide minimal educational support to their students. Among other issues, both countries are struggling to manage economic problems and under-supported technological services that pose massive challenges in the transition to online learning. Due to the preexisting disruptive social and political conditions, they lacked the infrastructure and resources to cater to the needs of their students, particularly among and displaced communities. In an attempt to bridge this gap and with the support of UN bodies, authorities and organizations turned to use television and YouTube broadcasts to deliver educational content. With the exception of individual initiatives, only the well-financed schools were able to offer the necessary platforms for proper online education to their communities. The situation in Yemen is even more bleak; it is devastated by the ongoing war, and amidst a crashed economy and fractured social and health systems, educational issues seem to be less of a priority when its population is struggling to survive.
The GCC countries, on the other hand, enjoy stronger emergency response mechanisms due to their unwavering economies, widespread internet access, and established educational structures. Despite overall adequate responses, there is still evident variation in readiness and crisis management capacities among different education services, despite governmental and private sector initiatives that tried to ensure that the majority of programs were able to shift to remote teaching. While many schools and universities found ways of utilizing new or existing platforms to connect with their students and continue academics, others lacked the necessary technological infrastructure and platforms enabling teacher-student interaction. Kuwait, for example, froze the academic year for the public sector, while the private sector remained open because it was able to maintain remote services. This inequity triggered a public debate across Kuwaiti social media platforms in which students have been petitioning to resume their studies remotely.
Unlike in Kuwait, many of Qatar’s public and private organizations already had learning platforms that support the needs of remote education. The remaining education providers either purchased or created online facilities and platforms to connect their teachers and students, thus benefiting from powerful internet service and governmental and community support. Despite this quick response, however, there was still tension and concern across social platforms regarding students’ well-being, skills development, assessment, and the next academic year. Remote education, while unable to replace face-to-face schooling, did reasonably well given the emergency but only where the tools and resources existed, disproportionately benefiting the privileged.
The Future of Virtual Education
Online learning remains underdeveloped in the region. In order to fully establish an e-learning system, there needs to be a plan for an electronic infrastructure in which governments and the private sector invest, as well as adequate wide-scale teacher and student preparation. As of now, this is not the case.
Online learning requires platforms where curriculum, instruction, student work, and assessment are embedded and aligned. It also requires policy orientation before it can be declared as an independent course of study. Online education is not only about e-platforms and emergency responses, but a matter of long-term planning, investment, and infrastructure. It compels public and private investments, that are guided by local policy frameworks, towards investing in public wellbeing and equitable access to quality education. So far, none of the Gulf states in the region have officially recognized online learning.
Current discussions around online education services, platforms, and connectivity are quite misleading as they only focus on the tools that enable the teaching and learning, but these tools do not replace content and teacher training. While these discussions are highly encouraged, the technicist discourse around education in the Gulf remains at the peripheries of the topic, and we must re-center the discussion to address the core and most problematic aspects. Discourses of equitability, inclusivity, and accessibility should be the leading headlines in every educational dialogue in the Gulf and across the whole region. Questions such as how online education functions and how we can design quality and inclusive content, prepare teachers, organizations, and students, and build a supportive legal and administrative infrastructure are central to managing the moment and envisioning the near future.
A discourse that works towards enacting an accessible design for online education should replace the current mainstream reductionist approach that hardly tackles the surface-level issues. Addressing the root causes of inaccessibility to quality education will lead the way to a deeper level of public awareness and policy routes. Formal collaboration initiatives and collective recognition of the right to accessible education and technology across all social groups may be the best way to advance.
Nidal is an educational consultant and researcher who has worked in teaching and school leadership for fifteen years. She is currently a PhD candidate in learning and leadership at UCL Institute of Education, London. Her research focuses on leadership practice, development and social impact. She is also an executive advisor for STOCHOS, Sydney and a member of the Advisory and Editorial Board of Manhajiyat, Qatar.
The author has conducted interviews with educators and leaders from Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. Also analyzed pre-recorded and pre-published interviews with educators from Iran, UAE, and KSA, in addition to educational blogs and short articles from Qatar, UAE, KSA, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, and KSA. The author also reviewed recent government and UN reports from across all Gulf Countries.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.