By Hussein Oteifa
The clear and present need in this region is better access to learning tools and platforms at an affordable price
Even as the global digital revolution is bringing people closer, the global knowledge divide among people continues to grow. Nowhere is this more prominent than in fast-growing emerging economies where parts of the economy have accelerated to a highly advanced technology and knowledge state but the large majority remains deprived of the same access or technical acumen.
There are still hundreds of millions of people in the developing world that do not have access to broadband internet, excluding them from the economic and social advantages of the connected world. These people live in aspirational societies that are witnessing rapid transformation in infrastructure and employability skills.
The Middle East and North Africa is also in the middle of such a transformation — one that is playing out differently in different states but moving forward nonetheless. The clear and present need in this region is better access to learning tools and platforms at an affordable price in low bandwidth digital infrastructure. Satellite-powered e-learning solutions could provide some answers in this regard.
The primary school pupil-teacher ratio, which is the average number of pupils per teacher in primary schools, currently ranges from 6.5 in Oman to 18.9 in the UAE, according to figures released by UNESCO. The average across the six GCC states is around 12.
Compare that to the wider region and the picture looks quite different. In Yemen, this figure is over 30, while in Jordan and Iraq the figure is close to 20. The digital infrastructure in these states is also quite poor and quality of training at any level remains poor.
Satellite-based e-learning platforms, if administered strategically, has the power to be a transformative force for the local population.
A recent survey by Bayt.com, the region’s biggest employment site, found that an overwhelming 83 percent of employees in the Middle East were willing to leave their current employers for better training opportunities.
Employees today demand careers where they see opportunities for progression and growth within their roles. And it’s unlikely they would believe that employers believe in their capacity for progression if they are not afforded the right training and development opportunities.
UAE employers have started recognising this, and it is only a matter of time before economically successful nations across the region begin to get the message as well.
The UAE is also boosting investment in employee education, particularly in the IT sector. Once focussed on literacy rates, the UAE leadership has recently made IT and e-learning central to its initiatives. This is a huge step forward for the professional and employed community in the country and will result in more numbers of and better quality of e-learning platforms. Again, satellite could prove to be a key enabler to boost penetration and access.
According to Docebo, the learning management services provider, the e-learning market in the Middle East was pegged at around $450m a few years ago. That value was expected at $570m in 2016, and we are looking at a potential 9 percent annual growth rate for the short term.
The UAE also receives the largest foreign direct investment after Turkey in all west Asia, with $13bn attracted in 2015. As has been the case in other sectors, the rest of the region can be expected to follow a similar policy towards training and learning, as they look to spread education in more efficient and economic ways. Already, we have seen the Ministry of Education in GCC states reaching out to technology and telecoms companies to enable schools’ connectivity to the internet for accessing online courses in addition to the traditional curriculum.
On its part, SES, the company that I lead in the region, is working closely with governments, schools and telecoms providers to build the required infrastructure for such connectivity using satellites, particularly in large countries, such as Saudi Arabia, with substantial areas unserved by 3G or LTE services.
From a social point of view, new teaching practices based on digitalisation guarantee continuity of education in areas subject to depopulation, and bring obvious benefits in terms of social integration.
In addition, the region is also investing in the creation of indigenous research and manufacturing capabilities in the area of satellites, which will further boost the impact and uptake of satellite services in the region for e-learning and vocational training. The recent partnerships by a leading Saudi university to manufacture and assemble communications satellites within the kingdom are indicative of the region’s growing interest in satellite communications as a transformative technology.
Satellite, of course, relates to the infrastructure and not the educational content. However, it is important that in broadband plans for schools, the two aspects are duly coordinated.
A comprehensive approach including access infrastructure, IT equipment and e-education tools is a key success factor. Awareness and communication about the financial and technical aspects of satellite usage will also be critical in the region, as technology is yet to be fully integrated into learning modules.
With an already high uptake of learning via satellite set to further grow, the world tomorrow will be one where not being able to acquire knowledge due to inability to attend school will no longer be an excuse. Satellite operators and educators have a responsibility in taking knowledge to people and becoming a catalyst for social and economic transformation.