CAIRO: In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, 110 million school-aged children stayed at home this term because of school closures, according to UNICEF. The pandemic has led to a regional surge of education technology (edtech) startups filling the gap in place of traditional and workplace settings.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, edtech in the Middle East received only $1.26 million in funding after a record $20 million was invested in the sector in 2019, according to the startup and investor platform Magnitt.
“This is an exciting time for edtech,” said Bassil Khattab, co-founder and chief operating officer of Egypt’s Zedny, a newly launched Arabic learning and development platform.
“We believe that investors will always be interested in any business that solves a big problem online, and education is of major importance to our future.”
Online learning is no longer a buzz word or trend but a necessity that is here to stay.
“The world as we know it has changed, and it is not going back again,” said Khattab. “In the world today, if you are not online, then you will be offline.”
Zedny, which launched in mid-June 2020 with a $1.2 million pre-seed investment, offers Arabic online courses and video summaries of best-sellers, applying artificial intelligence to enhance the user experience.
Lamsa World, an Arabic childhood education platform based in the UAE, is also witnessing an unprecedented shift toward online learning. Since the closure of schools in the UAE, the platform has had at least a 300 percent increase in downloads and content consumption, according to founder and CEO Badr Ward.
“The pandemic has accelerated what has been in the making for years,” said Ward. “COVID-19 tested the importance of what we’ve been working on and proved that we can look at education differently.
“We need to examine how to deliver education in a more effective and creative way. It’s not a matter of e-learning, it’s a long-awaited innovation toward education.”
While edtech traditionally focused on providing tutoring, content and school management support, it now can be fully integrated into school curriculums.
“Online learning and classroom learning are not mutually exclusive,” Ward said. “We should think about it as a holistic experience where certain aspects are delivered via traditional classrooms and other aspects are delivered online. The goal is to bring the best learning experience.”
Similarly, PraxiLabs, an award-winning online STEM education provider based in Egypt, believes that edtech can complement traditional learning. Focusing on 3D interactive virtual simulations of science experiments, the startup provides students with ample hands-on experience to support in-class learning.
“Our goal is to complement and further enhance students’ experience,” said co-founder Essam El-Saaid.
“While the classroom offers learning that benefits (them), particularly when it comes to character building, teamwork and cooperation, it does not diminish the importance of edtech, specifically when it comes to providing online solutions.
“It’s more of a combined learning approach with enhanced outcomes and massive learning potential for students.”
COVID-19 tested the importance of what we’ve worked on and proved we can look at education differently.
Badr Ward, CEO of Lamsa World, an Arabic childhood education platform based in the UAE
While the shift to online learning was rapid and unplanned, it highlighted the gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds — not everyone has Internet or technology access to take part in digital classes.
Recognizing this challenge, governments across the region launched initiatives to support remote learning and working to deal with the pandemic.
In Egypt, free e-education platforms were provided to students, and the UAE started a campaign to help low-income families unable to afford a laptop, computer or tablet to continue online learning.
According to PraxiLabs, the pandemic offers an opportunity to narrow the digital divide.
“Everyone started realizing the importance of Internet and remote setups, hence the focus is shifting toward (providing) different solutions in that direction, which can already be seen by initiatives not only in Egypt but everywhere,” said Kahdija El Bedweihy, co-founder of PraxiLabs.
Going forward, it is clear that the learning experience is forever changing, and all parts of society need to have access.
“It’s no longer an option,” said Ward of Lamsa World.
This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.