How pandemic lessons could shape the future of education in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Ministry of Education believes that a hybrid model for learning is the future. The ministry also recently announced a plan to replace physical books with tablets in Saudi schools in the next academic year. (Shutterstock)
The Saudi Ministry of Education believes that a hybrid model for learning is the future. The ministry also recently announced a plan to replace physical books with tablets in Saudi schools in the next academic year. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 07 August 2021

How pandemic lessons could shape the future of education in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Ministry of Education believes that a hybrid model for learning is the future. The ministry also recently announced a plan to replace physical books with tablets in Saudi schools in the next academic year. (Shutterstock)
  • Shift toward greater use of technology marks the dawn of a new era for teaching, say experts
  • There is an urgent need for a comprehensive cultural change. The market is changing; therefore the educational system and culture must change

JEDDAH: The COVID-19 pandemic has had many effects on global society that have been damaging and detrimental to populations and economies. But some of the ways in which nations have responded to the challenges it created have brought undoubted benefits that will help to shape the future.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, as in other countries, the unprecedented acceleration of the digitalization process within the education system has meant great advancements in remote learning, and the enhanced use of technology has resulted in revolutionary improvements in traditional schooling.

The Saudi Ministry of Education believes that a hybrid model for learning is the future. Since the start of the pandemic it has taken exceptional steps to develop and promote the use of electronic-learning platforms. These included the swift launch of iEN, the national education portal, in the early days of the crisis for more than 6 million users. The ministry also recently announced a plan to replace physical books with tablets at Saudi schools in the next academic year.

With the help of the various tools technology can provide, the educational experience will be more feasible and will become stronger.

Mohammad Al-Ghazal, Expert in digital transformation

However this global shift toward the enhanced use of technology in schools creates challenges as well as opportunities. A recent survey by software company Citrix found that 81 percent of educators in Saudi Arabia think hybrid learning will improve the experience of students in the coming academic year, and that they expect investment in up-skilling and communication tools.

The survey, the results of which were published in June, aimed to identify the challenges and opportunities that have arisen from the major changes in education over the past 18 months, along with the views of the people at all levels in the sector, including university executives, information technology managers, teachers and administrators.

Since the start of the pandemic, remote learning has accounted for almost 80 percent of all teaching provided by schools and universities in the Kingdom. About 70 percent of those surveyed said that flexible/remote learning was important for their school or university.

The participants highlighted concerns about the technical issues associated with remote learning, such as problems connecting with video-conferencing platforms (51 percent), a lack of devices connected to the education portal (33 percent), and security issues (31 percent).

Communication difficulties was another major concern, with more than half of those surveyed saying that communication between teachers and students using collaboration tools needs to be improved. Other challenges related to accessibility and the lack of a single platform providing all materials.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Education Ministry has taken exceptional steps to develop and promote the use of electronic-learning platforms. These include the swift launch of iEN, the national education portal.

• Remote learning has accounted for almost 80 percent of all teaching provided by schools and universities in the Kingdom. About 70 percent of those surveyed said that flexible remote learning was important for their school or university.

Despite the apparent acceptance of the importance of a hybrid model, 90 percent of participants said that in-person learning will be most important to their schools and universities post-pandemic, while 38 percent believe that the “smart campus” will be an important concept.

Experts believe the Kingdom’s experience during the pandemic has provided the building blocks for a national transformation.

“Although Saudi Arabia already had been steadily accelerating development of its connectivity infrastructure in recent years, in light of Vision 2030 goals, significant momentum was achieved during 2020,” Mohammad Al-Ghazal, an expert in digital transformation, told Arab News.

He said the experience the communication sector has gained during the pandemic will provide a great foundation for the new era. For example collaboration between various authorities has been enhanced, he said, and new mechanisms have been developed that put in place essential pillars for a comprehensive digital transformation that places the Kingdom among the global pioneers in this area.

The virtual experience was forced upon students and teachers by the health crisis, he said, and has highlighted many issues and challenges related to technical literacy, security and communication. However, it will ultimately lead to improvements that benefit the country’s education sector, he added.

Al-Ghazal highlighted some of Saudi Arabia’s significant recent achievements in developing a robust digital framework.




Mohammad Al-Ghazal

The Kingdom last year ranked fifth on the Speedtest Global Index of countries with the fastest mobile internet networks, an improvement of five places in a year and 11 places since 2018. It ranked second in the world in its commitment to cybersecurity, according to the Global Cybersecurity Index 2020.

In addition, the annual global competitiveness report published by the International Institute for Administrative Development ranked the country seventh in terms of funding for technological development and ninth for the development and appliance of technology.

This robust digital infrastructure has helped Saudi Arabia to cope with the disruptions caused by the pandemic to the public and private sectors, Al-Ghazal said.

He believes the arguments made by some that an increasing reliance on digital tools in traditional education is causing disadvantages or harm are “useless and out of context.”

“Resistance to new technologies will be unfair to the young digital ‘netizens,’ who deserve to have a well-developed educational system that adapts to their lifestyle and helps prepare them to the increasing demands of the workplace,” Al-Ghazal said.

He believes that although the digital transformation of education is still at an early stage, the Kingdom is well placed because all the necessary elements are in place.

“However, the true challenge is cultural,” he said, adding that the development of a virtual culture in schools and universities will require imaginative and creative ideas, open leadership and a spirit of innovation. Such a radical cultural change requires long-term planning, he added.

Long-term challenges facing the adoption of hybrid learning include issues related to health and well-being, concentration, effective communication between educators and students, the sustainability of solutions and improvements, and the development and enhancement of technical knowledge among staff.

Nearly 45 percent of people surveyed by Citrix said the class experience could be improved by helping educators to improve their ability to use the technology, and 28 percent said that technical skills and training are the biggest post-pandemic challenges facing schools and universities.

“We need a lot of re-skilling of educators and staff,” said Al-Ghazal. “This has to change on a cultural level and at a managerial level; the managerial approach toward education has to change.”

Therefore attitudes and approaches to teacher training need to change immediately, he added.

“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive cultural change,” he said. “The market is changing; therefore the educational system and culture must change, too. To adapt to the new normal, students need to acquire soft skills — learn how to find information, not memorize it — which will make them more valuable to the workforce later on.”

Al-Ghazal said that the technology used to aid learning should not be seen merely as a tool but as an academic opportunity. Therefore, concepts such as instructional design, multimedia production and data analytics are vital for the future of education, he added.

“With the help of the various tools technology can provide, the educational experience will be more feasible, will become stronger, different, and the student will be acquiring soft skills from a young age,” he said.

Through the use of virtual reality and augmented reality, students will have the unprecedented opportunity to gain wider exposure to experiences that can raise awareness, develop emotional intelligence, enhance their senses, and improve their observational and critical-thinking skills, Al-Ghazal said.

“An example of this would be having a wide variety of options for school trips,” he explained. “Using virtual and augmented-reality technologies, geography students can visit a site in Riyadh from their classrooms in Dammam any time,” he said by way of an example.

Therefore the increased and smarter use of technology will not only make education more beneficial, more interactive, and a richer and more sophisticated experience, it can also reduce costs and provide a safer environment for young students.

“It is cost-saving while not depriving students of enriching experiences that were unobtainable in the traditional educational system,” said Al-Ghazal. “It might sound expensive but it actually will save a lot of costs and provide a better-quality education.”

Scholars and educators of all disciplines need to be effectively motivated, properly guided and well equipped for the evolution of education, he said, because: “This is only the beginning but the future is bright. We have to adapt to the new normal and contribute to making it flourish — there is no going back.”


Qiyadat Global-Georgetown Program to honor female graduate leaders in Riyadh

Qiyadat Global-Georgetown Program to honor female graduate leaders in Riyadh
Updated 25 October 2021

Qiyadat Global-Georgetown Program to honor female graduate leaders in Riyadh

Qiyadat Global-Georgetown Program to honor female graduate leaders in Riyadh
  • Graduates express gratitude for the program, despite conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic

JEDDAH: More than 200 graduates from more than 20 countries who completed a women’s leadership program will be honored in Riyadh on Monday.

Qiyadat Global-Georgetown gives participants the leadership skills needed to thrive in the public and private sectors, as well as in nonprofit organizations.

The women addressed leadership skills in decision-making, organizational change management and organizational performance, and interaction with stakeholders.

They came from different backgrounds: 16 percent were from the financial sector, 14 percent were from the education field, and 12 percent were from healthcare. Others had backgrounds in energy, technology, chemicals, media, and communications.

Of the participants, 42 percent had a bachelor’s degree, 47 percent had a master’s degree, and 9 percent had doctorates.

The graduates expressed their gratitude for the program, despite the conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They were also grateful for the wide range of academic coverage, the diversity of nationalities among the participants, and their interaction with each other.

Qiyadat Global-Georgetown represents a contribution toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The 17 goals include education, particularly the quality of education at all levels, gender equality, sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.

Countries have been formulating strategies to target the development of communities while also addressing social concerns such as quality of education, universal coverage of healthcare, provision of social protection, and job creation.


Ministry of Hajj and Umrah cancels 14-day waiting period between Umrah

Ministry of Hajj and Umrah cancels 14-day waiting period between Umrah
Updated 25 October 2021

Ministry of Hajj and Umrah cancels 14-day waiting period between Umrah

Ministry of Hajj and Umrah cancels 14-day waiting period between Umrah

JEDDAH: Pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah will no longer be required to wait for 14 days to book for the ritual, according to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.

Dr. Amr Al-Maddah, chief of planning and strategy officer at the ministry, told Arab News that by easing preventive measures, the operational capacity of the Grand Mosque for Umrah and prayers has significantly increased.

“In line with the developments at this stage, which in turn increased the demand in the dates available to perform Umrah, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah made this feature available for pilgrims. This condition is no longer necessary and will achieve a fair opportunity for all due to the high demand,” he told Arab News.

On Oct. 16, the Ministry of Interior announced the easing of restrictions across the Kingdom, including those affecting the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, allowing a full return to operations and capacity.


Saudi Arabia eyes personal status law with main focus on family and strengthening of bonds

Saudi Arabia eyes personal status law with main focus on family and strengthening of bonds
Updated 25 October 2021

Saudi Arabia eyes personal status law with main focus on family and strengthening of bonds

Saudi Arabia eyes personal status law with main focus on family and strengthening of bonds
  • Saudi Vision 2030 also stipulates, in many of its programs and articles, strengthening the status of the family and striving to overcome all obstacles facing its members

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice is set to release the personal status draft law with the main focus on family and strengthening of bonds.

Speaking at the Saudi Family Forum 2021 on Sunday, Justice Minister Walid Al-Samaani said that the personal status draft law announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman within the system of specialized legislation was based on several goals. The most important of these was a focus on family status, strengthening the family bond wherever possible and reducing the negative impact of separation.

Al-Samaani said that the project focused mainly on stressing a woman’s agreement to marriage, preserving her and her children’s financial and alimony rights, as well as other issues related to divorce requests.

During his participation at the forum, Al-Samaani said that many public policies, including the basic law of governance, had focused on empowering the family to achieve sustainable social development and overcome any challenges.

Saudi Vision 2030 also stipulates, in many of its programs and articles, strengthening the status of the family and striving to overcome all obstacles facing its members, he said.

The minister explained that one of the decisions that contributed to enhancing the sustainability and stability of the family was the amendment made in the executive regulations of the legal pleading system by adding a legal text that refers all personal status disputes to the reconciliation center to try to reconcile spouses.

Al-Samaani stressed that by applying this amendment, personal status disputes related to divorce, alimony and other issues decreased by more than 20 percent, and said he hoped this would drop further. On the development of procedural aspects in personal status disputes, he said that the establishment of the cases audit center contributed to a decrease in the duration of judicial sessions in personal status cases by more than 30 percent.

The goal of digital transformation in the Ministry of Justice was not just to enable service provision, he said, but to facilitate procedures, especially regarding the quality and nature of cases such as personal status ones. Filing cases from home or elsewhere had also enabled the judicial and relevant authorities, such as the Human Rights Commission, to exercise their role and assess the societal situation.

Al-Samaani said that the ministry had launched 120 electronic services and that judicial sessions did not stop during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 1.5 million sessions were held, more than 1 million rulings were issued through electronic litigation, and more than 3 million requests were submitted electronically.

He said that the Ministry of Justice had applied artificial intelligence techniques to their system. The first cases to which this was applied were personal status cases so that judicial authorities could predict 80 percent of the verdict in advance.


Saudi Arabia’s falcon auction houses exhibit the finest birds of prey

Saudi Arabia’s falcon auction houses exhibit the finest birds of prey
Updated 25 October 2021

Saudi Arabia’s falcon auction houses exhibit the finest birds of prey

Saudi Arabia’s falcon auction houses exhibit the finest birds of prey
  • Falcon’s type, age, length, weight, and color contribute to setting of exorbitant prices at auctions

RIYADH: Some of the world’s most exquisite falcons have been auctioned at the Saudi International Falcons Auction, with prices elevated due to fierce competition between buyers at the 45-day event which began Oct. 1.

One peregrine falcon, not yet a year old, became the most expensive of its type in 2021 when it was auctioned for SR405,000 ($108,000) last week, breaking the previous record price of SR206,000.

Saad Mallouh Aldahmashi, who bought it, and who owns the Sultan Falcon Center in Arar, told Arab News that the peregrine immediately drew his attention. “I said to myself, I will buy come what may,” he added.

“My friend confirmed to me that the falcon was in perfect health and looked stronger than the videos published about it.When the auction began, I did not say anything and waited until the price hit SR280,000. Two more people were bidding on the price until it reached SR480,000,” he said.

He noted that if the price had kept going higher than that, he would still have bid and not stopped until he got it. “I thought the price would stop at SR605,000, but it did not.”

He pointed out that he sold a similar falcon for SR610,000 two years ago at his center. At the time, the falcon, which was also less than a year old, registered the highest price in the auction.

Aldahmashi, who has more than 15 years of experience in the field, hopes to increase the number of auctions in Saudi Arabia’s regions, to increase competition, and to allow residents of the regions to attend auctions up close, stressing that this is an essential requirement for amateur enthusiasts.

Nawaf Mamdouh Alshraim, another falconer, said that the falcon’s type, age, length, weight, and color all contribute to setting the price. As someone who has been in the business for 16 years, he said that breeding falcons requires significant experience.

“You have to have the ability and experience to know when the falcon is normal, sick or tired. You should teach him how to get the prey and return to you,” said Alshraim.

“The quality of the falcon is reflected in its ability to hunt prey,” he explained.

The saker and peregrine falcons are the most expensive, especially the youngest birds. He explained that they are small in size, 16 inches wide and another 16 inches tall, adding that the perfect weight would be around 1.1 kg and above.

Alshraim, who lives in northeast Saudi Arabia, believes that the Malhem auction is the go-to place for falconers. “The auction has many attractions for amateur falconers, and it is held during the bird migration, and has attracted many of the experts and amateurs in the last years through the facilities it offers,” he noted.

The Saudi Falcon Club provides medical examinations for falcons and also provides accommodation for owners before the auction is held. The auction is aired on live TV and the club’s social media accounts. There is no fee on sale transactions, and when a falcon is sold, the club issues an export certificate and official documents for the transaction.


With animal welfare increasingly in the spotlight, there’s nowhere for abusers to hide in KSA

With animal welfare increasingly in the spotlight, there’s nowhere for abusers to hide in KSA
Updated 25 October 2021

With animal welfare increasingly in the spotlight, there’s nowhere for abusers to hide in KSA

With animal welfare increasingly in the spotlight, there’s nowhere for abusers to hide in KSA
  • In fact, there are already strict rules governing animal welfare and tough penalties for anyone found guilty of breaking them

JEDDAH: In part because of the reach and power of social media, awareness of issues surrounding animal abuse has never been higher in Saudi Arabia, and there have been calls for greater official efforts to protect animals.

Videos and photographs posted on social media have highlighted examples of abuse such as animals abandoned on the side of the road, and creatures that have been, starved, beaten or burned. There are also concerns about how animals are treated at facilities such as slaughterhouses.

In fact, there are already strict rules governing animal welfare and tough penalties for anyone found guilty of breaking them, including the possibility of imprisonment and hefty fines.

The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture warns that the penalty for a first offense is a fine of up to SR50,000 ($13,000), and this amount is doubled if there is a second violation within a year.

If there is a third incident, the fine increases to SR200,000 and, if applicable, the facility dealing with the animals can be closed for 90 days. In the event of a fourth case of abuse a fine of SR400,000 can be imposed and the facility’s license can be permanently revoked. Prison terms are also a possibility.

Lawyer Waleed bin Nayef told Arab News that the punishments apply to anyone who causes suffering to animals, whether they expose them to danger, are unnecessarily cruel during slaughter or the preparation of sacrifices, cause them stress or suffering during races, or fail to take into consideration the age or health of animals they are working with.

Other offenses include forcing animals to act in ways that are unnatural to their nature, giving them illegal drugs or growth hormones, catching or transporting them in inhumane ways, failing to treat them when they are sick or injured, sexually abusing them, or disposing of them in an inhumane manner.

“The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture has provided, through its website, a way to report any abuse or torture and these reports are dealt with seriously,” bin Nayef told Arab News. He added that a robust animal welfare system is enshrined in the aims of Saudi Vision 2030.

In cases where abuse is suspected, he said, whether it was caught on video, discovered by a surprise inspection or after investigating the death of an animal, the ministry decides whether to refer the suspect to the Criminal Court, which will investigate and decide on an appropriate punishment if required.

For a number of reasons investigations can be difficult. For example, it might be hard to trace the origin of videos or images showing abuse, and it is possible that they might have been faked. However, Saudi authorities have successfully used cybercrime units to identify and catch abusers.

Mohammed Al-Hatershi, director general of slaughterhouses in the General Administration of Makkah Region, told Arab News that while it is better to work to raise awareness of animal abuse issues in an attempt to prevent them happening in the first place, strict laws and tough penalties are also required because the authorities are responsible for ensuring animals are cared for.

“Shariah law is clear about animal care, as it says that we are responsible for our flock and facilities must take these rules seriously,” he added.

Social worker Mona Al-Thiyabi, told Arab News that animal abuse can be an indicator of low psychological stability in an individual, and can be linked to some mental disorders.

“It might also be an indicator of low stability in the family, as the presence of a person’s hostile behavior against an animal might originate from the family,” she said.

Psychological, verbal or physical violence in the home between spouses, for example, causes suffering and psychological pressure, which can cause a person to treat animals in the same way, she added.

“On the other hand, violence in all its forms against children might cause psychological repression in them, which may lead to the practice of hostile behavior against animals,” said Al-Thiyabi.

People who are cruel and violent toward animals sometimes progress to violence against humans, she added.

The Gus Hope shelter is a nonprofit organization that runs a shelter for cats and rescues strays.

“As a community, we need to be more responsible for animals,” its owner, Um Asma told Arab News. “Everyone needs to spay and neuter their pets and stop supporting pet stores that sell animals.”

“The laws are good but they need to be implemented more. Some animal stores treat animals like a product rather than a soul and they need to be stopped.”

The Kingdom’s Ehsan platform, the national charity website, also plays a part in animal welfare by highlighting the need for donations.

One of the campaigns on the platform, for example, states: “Many rescued animals suffer from their inability to continue living on their own, so they need care and attention and the provision of food and water. With your donation, you contribute to feeding them. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: In every wet liver there is a reward.”