How Saudi Arabia can lead a global revolution in edtech
Saudi Arabia spends nearly 8 percent of its gross domestic product on education. It is about twice the amount allocated by other Gulf Cooperation Council nations and developed countries.
Most of this expenditure was focused on building world-class physical infrastructure, be it universities or schools, owing to the Kingdom’s historic lack of private education infrastructure. Concurrently, the country also spends close to $10 billion in sending its students to US universities for education.
Education is a vital pillar of the country’s ambition. The government quite rightly has been streamlining this spending on education abroad as part of its overarching goal to move toward a knowledge-based economy. This has meant a rollback on scholarships unless it is to a top tier university, a reduction in public expenditure and an increase in privatization.
Interestingly, education as an industry has been relatively unchanged for the last 200 years and is ripe for disruption. It has been predominantly classroom-led, with the teachers deciding how and what we learn, and there was little scope for personalization. However, this approach changed with COVID-19; suddenly, we found children and adults learning online and using electronic tools like never before.
Changing academic paradigms
The pandemic showed us that conventional teaching methods can now be supplemented to offer innovative solutions such as online courses with recognized accreditation, e-books and interactive content via virtual reality.
With these game-changing technology solutions, we have a tremendous opportunity to break open the delivery model of how and when we learn and not depend on our local teacher to tell us how to study. Instead, we can learn from the best teachers and with the highest quality course material, make it “uber-personalized” and allow students to learn at their own pace.
We are at the early stages of change in the global education paradigm. I believe that Saudi Arabia can become one of the leaders in education technology regionally and globally.
The current educational system is a linear structure designed to teach us to work in a single business, find lifetime employment in a single industry and then retire with a steady pension.
While in 1900, only 17 percent of jobs required knowledge workers, today it exceeds 60 percent and will continue to increase as robots and artificial intelligence automate menial and repetitive jobs.
The evolving labor market is more likely to see people achieve multiple skill sets and have different and numerous career changes in life. The future will therefore require multidimensional employees with not just numeracy and literacy skills, but also adaptability, problem-solving, common sense, team building and the ability to cope with rapid change.
To make new employees multifaceted, we must create a new education system where we can implement several enhancements that were not possible before such as the use of content from the best sources globally.
Leave no student behind
We no longer need to rely on our local faculty’s content or lectures. If we want to learn wave theory, we can use the detailed digital content of Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford professors on the subject. We can have the same access to quality content from the best teachers
globally for any subject, be it economics, literature or psychology.
Technology today allows us to consume content in several ways, from two-dimensional lectures through Zoom and YouTube to 3D immersive experiences using VR or augmented reality. For example, we do not need to imagine a black hole or understand how a crash affects a vehicle when we can see it through well-designed videos. The possibilities here are endless.
Also, education in the classroom has been designed for the average student for far too long, but no student is average. Each one of us is unique and learns differently. Some of us learn better through visuals, some through oral explanations and others understand better through numbers. A teacher cannot handle all these different needs of students individually. But today, we can teach students through the means they feel comfortable.
We can also mix and match subjects. A 16-year-old need not decide what they want to specialize in for university. For example, you might like chemistry and art, and now both could be taught at a very high standard.
There is also a need to cut the age barrier in education. Historically, education follows a linear path from preschool to high school to university and postdoctoral studies. Most adults stop learning once they enter the job market because it is too time-consuming and embarrassing to return to the classroom at a certain age. Not anymore. Today, we are moving toward lifelong learning. We can learn anything from languages, computer programming or natural language processing at home. We do not need to stop learning just because we are no longer going to a classroom.
Getting past the paywall
Despite the significant investments by the Kingdom in education infrastructure, more than 100,000 students from the Kingdom study in US universities each year, spending as much as $100,000 per year. It amounts to $10 billion of Saudi capital outflow to the US. There is no reason why we cannot get the same education offered by Harvard or Oxford in Jeddah or Riyadh, especially if they can be accredited programs.
By providing the same programs locally with the correct personalization, the students will not need to go abroad to learn. And the government can not only save money but also brain-drain. This trend is equally true for tourism and hospitality education.
We see a changing tide with tourism schools and educational institutions starting to own this space to prep the future workforce. This transformation is long coming because anything in the passive learning space is eventually forgotten, while an active-learning process means more fulfillment. And the real magic of digital tech is that it has no boundaries, so you can challenge what is possible, make new connections and unlock collective intelligence.
“Gamification” is increasingly getting attention and is prevalent in tourism education and acquiring specifically targeted competencies. VR and AR and the possibilities for their use in training and learning are immense, and the implications for the classroom are quite profound. Just think of how it can bring together people in remote areas, dissolve the constraints of geography and make learning fun and exciting.
For example, in the hospitality industry, students can see firsthand the different potential work environments, feel as though they are in a situation where they need to serve customers and receive training that gives them hands-on experience without even leaving their classroom.
You can go through cold storage and run a simulation on Opera, Fidelio, or the Global Distribution Systems — all platforms hotels use for reservations. Getting immersed in real-life situations and evaluating the information is far more stimulating.
Additionally, when data collecting is supported, it offers an instant possibility to monitor brain activity directly via imagining and direct recording. Data, which in turn help with measuring direct-learning outcomes and which will give us better insights in how actual learning takes place.
The best part is this model of edtech can be exported to the rest of the world, where most other governments are still sleeping at the wheels without realizing how to seize the initiative here. So, there is a genuine and untapped opportunity here for the Kingdom to create an entire ecosystem for edtech and think about delivering it globally. I believe the Kingdom can lead the rest of the world in this endeavor.
• Aradhana Khowala is a global authority on the luxury travel and tourism industries having worked across 75 countries. She is currently the chair of the global advisory board of The Red Sea Development Company.