Most of the new online education providers are based in the United States, but over two-thirds of students live abroad — in places like Rwanda, El Salvador, and Jordan.
This trend makes sense, given that the goal of massive open online courses (MOOC) providers is to bring learning opportunities to anyone with an Internet connection. In emerging nations, many young people can’t attend school or afford higher education, so the MOOCs provide a potential lifeline.
On sites like edX, Udacity or Coursera, anyone can register to access free and cheap video lectures. Professors at some of the world’s top universities, including Harvard College, the University of Cambridge, and MIT, teach these courses.
In Jordan, the country’s elite has taken a special interest in MOOCs. Queen Rania Al Abdullah has spoken out in favor of the movement, arguing that online education will benefit minority groups in the Arab world, especially young women.
Today, most of the top courses have not been adapted for non-English speakers. So this month, Queen Rania’s foundation announced the formation of a new Arabic online education service called Edraak.
“Engaging, fresh, relevant – and, most importantly, in Arabic – MOOCs on Edraak will open up a world of possibility for intellectually hungry Arab youth,” said Queen Rania in a statement to the press.
Online education for the Arab World
Edraak formed in partnership with the nonprofit edX, which is a bit different from Coursera and Udacity since much of its code is available to download by external collaborators. EdX began in 2011, founded by a team of professors and open-source advocates at Harvard and MIT, and currently counts over a dozen world-leading universities as its partners.
Haifa Dia Al-Attia, the chief executive of Queen Rania’s Foundation, is working closely with the edX team. In an interview, Al-Attia told me she has performed a great deal of research on the MOOC trend, which she believes is “democratizing access” to high quality education.
“We want to make sure the Arab world is caught up,” she said. So the foundation reached out to the president of edX, Anant Agarwal, who agreed to provide them with up to 15 video courses a year. “We can adapt them and Arabize them,” Al-Attia explained.
The future for the Middle East MOOCs
The edX partnership is just the beginning. In the next few years, the foundation will provide funding to Edraak so it can build recognition across the Middle East. Al-Attia’s team is also reaching out to local universities for partnerships, and she’s encouraging them to upload their best courses to Edraak.
Queen Rania’s team is taking a different approach than many of the U.S.-based online education providers. It will enhance the current education and technology system, not topple it.
Slate has rightly pointed out that global MOOCs that compete with national universities are doing more harm than good. For instance, Kepler, a U.S.-based endeavor, announced its intention to offer an education superior to any available at a Rwandan university for a lower cost. Kepler is not working with the local government or supporting President Paul Kagame, who is seeking to build a national education system that can sustain itself in the long term. Moreover, the courses offered by U.S. institutions aren’t particularly sensitive to local language, culture, and custom.
That said, Edraak is may be the only option for those who are routinely denied access to education, like young women in certain regions in the Middle East.
Al-Attia is convinced that women will benefit most the new online education. She was heartened to discover that young girls in Saudi Arabia are voraciously consuming educational videos on YouTube, which demonstrates their desire to learn. This content is valuable — but is not vetted like the lectures on Edraak. “Online education is an option for them, as you can learn in the comfort of your own home,” said Al-Attia.
It will be a challenge for Edraak to reach some of the region’s poorest people, those who are most in need of an affordable education. In remote and rural areas, Internet access is particularly scarce.
Al-Attia plans to tackle this challenge head on by partnering with “community-based organizations,” which can offer a computer hub to people who don’t have Internet access at home.
In Jordan, for instance, the Jesuit Refugee Service recently built an educational center to help thousands of Syrian refugees, who can sign up for finance, accounting, and tourism courses online. The goal is to bring a sense of normalcy to their lives and help the refugees of that civil war secure decent jobs or higher-education opportunities.
Silicon Valley-based Coursera, the best known MOOC, has adopted a similar strategy as it expands into emerging nations. In previous interviews, Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller told me she is also particularly passionate about bringing online education to girls.
Coursera’s solution is a new “Learning Hubs” initiative, which provides physical places to work for online learners in Kenya, the Philippines, and other countries. Equipped with an Internet connection, these are typically empty rooms in embassies and universities.
Al-Attia and Edraak recognize that it will be a struggle to reach those in need of education. Culture is also a concern — it’s still considered taboo for women to be educated at all in many societies.
However, Al-Attia is confident they can make a real difference to women and other groups. “There are so many different sectors of society that can benefit from this,” said Al-Attia. The final sum the foundation will set aside for Edraak has not yet been determined, but it’s somewhere in the range of $10 million. The bulk of this funding will be spent on building the new courses, and marketing them.
“It’s a significant sum, as we do not want to leave anybody behind,” said Al-Attia. “Our hope for this is that people in poor Arab countries will have similar access to people in wealthier Arab nations.”
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