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Nafez Dakkak’s views on how to keep the pace with and provide for tomorrow’s leaders

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How do you think that 21st century learners’ requirements are changing today?

I will answer this question based on the majority of our students, who are adult learners. One concept that has changed dramatically overtime is the learner’s need for the modularisation of both knowledge and content. Previously, we just thought about education as individual pieces – such as secondary education, full four years of university education, a 2 year diploma etc. However now learners need content in smaller doses, to fit better with the lives that they lead and the changing nature of work. Thanks to technology, we can finally modularise content, which enables us to reach and engage with students in a very different way than was previously possible.

The second change is that of the concept of the half-life of knowledge. In general, the half-life of knowledge (or how relevant a piece of information that you learn today is) is around five years from now. This shorter shelf-life means that it’s increasingly important to constantly update what we’re teaching learners and to make sure that they have access to knowledge easily.

Is this shift a global phenomenon or is it just particular to the Middle East?

These trends are certainly global. What makes this a greater challenge for the region to meet is the lack of quality Arabic content. We often forget that over 65% of the region does not speak English in a functional capacity. A more recent study by the English proficiency index, EFI, ranked the MENA region – and this, of course, includes the other country like Iran, Turkey, et cetera, –as the worst region in the world in English proficiency.

And so while a lot of content is being created online, it’s not relevant to our primarily Arabic-speaking population in the Middle East; and thus they are not accessing or gaining anything from it. Our course with the highest subscriptions right now is actually a course launched together with the British Council that teaches the English language to non-English native speakers. We have over 80,000 registered learners for this course, which would make it the largest MOOC run in the Middle East. And if the numbers keep growing, there is a chance that this will be the largest massive open online course run outside of North America, Europe and China.

How can quality Arabic content be generated on a larger scale?

Only 1.5% to maximum 3% of online content globally is Arabic, which is nowhere near proportional to the percentage of the global population that the Arab world constitutes. Unfortunately most investments in Arabic content have been focused on pure translation from English, which is sounds effective but is usually very costly, and culturally irrelevant. It is much more cost-effective – in our experience- to create content from scratch (relying on non-Arabic sources), and it is also is much more effective pedagogically as well as much more appealing to the end-consumer or the end-user.

Localisation over translation really is the key in content development. Regarding how to fund this content generation. I believe the funding is available in the region, it’s just not being directed properly. You have great initiatives such as Twofour54 and Open Sesame who are creating fantastic content, but these are small pockets of promise and we require a larger coordinated approach to make this available on a wider scale. I do think that government should be more heavily involved in providing the funding. Once there is sufficient government investment for this to become a lucrative sector, then the private sector will be tempted to invest and drive continued innovation within the sector.

What will also help create scale within this movement is open licensing – more openly licensed material through frameworks like the Creative Commons License is very important. It allows people to reuse and adapt content, as long as it is fairly attributed. We have already openly licensed three of our courses on Edraak and hoping to license more under a creative commons license in collaboration with our content partners.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lifespan of MOOCs. How long do you think they will be around, and will there be any difference between the Arab and Western worlds?

The trends that we are witnessing at Edraak are very comparable to those you see internationally. For example our completion rates are between 10% to6% – which is what you’d expect globally.   Are MOOCs a silver bullet? They’re not a silver bullet. That is the problem with a lot of the talk around education. Everybody’s looking for sort of a ‘silver bullet.’ I don’t think there is a silver bullet in education. I think what we a lot of just normal lead bullets and we just need to be able to use them in the best way we can.

MOOCs are a reflection of how education is developing today. Looking retrospectively, we’ll see that they had a big impact on how the trajectory of online education has developed, but I think it’s way too early to tell if this is their final form. I think there’s a lot more to be done in improving MOOCs and making sure that engagement and completion rates are higher. The one thing though that I think is relatively still missing from the global debate on MOOCs is what impact they can have on non-Western audiences.

Much of the debate around MOOCs has been on focused on their significance to a global, primarily Western audience – that tends to have better infrastructure and access to education. I think that we need to broaden the debate around MOOCs into how they can improve access to education and employment in the developing world, in the areas of refugee education, etc. These are areas that Edraak is working towards.

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By Nafez Dakkak, Director, Edraak

After graduating from Yale I started work as an educational consultant in PwC’s Education Advisory Team, primarily consulting for GCC clients on education and education-to-employment transitions. Afterwards, I joined the Queen Rania Foundation, and shortly afterwards Edraak was formed with the goal of examining how MOOCs and online learning technologies can revolutionise access to and delivery of education across the Middle East. A year and a half later we have over 340,000 registered learners, almost 20,000 certificates issued, 26 unique courses and well over a million fans on Facebook. So far, observing most of our metrics, we’re very happy about the way things are going.

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