Many Middle Eastern countries have ambitious goals for transforming their schools—and they see educational technology as an essential conduit to make it happen.
But one barrier that’s standing in their way: the lack of a teacher workforce capable of using digital tools in innovative ways that challenge and inspire students.
That was one of the common themes emerging from a panel of government and education officials from the region, who spoke on the opening day of the Bett conference on Wednesday.
Ed-tech companies have once again swarmed a convention center here in the British capital for Bett, a mammoth gathering that lures vendors from around the world intent on promoting their products via every business tactic imaginable—outsized display ads, brightly lit exhibits, cocktail receptions, on-site demos, private meetings, and promotional giveaways.
Amid the commercial crush, the message conveyed by the panelists from the Middle East addressed a more fundamental need. Nations across the region are keenly interested in using tech tools to improve classroom opportunities for students, and increase basic access to education, the panelists said. But too many of their teachers today lack the confidence and skill to make meaningful use of technology. (That same worry has been registered to varying degrees about educators in U.S. classrooms, too.)
By implication, in the Middle East, companies trying to sell in those countries will need to deliver products with teachers’ assorted needs in mind.
“Technology, by itself, cannot enhance achievement,” said Ali Al-karni, the director general of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, an intergovernmental organization.
Big purchases of ed-tech devices and platforms, he said, are relatively “easy things” for most Middle Eastern countries to take on, he said.
But “we need teachers who can use technology in the right way,” Al-karni said, and that means countries in the region have to focus on finding and cultivating “creative teachers, rather than hardware.”
Currently, too many teachers in the Middle East see technology as “dehumanizing and distracting,” not tools for helping students, the bureau official added.
Egypt is counting on technology to help its schools on several fronts, said El-Hilali El-Sherbini, the country’s minister of education, who was also on the panel. It is looking for technology to help its special-needs students, and to deliver skills that will help the country’s labor market. Egyptian officials also see the potential for technology to gird its teacher workforce.
“We have to search for new technology, and tactics, for training teachers,” El-Sherbini said.
Karima Al Mazroui, an administrator with the Abu Dhabi Education Council, said her country sees technology’s potential to fill specific needs in its teacher workforce. Many educators are reluctant to work in remote areas, for example. Virtual education can help them, and help provide lessons to students who can’t access traditional schools, she said.
Up until now, the big focus in technology in her country’s schools has been on ensuring basic connectivity, she said. But now the country has more specific goals, such as encouraging teachers to use technology to inspire students and help them see the value of education.
In the past, “teachers used to just focus on the transfer of knowledge” Al Mazroui told the audience. But now, Abu Dhabi is counting on educators to “motivate students and spark their interest” in learning. It’s a “totally different role for teachers,” she said.
Across the region, governments are also looking for ed-tech tools that can increase schools’ outreach to parents, and motivate them to take a strong interest in their children’s education, said Al-karni, of the Arab bureau of education.
One of the paradoxical challenges Middle Eastern countries face is that as access to education has increased, there is a danger of parents becoming complacent, he said.
The risk is that “when prosperity enters the door, rigor goes out the window,” Al-karni said.
Teachers need to be prepared to use technology and for the overall rigors of classroom work—and universities in the region need to refocus their courses to address those shortcomings. That means giving aspiring teachers more experience working in classrooms, with guidance from talented mentors, he said.
“The methodology used for teacher training hasn’t really changed to meet the needs of students,” he said, adding: “I want the teacher to be trained for the school—not the university.”