The rise of edtech in the Middle East
CAIRO | May El Habachi
In MENA, 110 million school-aged children stayed at home this term because of school closures, according to UNICEF.
The pandemic has led to a regional surge of education technology (edtech) startups filling in the gap in place of traditional and workplace settings.
Prior to COVID-19, edtech in the Middle East only received $1.26 million in funding after a record $20 million was invested in the sector in 2019, according to Magnitt.
“This is a very exciting time for edtech,” says Bassil Khattab, co-founder and COO of Egypt’s Zedny, a newly launched Arabic learning and development platform. “We believe that investors will always be interested in any business which solves a big problem online, and education is of major importance to our future.”
NO GOING BACK
Online learning is no longer a buzz word or a trend but a necessity that is here to stay.
“The world as we know it has changed, and it is not going back again,” says Khattab. “In this world we live in today, if you are not online, then you will be offline.”
Zedny, which launched in mid-June 2020 with a $1.2 million pre-seed investment, offers Arabic online courses and video summaries of best sellers, applying AI to enhance the user experience.
Lamsa World, an Arabic childhood education platform based in the UAE, is also witnessing an unprecedented shift towards online learning. Since the closure of schools in the UAE, the platform has experienced at least a 300% increase in downloads and content consumption, according to founder and CEO Badr Ward.
“The pandemic has accelerated what’s been in the making for years,” explains Ward. “COVID tested the importance of what we’ve been working on and proved that we can look at education differently. We need to examine how to deliver education in a more effective and creative way. It’s not a matter of e-learning; it’s a long-awaited innovation towards education.”
While edtech traditionally focused on providing tutoring, content and school management support, there is now an opportunity for it to be fully integrated into school curriculums.
“Online learning and classroom learning are not mutually exclusive,” Ward notes. “We should think about it as a holistic experience where certain aspects are delivered via traditional classrooms and other aspects are delivered online. The goal is to bring the best learning experience.”
Similarly, PraxiLabs, an award-winning online STEM education provider based in Egypt, believes that edtech can complement traditional learning. Focusing on 3D interactive virtual simulations of science experiments, the startup provides students with ample hands-on experience to support in-class learning. Co-founder Essam El Saaid says:
“Our goal is to complement and further enhance students’ experience. While the classroom offers learning that benefits [them], particularly when it comes to character building, teamwork and cooperation, it does not diminish the importance of edtech, specifically when it comes to providing online solutions. It’s more of a combined learning approach with enhanced outcomes and massive learning potential for students.”
While the shift to online learning was rapid and unplanned, it highlighted the gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds – not everyone has internet or technology access to participate in digital classes.
Recognising this challenge, governments across the region launched initiatives to support remote learning and working to deal with the pandemic. In Egypt, free e-education platforms were provided to students, and in the UAE, a campaign was started to help low-income families unable to afford a laptop, computer or tablet to continue online learning.
According to PraxiLabs, the pandemic is an opportunity to narrow the digital divide.
“Everyone started realising the importance of internet and remote setups, hence, the focus is shifting towards [providing] different solutions in that direction, which can already be seen by initiatives not only in Egypt but everywhere,” says Kahdija El Bedweihy, co-founder of PraxiLabs.
Going forward, it is clear that the learning experience is forever changing, and all parts of society need to have access.
“It’s no longer an option,” Ward concludes.