The Importance of a Bottom-up Approach
In the transition to digitization, privately owned schools have an important role to play since they have sufficient resources to design their own curriculum, and more control over its updating. This gives them an edge in the digitization race and guarantees better implementation and results – if done right. In public education, governments have also started digitization initiatives. In Lebanon, for example, the Ministry of Education had provided 15,000 low-cost tablets to students in public schools in 2012. More recently, in July 2015, the US government also announced it would support Lebanese public schools to incorporate technology into the teaching and learning processes under the D-RASATI 2 project. The first steps in this initiative have included the purchase and distribution of laptops, tablets, and mobile carts. Another initiative, the CoderMaker program, is seeking to equip public schools with programming tools to encourage innovation (see page 37). “Students’ learning is the most important element of digitization. However, it needs to be part of a comprehensive plan that ensures an overall impact on their performance,” said Bakhos. “Top-down strategies simply aren’t sustainable in education,” said Redhead, explaining that the problem with these solutions is that they are instantly scaled and non- negotiable. Moreover, there is no real global consensus in the academic field when it comes to best practices. Different pedagogic approaches and teaching styles – even on the level of individual teachers – account for a different dynamic in the digital evolution of schools than in other industries. “We are already seeing elements of the GEMS Digital Strategy, written primarily for our UAE schools, being adopted by our global network,” said Redhead, illustrating the organic bottom-up path that digitization is taking within the institution.
Coincidentally, GEMS currently has a 5-year Digital Strategy in place, which he said is closely aligned to the aims of the UAE’S Vision 2021 and the new National Inspection Framework. This does not contradict the bottom-up approach; in fact, the Smart Dubai roadmap is largely dependent on private sector initiatives, as the main players in the smart government strategy reaffirmed last May at the Arabnet Digital Summit. Strategies to Achieve a Successful Transformation Digitization carries with it many benefits for schools. In addition to enhancing their reputation as centers for innovation and excellence, it can be a great asset when it comes to scalability and standardization. Bakhos explained that it was technology that enabled SABIS to manage and monitor the performance of over 60
schools in 17 countries.
The digitization of education involves the transformation of an entire industry and profession on a global scale. The disruptive impact of technology in this sector is felt in very much the same way as in banking, media, and other industries. This can be challenging, especially in “legacy” institutions – both private and public. “There is no educational ‘ATM’ as we saw in the retail banking industry,” said Redhead.
Here are a few learnings from SABIS and GEMS for schools to keep in mind on their path to digitization:
1. Make sure all stakeholders are aligned: In education, as in other sectors, the key to success lies in ensuring that any initiative is part of a comprehensive plan, and that all users (students, teachers, parents, school staff) are aligned with the objectives and properly trained to adapt to the new digitized environment. “The mindset of all stakeholders must be digital if a school is said to have become digitally normal. This is really about attitudes to learning, culture and the acceptance by all staff, students and parents that the change is necessary, welcome and beneficial to children’s life chances,” said Redhead. The GEMS Digital Strategy team’s role is to support the group’s schools on their journeys to digital normalization. This task is made easier thanks to the presence of the flexible and customizable GEMS Online Learning Ecosystem, as well as a reliable infrastructure, professional learning programs and networks for school leaders and educators, and a comprehensive program of parent education and engagement, among other factors.
2. Focus on the prize of learning: “Of course, we need cohesion and direction, and it is incumbent on school principals to create, communicate and consistently model an inclusive, shared vision for their school communities, always starting with the desired learning outcomes,” said Redhead. Fortunately, he said parents are now actually shifting to a “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO) mindset and accepting that digitization is necessary to provide students with the knowledge and skills they will need
for their future life in the digital world. “Meeting all stakeholders at the level of what they really care about is critical and the more we focus on learning, the less resistance we see when digital solutions are floated,” he said. He cited the example of the Common Sense Media’s K-12 Digital Citizenship curriculum implemented in GEMS schools, which has engaged whole families and contributed to reinforcing the message that digitization improves learning.
3. Future-proof your institution: As always, when technology is involved, adopters have to contend with the short lifetime of software and devices. New technologies run the risk of becoming obsolete very quickly, which could drain a school’s financial resources without proper planning. “Future-proofing” an institution against this requires rapid adaptability to new technologies and new environment. In SABIS’S case, the school digitized its curriculum and administrative processes in-house, which made it easier to manage and update. “It should be stressed that digital normalization is not about doing everything digitally,” said Redhead, “We are now seeing a far more pragmatic vision of effective technology integration, focused on situational fitness-for-purpose in terms of learning outcomes.” GEMS schools also launched Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) schemes as part of its strategy to future-proof students’ access to learning. “Consumers are far more agile in adapting to changing trends than large organizations, where procurement cycles can see technology rendered obsolete before it has been embedded,” said Redhead.
4. Make smart investments: The size of investment depends on the scope of each project or phase. “The best approach is to identify the overall digitization scope and then define smaller projects to implement with their respective impact, budget and key performance indicators,” said Bakhos. Before adopting any new technology, the flexibility and adaptability of the proposed solution should be carefully evaluated to justify the cost. For example, Redhead mentioned they adopted the My Learning cloud-based visual learning environment ( VLE) and established a partnership with the provider: “This is very much a ‘pincushion’ solution, rather than the traditional ‘ bubble’ VLE and we are constantly adapting the system to meet the changing needs of our schools.”
Redhead stressed that it is vital not to cut corners on implementation costs. BYOT schemes have been growing organically in GEMS schools but are not meant as a cost-cutting tactic. Leveraging these existing resources makes sense both pedagogically and financially, he said: “There are sound, educational reasons for students owning and managing their own devices and having these available in and out of school.” pressure that is reflected in rising tuition fees (which could eventually reduce the number of enrolled students and the school’s market and income). In addition to relying on permanent on-site IT engineers and the support of a central IT function, the GEMS network found it financially and logistically viable to build strong partnerships with trusted partners such as Microsoft, Lego (Atlab), and the My Learning UK team, among others. “The key factor is always the potential benefit for our students. One of the reasons we selected My Learning UK as the spine of our Online Learning Ecosystem was that they were relatively small and could provide a level of customer responsiveness, bespoke development and adaptability that was simply unavailable with the larger, more established companies in the field,” explained Redhead.
This is where educational startups from the MENA can play a more effective role. According to a report by Arabnet Business Intelligence, education has among the highest opportunities for app developers in the region. A number of startups already propose educational products, but those are mostly designed for home use or extracurricular learning. But some of these startups are starting to understand the importance of partnering with academic institutions and are shifting to a B2C model. This is the case of the Alwasaet e-learning platform in Saudi Arabia which is partnering with schools in the Kingdom and the GCC, with an eye on global expansion. Another example from Saudi Arabia is the Acadox coursework management solution. One thing is clear, in order to make their way into schools, these startups need to be more than just suppliers. The Lebanese startup Kamkalima has designed a flexible platform with self-paced learning modules and teacher tools to promote Arabic literacy among its partner schools. “One of the key considerations is continuous support from our partners – and not just technical support. We expect technology providers to demonstrate that they truly understand and care about learning and our students,” said Redhead.
“The education sector presents huge opportunities for app development startups.”