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The Journey of Building Partnerships with K-12 Schools in MENA

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Bringing Edtech to Schools in MENA.

School ecosystems are not new to us. As co-founders, and mid-career professionals, we bring more than 50 years of experience in the education space, from teaching to policy, research to implementation.  It is this profound understanding of how schools work that has helped us as entrepreneurs to build partnerships with over 65 schools in 7 countries across the MENA region.  But it’s not the understanding alone. It’s equally, and perhaps more importantly, the conviction that working with schools is indispensable to education reform and progress.

If we take a quick stroll through the last century, we wonder why schools have been relatively “late bloomers” in opening up to technology. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that television would largely replace textbooks, and a decade later Benjamin Darrow felt the same about radio. In the mid 1980s, Seymour Papert, a forefather of artificial intelligence and an educator himself, forecasted that the computer would emerge as a key instructional tool. So why is it that today in 2022, we still don’t see in schools the rapid change we see across other sectors, particularly in the adoption and use of technology?  Why is this lag more pronounced in MENA and how can we build partnerships with schools to co-create and accelerate this change?

Co-creating solutions with schools.  

We come to schools with the conviction that technology can be effective in assisting learning and improving student outcomes, and this will only happen when edtech design is co-led with schools, spearheaded by teachers and students, and not developed in isolation by engineers in the Silicon Valleys of the world.  Co-creation can, and should happen across the edtech landscape, whether it’s in creating a feature, creating digital content, or creating professional development programmes. Responding to needs requires the ability to listen, and the commitment to create space for users as partners on the drawing table. Our Arabic literacy solution for schools evolved in partnership with our schools, through engagement mechanisms that are regularly part of our planning and review cycles. We validate our strategic directions through a teacher and student advisory board from our partner schools, serving as a bridge between the world of learning and the world of technology.

Understanding that change takes time.

Change at the school level is neither “optional” nor merely “desirable”– rather it is imperative for education to remain relevant. Students have changed, jobs have changed, and the skills required for success in life have changed. Real change takes time- something that is easy to forget in the era of fast food, drive-thrus, diet pills, and instant messages. In the scramble for quick change, have we come to assume that everything should be quick or not at all? Education, like healthcare, is a service sector that requires trust as a foundation, and building trust with schools takes time. Building trust includes meeting the schools and teachers where they are, and supporting them through the change process. Our Customer Success team often receives support tickets that are not directly linked to an issue on our platform; but rather due to limited experience with digital skills. We respond quickly, and make sure to provide the teacher or administrator with the needed information to build their digital skills in order to understand and solve the issue at hand- like for example clearing a cache to allow for updates.  No teacher request is dismissed for being outside the ‘playbook’.

Teachers at the frontline. 

The promise of education technology lies in extending the teachers’ abilities – not replacing them. What we need to see is learning that is supported by technology not mechanically mediated by it. Technology will never replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will probably replace those who don’t.  With the advancements in data science and analytics, technology helps teachers gain deeper insights into student learning. This can help them better answer questions like: What do my students really know? Are they ready for more learning? Data can help teachers match resources to activities depending on the student’s needs. We have seen the impact of innovative teachers spearheading change in both public and private schools in KSA, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Despite the significant differences across these contexts, teachers have been the champions at the forefront of “localization”- finding the way to make a product responsive to the needs for their school systems and geographies. In KSA, we have seen how one school expanded the use of our platform beyond the teaching of language, to support all subjects taught in Arabic (including humanities and social sciences). In Egypt, a teacher improved the writing skills of her students by incorporating  data from local vernacular used by her students to improve the AI writing support algorithms that support them. In Qatar, we saw how the focus on “critical thinking” was mainstreamed across a network of schools through teachers who led and championed the cause,using tools and data we provide.  Data can also be used by policy makers to improve curriculum design and in setting national strategies for education.

Nurturing the  appetite for change.

Schools are ready, some readier than others. The plethora of challenges we see include fear, confusion, and lack of access to resources. Not all edtech is created equal. Technology to improve teaching and learning is not as easy to adopt as technology to manage school timetables and payment gateways. For the former, teacher capacity is the wind beneath the wings of successful integration, and a school-supported professional development programme is essential for efficient adoption and effective outcomes. Capacity building cannot be seen as an extra, something that teachers have to make time for or spend on individually. To navigate the ambiguity, schools need trained professionals to sift through the noise of what is on offer, and to make choices that are informed by context, need, and criteria of quality. There are lots of opportunities for edtech providers, big and small, to partner together to provide holistic solutions for schools. In MENA, we see many “solutions” on offer that don’t really solve a problem- like an Edtech offering that gives schools PDF versions of print textbooks. As service providers, we engage with schools to help them choose more purposive technology, rather than invest in easy fixes that will fall short. Governments and non-governmental education initiatives can support that effort through review and endorsements of edtech solutions based on criteria of quality, in order to build the decision making power at the school level, and allow for fast and nimble responses to existing needs. We all have important roles to play. Together, we can clear the noise; and we can make music instead.

Nisrine Makkouk, Co-Founder, Chief Strategy Officer at Kamkalima

Kamkalima is an alumni of the WISE Edtech Accelerator program. For over six years, the WISE Edtech Accelerator has supported founders from around the world build and scale innovative edtech solutions, with the support of our community of edtech founders, investors and education stakeholders. The WISE Edtech Accelerator is now open to applications, you can find more information on this here.

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