Jeffrey R. Young elaborates on how an Interest in Online Courses Surges in the MENA region. It started as for elsewhere, as a palliative to the lockdown imposed closure of all schools and education facilities.
12 October 2020
Providers of online higher education have seen a spike in interest in their courses and degree programs from the Middle East and North Africa region since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And some say the sudden exposure to online learning may lead to a shift in attitudes about the value of digital delivery methods.
Edraak, a Jordan-based provider of free online courses delivered in Arabic, served one million new learners in the past six months, a big jump from the 650,000 new learners it served in all of 2019. The platform now serves four million learners total.
And Coursera, a U.S.-based provider of online courses and programs from well-known universities, said that since mid-March, it saw a 500 percent increase in learners from the Middle East compared to the same period last year.
FutureLearn, a British company offering similar online courses, also reports a 500-percent increase in participation from the region. Officials from edX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer free and low-cost online courses, says its enrollments from the region have gone up more than 200 percent since the start of the pandemic.
“There has definitely been a shift in the sense of recognizing they cannot ignore online learning anymore” in the region, said Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo.
Coursera has 3.4 million users in the Middle East out of approximately 70 million learners worldwide.
Shireen Yacoub, the chief executive of Edraak, called the growth in adult learning via online courses “one of the most inspiring observations we’ve had during the curfews and lockdowns.”
Even so, she worries about what she calls the “equity gap” when it comes to who is able to use the organization’s free courses. Most of Edraak’s users get to its platform through their smartphones, she added, and low-income families may have three or four kids all needing to share a phone. Computers and home Internet access are too costly for many, she adds. “We need to advocate for more equity in Internet connectivity,” she said. “Their lives will often depend on it. It’s not a luxury.” (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
Coursera has 3.4 million users in the Middle East out of approximately 70 million learners worldwide, according to Betty Vandenbosch, the company’s chief content officer. About 400 colleges and organizations in the region have signed up for a free program that lets them offer Coursera online courses to their enrolled students. That means that the colleges—including Al Hussein Technical University in Jordan—are offering at least some online courses based largely on content provided free from Coursera.
And she says that in recent months, Coursera has seen more interest from governments and organizations in the region to form partnerships. Such deals typically mean that governments and organizations pay Coursera a fee to get free access to Coursera’s online degree programs for their employees. That was starting to happen even before the pandemic: Last year the company announced a deal with the Abu Dhabi School of Government to train 60,000 government employees in data science, digital transformation and other high-tech skills.
“The governments in the Middle East are recognizing the challenges they have with their economies,” Vandenbosch said. “Some of those governments are saying, ‘Gosh, we really need to upskill our workforce because oil is not going to be there forever.”
New Attitudes Toward Online Learning
Experts in education technology say that the pandemic may end up being a turning point for online education in the region.
John Schwartz, head of Enterprise Global Business Development at edX, said that colleges in the MENA region have recently adopted the platform’s online courses as well. “Virtually no university had the time and resources to turn all their classroom content into online courses, so edX was able and continues to fill a large void,” he said. “In addition there has been a significantly higher degree of interest from the region’s schools to not only use edX content, but to put their own quality content online, as a partner on the edX.org platform.”
The most popular edX courses by students in the region are an introductory computer-science course by Harvard University and a course from the University of Queensland that prepares students to take the IELTS test of English-language skills.
“The pandemic really changed the dynamics towards online learning in the Middle East.”
Gehan Osman Assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo
“The pandemic really changed the dynamics towards online learning in the Middle East,” said Gehan Osman, an assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo’s Graduate School of Education, in an email interview. “Professors who had never considered even blended or web-based instruction before embraced online learning because it was the only alternative. Many of these professors said that they would never go back to completely face-to-face because they discovered many instructional value of going online.”
Curtis J. Bonk is a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University at Bloomington and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, and other books about online learning. He said he is suddenly getting invitations to speak in the region at places that had not done much with online education in the past. One example: He recently spoke at an online forum for teachers at the grade school and university level in the United Arab Emirates run by the Ministry of Education, and more than 600 people attended.
The Biggest Concern: Cheating
However, some reservations about online education remain. The biggest concern: that the format will lead to rampant cheating. “Many insist that exams and major assessment need to be done in person in a proctored environment,” said Osman.
Bali agreed that academic integrity remains a key concern. “We know in Egypt many online standardized tests done in exam centers get leaked/cheated, et cetera,” she said, noting that people worry the same kind of thing could happen in online courses.
And even those providing online courses stress that they are not meant as a wholesale replacement for classroom instruction.
“Even at Edraak we don’t think that online ed and learning is a silver bullet to education in the region,” said Yacoub, that group’s chief executive. “We really believe in the value of in-person teaching.”
For Bali, the question for colleges should be what is the purpose of education, and “how to use the online effectively while preserving the best of what we can do face-to-face.”
New efforts are underway to help train professors in the region to teach online. Among them, the Center for Learning in Practice based at the Carey Institute for Global Good is running a series of free online workshops on how to teach with online technologies, with a focus on inclusive teaching.
William Beckerwriting this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas. Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?
Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility
Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.
Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.
The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”
Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”
But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.
The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.
The Internet’s value
Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?
The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.
Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”
Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.
As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.
The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.
News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.
It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?
Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.
Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”
Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.
Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.
America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.
The Internal threats
Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.
He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.
The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”
Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.
“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”
“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.
So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?
I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:
Only time will tell.
William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.
The spread of China’s “techno-authoritarianism,” its pursuit of the “innovation advantage,” and its incompatibility with the liberal democratic model is the focus of a new report. The underlying dynamics and tensions between markets, non-state actors and governments are compelling governments to pursue strategic alliances and partnerships, and the inherent ideological differences between the Chinese system and those of open market, liberal democracies will influence outcomes, argues analyst Alex Capri.
Beijing’s imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, as well as its internment of ethnic Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region, were just several of the latest provocations causing European policymakers to rethink relations with China. Thus, for Beijing, it has become increasingly difficult to find sympathy in Europe regarding Washington’s campaign to crush Huawei….New partnerships, including the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence* (GPAI) and the G7 AI Initiative, that are designed to guide the liberal and transparent development of AI, stand in contrast to China’s export of techno-authoritarianism.
A question that has begun to circulate in trade policy circles is: could a coalition of willing nations form a new global trade institution with standards that require open market principles and democratic ideals? RTWT
In “Artificial Intelligence and Democratic Norms,” the fourth in the “Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience” series from the International Forum for Democratic Studies, Nicholas Wright explores how to establish democratically accountable rules and norms that harness the benefits of artificial intelligence-related technologies, without infringing on fundamental rights and creating technological affordances that could facilitate authoritarian concentration of power.
An analysis of the results of this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy reveals key takeaways for the region’s marketers looking for growth opportunities, from finding niche audiences in smaller markets to developing more resonant touchpoints.
“As certain MENA markets are already enduring their second wave of COVID-19 and several continue to be buffeted by economic recession, identifying new strategies for growth is vital for brands,” says Lucy Aitken, Managing Editor, Case Studies at WARC.
“In this report, we’ve identified new approaches that this year’s winners have incorporated in their campaigns that can help brands to build strong strategic frameworks that have growth baked in.”
The four key takeaways highlighted in WARC’s 2020 MENA Strategy Report are:
1. Target the frontier markets
Pragmatic solutions that help specific communities in MENA’s frontier markets can be instrumental in driving growth. Empowering marginalised communities, particularly within the region’s smaller markets, can be an effective way to brand-build.
This year’s Grand Prix-winning initiative from Tunisie Telecom helped female farmers access social security via their handsets. The technological innovation instigated by the campaign set the precedent for a new digital government vision.
Melek Ourir, Strategic Planner at Wunderman Thompson Tunisia, advises: “Resist the temptation to ignore smaller markets and audiences that could unlock significant growth for your business.”
2. Unconventional touchpoints can underpin strategy
Identifying new, creative touchpoints strengthens strategy, resonating with or delighting audiences.
Three standout campaigns addressed consumer challenges and were not constrained by where the brands were traditionally ‘allowed’ to be present: clothing retailer Babyshop promoted the long-term health of mothers; cheese brand Puck reclaimed share at breakfast and lunch; and NGO Donner Sang Compter encouraged those who spill their own blood onto the streets in the tradition of Ashura to donate it instead.
Admiring the risks and the rulebreakers among this year’s winners that explored new touchpoints, judge Sunjay Malik, Associate Director, Strategy at PHD UAE, says: “Media mixes are rulebooks that we set ourselves, which over time make us less imaginative and less brave. Long live the rulebreakers, who in challenging themselves inspire us to be better.”
3. Humour: a strategic shortcut to likeability
Making people laugh is one of the most powerful ways to connect and can make your brand distinct from the competition.
Winning brands that used humour include Burger King, which launched a new spicy menu with its Who Said Men Don’t Cry campaign; telco Jawwy, which used entertaining video content to resonate with Saudi youth; and Egyptian telco Etisalat crafting a comic campaign to win customers over to its hybrid offer.
Jury member Shagorika Heryani, Head of Strategy at Grey MENA, says: “There’s always a place for humour – even during a crisis. Smart brands understand the relationship between humour and humanity. Companies know that we buy from brands and people we like. And humour is a shortcut to likeability and authenticity.”
4. Localise to resonate
This year’s winners are a treasure trove of local insight, proving how time invested upfront to unearth strong local insights tends to pay dividends in terms of a robust strategy.
Best-in-class examples include: KFC in Saudi Arabia, which communicated its commitment to locally-sourced chicken by turning all of its brand assets green – the colour of the Kingdom’s flag; and Grand Prix winner Tunisie Telecom, which devised a programme to offer social welfare coverage to female farmers.
WARC’s 2020 MENA Strategy Report can be downloaded here. The full report is available to WARC subscribers and includes chapter analysis of the four themes with views and opinions from the judges; objectives, results and takeaways of the winning case studies, and what these mean for brands, media owners and agencies; and data analysis.
WARC’s Lucy Aitken will deep-dive into using humour as a successful marketing strategy at Lynx Live on 5-7 October in her keynote ‘Humour: the smart shortcut to brand fame’.
The WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is a free-to-enter annual case study competition in search of the best strategic thinking from MENA’s marketing industry. Next year’s prize will open for entries in January 2021.
Successful smart city projects feature optimized traffic patterns, smart parking, efficient lighting, intelligent office buildings and improvements to public works, but they will be powered forward by citizen engagement. According to Gartner, citizen engagement, the enhancement of services and citizen experience will all be critical to the success of smart cities. How will we ensure that?
Throughout the Gulf, smart city projects are the new driving force behind the region’s economic diversification. A key aspect to whether these projects are a success or failure is the involvement of the people who live and work there. Citizen engagement is a big deal: citizens can provide invaluable feedback for the improvement of existing services and power the development of new ones. So smart city authorities need to educate and inform citizens about their city’s smart transformation and encourage feedback on pilot programs and other initiatives. How do you do that?
It begins with digital identity
Smart cities maximise their chances of success and sustainability when they are able to drive citizen engagement: digital identity is one way to get that started. Digital identity is the ability to prove an individual’s identity via any government digital channel, and it is essential for driving inclusion and giving citizens access to government services. As government becomes more digitized, digital identity will need to become more reliable to serve as the core for all digital transactions and will enable citizens to access core resources and services. And it allows citizen engagement.
It has been predicted that up to 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in smart cities by 2050, and strategic management of citizens’ digital identities will be central to that. According to Gartner, governments and public sector bodies that communicate with citizens via their preferred channels – over 50 per cent of government website traffic now comes from mobile devices – will be those that meet citizen expectations and achieve their desired project outcomes. “Government CIOs must provision digital identities that uphold both security imperatives and citizen expectations,” Gartner has said.
Data-powered approaches will succeed
To thrive, and secure buy-in for smart city projects from residents and visitors, smart city managers must deliver an enjoyable and memorable citizen experience. It can be a process that is built around digital identity, proactive citizen engagement and multichannel communications.
Citizen engagement through multichannel
Governments and smart city authorities need to address citizens using their preferred communications formats and channels: that could be in person, over the phone, using augmented reality chatbots, social media or other mechanisms. But meeting citizens on their terms and using their preferred communication methods greatly increases the likelihood that the interaction is positive.
Your smart city project is already built on data: smart cities generate huge amounts of data from connected sensors and other devices, and cities capture, store and analyze all that real-time data from millions of devices. Artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics tools enable cities to deliver an unforgettable citizen experience based on in-depth understanding of the needs and desires of citizens.
The multichannel element involves meeting citizens on their own terms to engage them, and that means numerous communications channels. For example, understanding the range of services offered by a smart city can be confusing for people, so a chatbot could help. A multichannel AI-powered bot can enhance experiences for citizens by communicating in a natural, conversational way. And by combining it with digital identity, the AI is able to remember people who are authenticated, learn their likes and habits and provide tailored services based on previous experiences. All while reducing operational costs for the city.
MEA smart cities setting the pace
There are many examples of progressive smart city projects underway throughout the MEA region, one of which is the Dubai Silicon Oasis. Orange is working with the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA) on its flagship smart city initiative, designed to transform how businesses, residents, visitors and workers interact, using digital technologies. The project includes energy management using smart metering, smart irrigation, and smart street lighting, plus smart facilities and infrastructure such as parking and building maintenance as well as visitor and event management. Dubai is now able to offer an enhanced user experience and quality of life to employees, residents and visitors using smart solutions and services.
It’s an example of the kind of seamless, end-to-end approach that smart cities must take if they want to flourish: without a unified digital identity scheme, it becomes difficult for smart city managers to plan effectively. It’s all about data.
Digital identity powering and powered by multichannel
Digital identity underpins the enormous potential of smart cities and enhances a project’s chances of success and sustainable change. If you want a smart city project to succeed, governments must communicate with citizens to convey the benefits of the smart city – and that requires two-way communications over secure digital channels. With digital identity and multichannel, there is a mutually beneficial thing going on – each enables and powers the other.
Digital identity connects your citizens to your smart city, turning it into an Internet of both things and people, where the connected objects provide the data that creates the insights that enable the new services that give citizens an enhanced experience. IDC forecasts that global spending on smart city initiatives will amount to around $124 billion in 2020, an increase of 18.9 per cent over 2019. To achieve a return on this investment, the smartest smart city projects will use multichannel citizen engagement to deliver quantifiable benefits and realise the importance of digital identity in all communications.
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