The challenges and opportunities facing the Saudi education system in coronavirus period

April 16, 2020
The challenges and opportunities facing the Saudi education system in coronavirus period
Dr. Ghadeer Talal Melibari

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Saudi Arabia and the number of people infected by this virus in the Kingdom is on a steady rise. The prevalence of novel coronavirus disease keeps growing around the world. The truth is: This pandemic has changed our lives in more ways than one.

The COVID-19 brought many challenges not only to the healthcare industry but to other aspects of life, including education. Children and students of all ages don’t go to schools and universities anymore, they don’t socialize in a standard way, and their routine has changed practicallyovernight, and the system has to adapt.

Saudi Arabia has introduced important measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading uncontrollably at the right time. At the very beginning of March, the Saudi Arabian government decided to close all schools and universities until further notice. The decision was completely justified; many schools and universities are overcrowded and could pose a high risk of spreading the deadly virus. Online classes have become a reasonable solution for everyone involved: teachers, students, and parents.

The virtual learning platform has turned out to be a lifesaver. Teachers and professors get to keep their job and do what they love the most, while students don’t miss out on their education while practicing social distancing.

Keeping things moving is incredibly important for students’ academics and for society as a whole. Although some universities suffered from a lack of technical support, Saudi Arabia has done a great job in its approach to education in the time of COVID-19. The readiness and the steps taken into the future of education are down to the technological improvements resulting from measures implemented by the government and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman in his Vision 2030 project.

Embracing the technology

Technology should not be feared but embraced! Society has become somewhat reluctant to introduce technology in education because a generally accepted notion is that it makes students lazy. On the contrary, it motivates them to learn and understand things on their own.

Based on my experience, students are more engaged when they have the opportunity to use technology to work a project or, in this case, to attend their classes. Taking an active part in education, instead of taking a backseat adds to the students’ sense of empowerment and enthusiasm, and it also encourages active learning.

Times have changed; there is no denying this fact, especially with the current circumstances the world is facing in the time on COVID-19. Whether we like it or not, we do live in an era of technology. Instead of abolishing it from education and school systems, we need to take advantage of everything technology has to offer, because that’s exactly what children, adolescents, and young adults need.

It is up to us to adjust the education system so that it nourishes students’ minds, and increases their interest in various subjects. Technology can be incredibly helpful in this regard; it is what students use and understand in almost every area of their lives. Online learning is our friend, not a foe.

Virtual lessons post COVID-19

Not only are virtual classes making education in the time of COVID-19 pandemic possible, but they are also showing everybody involved that these new learning methods should be employed as much as possible even after the urgent situation is over. Everyone can benefit from online classes.

Children have the opportunity to participate in more interactive lessons, parents can monitor their kids, families get to spend more time together, and teaching staff can deliver their lectures using a wide range of tools that make the material even more interesting to students.

I am not going to sugarcoat it here, virtual classes are challenging, but they also come with many rewards. Distant learning is the future of education, not just a replacement in the times of the current crisis. It also fits easily within the Vision 2030 for education.

Major aspects of Vision 2030 when it comes to education include developing teaching methods that focus on the learner, not the teacher, and to work on developing a stimulating school environment, and connect it with supportive and integrated service systems.

Vision 2030 also aims to make education more accessible to persons with disabilities. Online learning and virtual classes check all these boxes. This type of learning makes it possible for children and adults with disabilities to attend school and educate themselves, and it allows them to learn and boost their confidence.

At the same time, I need to emphasize that virtual classes are all about the students, and not us teachers and professors. It’s all about making it easier for learners to understand lectures and attend lessons.

The educational system in Saudi Arabia is becoming more open to the idea of distance learning, and some universities already offer that option. However, the same should be applied in all schools and universities around the Kingdom.

Distance learning is all about discovering the world, learning, and interacting. Sitting in classrooms and staring at the lecturer is not the only way to learn. It can be quite limiting for students as they have little freedom to explore their interests and apply them to academic subjects in order to learn with interest.

However, new times bring new options we can use, more things to learn, and new ways to do so.

Yet, one of the biggest advantages of distance learning is closer interaction and communication with the lecturer. Many students feel misunderstood and are reluctant to interact with their teachers in classrooms, and they shut down. What I noticed is that students are more open to communicate and interact on the platform.

Maybe it’s because they don’t feel like all eyes are on them when they are sitting in the comfortable and safe environment of their own rooms and talking to their phones, or maybe the whole environment at home makes them feel more relaxed and confident.

Regardless of the reason, the results are evident: a better interaction that creates a positive and inspiring atmosphere that is important for students and teachers alike. We truly live in a great era, and it’s going to be exciting to see what’s next in-store. As technology improves, we will have even more options to make distant learning exciting, motivating, and more effective.

In the end, I hope that we take this opportunity to facilitate a positive change out of the current COVID-19 crisis. This is our chance to become even more accepting of distant learning and to make it an integral part of our education system in the near future.

Instead of just being a tool used in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can walk away with lessons that will facilitate long-term changes in education and benefit our educational institutions for decades to come. We have taken incredible steps forward as a country, and this is our chance to use the technological advancements in the wake of Vision 2030, and take things to the next level.

(Dr. Ghadeer Talal Melibari, holder of PhD in English from University of Hertfordshire, UK, is currently working as Assistant Professor of English teaching at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah)

April 16, 2020
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