Ahmed Ali has been involved in higher education for over a decade and beginning in 2017, he kicked off the online degree offerings from Arizona State University in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Currently the Director of International Digital Enrollment at EdPlus at Arizona State University, he focuses his efforts on promoting ASU’s diverse online degree portfolio in the Middle East & North Africa region. Prior to his transition to EdPlus at ASU, Ahmed held various positions at the Thunderbird School of Global Management (a unit of Arizona State University), and HULT International Business School.
In the Middle East and North Africa, online education has become increasingly popular in recent years, and its accessibility and effectiveness are being carefully studied. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it spurred progress and adoption of online learning in three key ways in the region: 1) institutions fueled hybrid models of education; 2) government acceptance of online education started to pivot; and 3) students gained a better understanding of what online learning entails, and their appetite for it grew. Having said that, universities will need to continue navigating opportunities and challenges while being attuned to the region’s unique education goals and needs.
The Higher Education Big Picture in the Middle East and North Africa
There are more than 20 states in the MENA region with different governance and operations; therefore, the approach to online education cannot be one size fits all. But as the region transitions away from an oil and gas focus and into the knowledge economy, there is growing consideration of online learning as a modality of choice. Additionally, many of the Arab States have identified a “Vision for 2030” which outlines the economic, industry, and education goals of the state.
While each Vision for 2030 is state-specific, the work currently being done in certain Arab States provides some examples of higher education opportunities across the region, including:
- United Arab Emirates (UAE):Focusing on continuing to improve the healthcare sector with more emphasis on developing online education programs that would educate future experts on applied behavior analysis (ABA), special education, Autism, and more.
- Egypt:Emphasizing the digitizing of the banking sector. Moving away from traditional banking into mobile banking presents a demand for higher education opportunities in software and systems engineering, supply chain, and business analytics for example.
- Saudi Arabia:Has a lot of projects on sustainable economy and travel and while Saudi Arabia doesn’t accept online learning right now, the opportunities could be plentiful given the significant higher-education programming in these fields at other out-of-country institutions.
The online modality aids in the development, and retention of existing talent, positively reflecting on the region’s ambitious economic goals. Moreover, the scalability of online education in the region could increase interest from the public and private sectors to establish partnerships with domestic and international universities to upskill their workforce.
For instance, since 2017, Arizona State University’s online programs have actively supported more than 600 students across the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom are working on graduate degrees in STEM fields fully online. The online modality allowed learners to obtain graduate credentials in various topics without needing to leave their employment or travel. Examples of such graduate degrees include but are not limited to, Biomedical Diagnostics, Applied Behavior Analysis, Engineering Management, Global Education, and Data Science. Furthermore, students don’t incur travel fees and other expensive costs associated with degree programs outside their home country which aids in improving access to higher education for students overall. Perhaps this could be thought of as a proof-of-concept for the region.
Understanding the online modality types
Online modalities fall into three main buckets. Keep in mind that there might be more depending on how the providing institution designs its programs:
- Synchronous learning: students interact with their instructors in real-time using a virtual platform such as video conferencing or webinars.
- Asynchronous learning: students and instructors do not interact in real time. Instead, students work through course materials such as pre-recorded lectures, and readings at their own pace. Assignments and even exams may be deadline sensitive. Learners communicate with their instructors and peers through email, discussion boards, or other online platforms.
- Hybrid or blended learning: This modality combines both online and in-person instruction. Students attend some classes in person and complete other coursework online. A proportion of the program may be completed online and the remaining in person
Accreditation and academic rigor of online education
Many universities stand by their online degree offerings, in the sense that their programs are accredited by the same accreditation body that of the university. Accreditation is a key factor in ensuring that the online program follows the same academic rigor and quality assurance that of an in-person program. In the above-mentioned example of Arizona State University in the region, learners were encouraged to pursue such a modality knowing that the online program carried the same accreditation, faculty, credits, and duration that of in-person programs at the university. As a learner, you do not want to invest your time and effort in obtaining credentials that could be considered second-class. Having said that, it is important for learners to do their own due diligence and connect with university representatives, and the Ministry of higher education to learn more about the accreditation and equivalency processes. As educators, we want learners to view online education as a choice, not a compromise on the quality of education.
Understand the Hurdles Ahead of Time
Understanding the obstacles to online higher education growth in the Middle East and North Africa has been just as important as understanding the opportunities when mapping out a successful path for students. One of the key obstacles has been a lack of understanding of what quality in the online modality entails. For instance, potential students were under the impression that all online programs lack personal interaction elements. In reality, degree content and platform delivery can be so much more dynamic and engaging using technology, instructional designers, and various dedicated supporting staff members at the university.
Some prospective students also had a misconception that online education meant that an online degree tuition would cost considerably less than of the tuition of an in-person program however this is not true especially if the university is offering an accredited online degree that is “credit-bearing”. Furthermore, it is worth noting that like in-person programs, online programs require continuous support from instructional designers, technology partnerships, and frequent monitoring of quality for accreditation purposes. Infrastructure hurdles can impact the scalability of online education in the region, internet connection and student accessibility needs, language barriers, as well as regional governance requirements that are quite different from those in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Looking to the Future
In a world moving faster and faster towards a knowledge economy —both globally and in the Middle East and North Africa — the work we do now to build higher education online opportunities contributes to greater access to quality education for learners regardless of their physical location. Furthermore, when universities customize those offerings to the future trajectories MENA countries have set for themselves to thrive in a global economy, it can spur further adoption and interest in online higher education like never before.