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Saudi Arabia gets MOOC’d up

Online learning is not the answer to Saudi's persistent educational and employment gaps

September 2, 2014 6:00AM ET

Saudi leaders may not want women to drive, but they do want them to use massive open online courses (MOOCs). But Saudi Arabia’s embrace of MOOCs as a bandage for failures in its own educational system may be premature.

On July 15, edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor launched a pilot open-platform MOOC portal designed “exclusively for Arab audiences” to minimize the gap between educational and employment levels in the kingdom and across the Arab world. The new e-learning curriculum, aimed at rural communities, women, youth and persons with disabilities will include licensed courses from edX university partners, translated into Arabic, as well as original courses offered by Saudi institutions.

Educational reform

Since his ascent to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has sought to modernize the Saudi state and diversify its oil-heavy economy, while also increasing education and employment opportunities for both men and women.

Under Abdullah, educational spending has increased by more than $30 billion and the number of public higher education institutions has expanded from 6 to 25. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is among the country’s first co-ed public institutions. Private schools are also on the rise and in May, Abdullah approved a five-year plan worth more than $21.33 billion to train 25,000 new teachers and establish new educational centers.

These initiatives coincide with an emerging discourse on the role of women in the kingdom and a handful of subsequent reforms. There has been significant growth in the number of educational opportunities for women over the past few decades. For example, all-women schools such as Effat University and Dar Al-Hekma opened their doors in 1999. Today, women make up more than half of university graduates in Saudi Arabia.

But anachronistic gender segregation rules continue to limit women’s employment opportunities after graduation. Even as women move into industries formerly dominated by men, such as retail, gender seclusion has led to the formation of “parallel institutions” — women-only schools, industries or sections of larger organizations. A 2007 report by Booz & Company found (PDF) that 93 percent of female students in the kingdom major in either education or the humanities, but they are not granted the same fieldwork and research opportunities as men. Scholarships are limited and few women have been able to take advantage of resources for studying abroad at Western institutions, in part due to the constraints of guardianship rules. These plodding changes raise the question: Is online education the cure-all for failures in the kingdom’s educational system?

MOOCs to the rescue

MOOCs — and distance learning (PDF) in general — are not new to the Arab world. Last September, Saudi entrepreneur Fouad Al-Farhan launched Rwaq, a native, Arabic-language MOOC platform that offers courses in subjects ranging from religious studies to biomedical engineering. In November, in partnership with the Queen Rania Foundation, edX created Edraak, an Arab-language MOOC portal. This latest initiative is edX's largest country partnership to date.

The Saudis are “very excited about the initiative because they are hoping that making basic courses available to the population will help them fill skill gaps,” said edX’s CEO, Anant Agarwal, in a phone interview last month.

Agarwal says the platform makes a high-quality education available to anyone, anywhere and at any time. They aim to target “non-consumers” of education — those traditionally outside of higher education’s reach, such as residents of rural areas. Agarwal cited an example of an edX student in India who took a course while at sea to highlight access as a key element of MOOCs’ appeal.

But a university degree is no guarantee for Saudi women. In 2012, more than 78 percent of unemployed women were college graduates. Without a systematic effort to improve women’s participation in the labor force a bachelor’s degree can only go so far.

Unless the societal barriers that limit employment opportunities for women are torn down, MOOC-based vocational trainings will continue to produce a better trained, but still unemployed, workforce.

The kingdom’s skill gaps run deeper than what basic vocational training can provide. David Wheeler, editor of Al-Fanar Media, which covers higher education in the Arab world, says employers seek new hires with both technical abilities and communication skills, including proficiency in English.

“When I talk to employers … they don’t say, ‘the students don’t know their math,’” Wheeler said in a recent phone interview. “They’ll say the students don’t seem capable of making decisions. I think they feel like they could reteach the technical skills if they had to. [But] it’s harder to teach someone how to communicate.”

MOOCs also require access to fairly fast, reliable Internet connections. Saudi Arabia has roughly 58 percent (PDF) Internet penetration. This rate, however, does not take into account the speed most MOOCs require to handle major uploads and downloads. In addition, due to conservative social norms, a number of women may not have access to personal computers.

“Some husbands would not understand their wives taking time away from their household duties in order to learn online,” Maha Bali, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, said in an email. “However, for women who do have the technical access, digital literacy and social opportunity to learn online, MOOCs can be empowering opportunities.”

Even for the digitally literate, rural residents’ access to MOOCs may serve as a medium for preserving gender segregation and isolation. Information communication technology has long been used in Saudi schools to separate female students from male lecturers. Remote access to lectures through a closed-circuit television or an online education platform could do more of the same and fails to provide the fuller classroom experiences female students desire.

In the end, MOOCs cannot solve Saudi Arabia’s educational problems unless authorities ease the barriers that limit the system’s efficacy. For women, that means improving the quality, not just the quantity, of universities. For example, female law students should have access to the same quality of training that their male peers receive. It also means opening up the workforce to women, providing them with palpable economic incentives and opportunities to put their education and training to use. Unless the societal barriers that limit employment opportunities for women are torn down, MOOC-based vocational training will produce a better trained, but still unemployed, workforce. 

Hannah Gais is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and The Moscow Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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