UAE – Education versus Market Forces

Diversion AheadAs mentioned in my earlier post, Dubai struck me as a significant contrast to my experiences of visiting schools and educational establishments in Ghana and Cuba. Although, one can only really put this into perspective after the further visits and with Singapore, Jordan, UK, Lebanon, Canada, USA and Brazil coming up in the next 2 months I’m sure we’ll find many more surprises on this learning journey.


Described in the New York Times as “Las Vegas on steroids, without the gambling” the emirate is populated by migrant business people from all over the world and migrant service providers supporting them. As a non-oil based economy Dubai is essentially a commercial centre within the United Arab Emirates with a buoyant tourism industry.


25 years ago Dubai was a desert town with a population of 350,000 people. Today it numbers closer to 2 million people plus the 6 million people who visit each year. The minarets and mosques that once defined the skyline have been eclipsed by an incredible growth in some of the most ambitious secular constructions to attract the world’s wealthiest people and those seeking wealth. For many it is the land of opportunity.


GEMS EducationEducation is a business here in Dubai, it is as competitive, ruthless and as fierce as any other and like many corporations it likes to protect its secrets with a strange kind of corporate paranoia usually reserved for Silicon Valley tech companies or those in the pharmaceutical industries.


Perhaps I am overstating the case for dramatic effect but there were times during our visits here where things felt, for want of a better description, odd, where our presence was treated with a kind of suspicion when in reality we had come to learn and to discover how educators were innovating. That’s not to say that the people we met weren’t friendly, passionate about education or hospitable – read on!


Our first visit was to GEMS Modern Academy otherwise known as Dubai Modern High School which is affiliated to the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations, New Delhi, India. Founded in 1986 the school is operated by GEMS Education, founded by successful entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, and opens admission from kindergarten level to 18 years. The school offers a day boarding system that offers academic tuition during the morning session and then “Activities for Curriculum Enrichment” (ACE) in the afternoon consisting of study groups, clubs and sports.


The environment is welcoming, the pupils of all ages polite, interested, confident and, from those we met, extremely bright. The school is very well equipped from fibre optic digital networks and AV systems to fully spec’d science labs.


We sat in on a chemistry class with a boys group of 15-16 year old’s in the schools 3D lab. Like a pre-cursor to the sort of “holodeck” facilities found in TV science fiction series like Star Trek the 3D lab allows students wearing 3D glasses to review multimedia presentations that float off a projection surface.


3D science classInitially I thought this might simply be another techno gimmick where very little is added to the learning experience and where students are simply asked to watch something on screen and then answer a few questions. However the 3D lab and the experience came to life in the hands of a very skilled teacher, Anju Shajan, who rather than simply deferring to the 3D video presentation used it as a launch pad that resulted in a dynamic exchange between students and teacher about the Inductive Effect.


This abstract concept, difficult to understand from simply reading a book, was made more tangible where the teacher, acting as facilitator or ringmaster, encouraged comments, questions and explanations from the students.


A discussion with teacher and students after the class showed that far from the technology replacing the role of a knowledgeable teacher actually demanded the skills of teacher unfazed by the platform and able to guide, cajole and include all of those in the room in a class that was clearly enjoyed by all. I felt myself also drawn into the lesson.


Could the teacher have performed this class without the technology? Yes. Was the class enhanced with the use of this 3D experience? Definitely. I mean you could read about the Inductive Effect on Wikipedia but would you really get it? The point of this class was to ensure each student understood the concept and actually made it as fun as this kind of chemistry can be.


We were joined during the lesson by the PR communications representative of GEMS Education who had recently joined the organisation and whilst a pleasant enough person I suddenly felt myself in a controlled environment reminiscent of when I used to interview popstars for a popular newspaper. There was a sense that any interviews and reporting should be “on message”. This was certainly a new experience for me in the education sector. But it was I imagine to be the “corporate effect” of privatised education within this market.


Our next showcase was a primary class of 8 year olds using iPads in a session about rocks and minerals. Once again the class was in the hands of a skilled teacher who rather than taught to the technology was simply encouraging the children to use their devices in an ad-hoc manner in response to her questions. The teacher was unconcerned that her charges were faster at finding the answers than she was as well as understanding her role was no longer to be the fountain of all knowledge from which the children should drink but someone who facilitated, guided and nudged. When the internet went down, the teacher continued the lesson without panicing and running for the tech team.


Again the lesson I took away here was that it was the skill of the teacher that was at the heart of any transformation in learning using digital platforms as well as the students being in a socio-collaborative group to share thinking and solve problems. It’s true that the classes we visited were very much the same spaces, desks in rows, like 19th century classrooms and this might change over time but the techniques we saw at the teaching level were as much about encouragement than control.


When chatting with the teacher to camera I wondered whether she felt that kids might end up spending too much time in front of screens. The question, which wasn’t intended to be confrontational resulted in an unexpected pause in the conversation. Our PR chaperone said that the teacher didn’t need to answer that question which relieved the teacher but left me with a weird feeling. Surely these 8 year olds also spent some of their day painting, glueing, moulding clay, playing and all the usual things that kids do. I didn’t think the question was that tough but I’m certain that it is a concern of many but I guess in this case we’ll never know.


Herver MarchetLater in the day we repaired to the HQ of GEMS Education to meet with their recently appointed Chief Technology Officer, Hervé Marchet.


Hervé joined GEMS from Apple where he was the Director for Apple’s business in the education sector from EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). With education being such an important part of Apple’s business this position was a vital role within Apple and the fact that he left to join GEMS is demonstration of both how GEMS see’s the role of technology in its future plans as well as how Hervé see’s GEMS.


We recorded a filmed interview which will be available when the Learning {RE}imagined book is released next year and whilst we were guided away from matters relating directly to GEMS my conversation with Hervé was, as expected, insightful.


Hervé is certainly somebody who has a great depth of understanding and views about the role and potential for technology within the learning and teaching environment.


When asked why technology had yet to show any significant impact on improved learning outcomes his answer was pragmatic suggesting that many of us had set unrealistic expectations given the weight of the challenge and the stakeholders involved from parents to learners to teachers and policy makers. Marginal improvements have been made and whilst there have been some excellent pilots the scaling of these pilots is a complex issue when it’s not simply a matter of “rolling it out” like a recipe given that it’s individual’s learning that we are talking about rather than baking cakes.


I asked him my question du jour which is what he thought would be a 100 times better education system rather than the few % improvements that most schools like to see. His answer was that one providing access to 100 times more students. Which for my money is a great answer.


United Arab Emirates

Dubai at nightThis week I have been in Dubai taking part in the “iThink Therefore iPad?” conference as a keynote speaker. The conference was attended by an enthusiastic gathering of local school leaders and teachers who have implemented 1:1 iPad and other tablet device programmes within their school. This presented me with a terrific opportunity to meet a broad range of educators working in the region.


You could hardly think of a greater contrast of Dubai when compared to my earlier visits to Ghana and Cuba. A city of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the playground of the wealthy or those aspiring to be wealthy drawn to the city by the seemingly endless opportunities presented by staggering growth and investment in construction and infrastructure. It feels like the Singapore of the Middle East – where the pinnacle of the capitalist dream meets Arabic ambition. Dubai is one of the seven emirates and has emerged as a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis that is a global city providing a cultural and business hub for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Adopting a Western style business approach the emirates drives its economy through tourism, aviation, financial services and real estate.


Dubai is a place of innovative construction projects from the worlds tallest building to man made islands and even a domed snow and ski resort. For some, however, it’s not all as glitzy as it appears and like many thrusting capitalist nations it has been criticized for the treatment of its mainly South Asian workers who reside in the more favela like districts outside the city limits which most us will never see. 


Rated as one of the best cities in the Middle East to live in it seems that almost everybody or at least every culture is represented. And there lies the crux of the official part of my visit for Learning {RE}imagined.


The majority of the teachers that I met at the conference were either British or Australian many attracted to Dubai by significantly increased salary opportunities as well as quality of life. A teacher confided in me that 6 years ago he was literally living on pennies as a teacher in London after meeting his rent, travel and subsistence on an entry level salary. Today he lives in a private villa with its own swimming pool and drives an American sports car. Dubai is a work hard, play hard culture and he loves his job. There was a consensus amongst the teachers that I met that the working week in Dubai is brutal but the weekends and lifestyle are a compensation. Of course, everyones time in Dubai is limited. You can be here for 30 years but eventually you will need to return home. Unless you are an Emirati you’re a temporary fixture.


Whilst there are a number of public schools that serve the children of Emirati and expatriate Arab communities the majority of the schools in Dubai are private, serving the children of the majority population of expatriate workers from Europe, Asia, America and beyond. This creates a certain dynamic in regard to educational provision where parents are customers who vote with their wallet. Whilst unfettered from the kind of league tables and government inspections typical found in the UK competition in Dubai to get “bums on seats” is fierce. 


The government in Dubai does make annual inspections to each school and the results are published but the pressure really comes from the parents who almost without exception are seeking an “authentic Harry Potter experience” for their children that promises to deliver their kids at the end of it with a complete set of high test scores and examination passes. This leaves very little room for innovative teaching practice or deployment of digital platforms given that at the end of the day in a free market economy it’s only the test scores that matter. Showing off a bit of technology or 1:1 iPad programmes look good on the website when pitching for parents hard-earned cash but if the test results don’t match the school fees it won’t matter.


Herein lies the challenge for educators in Dubai, how do you innovate with or without technology in what is both a government and market-force regulated sector. Innovation is by nature risky and who is prepared to risk test scores when in reality they are what pay your salary and keep you in laa laa land?


Dubai_by_day.JPGMy photographic team join me this weekend and we will be meeting the Group Chief Technology Officer of GEMS Education, Herve Marchet. Before joining GEMS Herve was the Director of Apple’s EMEA Education Markets so knows one or two things about deploying technology in educational environments at least from an Apple perspective. GEMS Education has a history of high profile hirings and is clearly serious about being the major player in private education in this region and beyond. GEMS operates a number of schools in the region catering for different parental budgets as well as offering a choice of curriculum including the International Baccalaureate and England’s National Curriculum. That in itself is an innovation, the fact that in an international context like this you can pick and choose the curriculum that you would like your child to be processed through.


I’m looking forward also to visiting a number of GEMS schools to gain an insight into private education provision within a multi-cultural, multi-contextual environment.


But first some sight-seeing!