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.