5 things MENA countries can do to design better digital skills development programs

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Digital platforms like Edraak make it easier to share and reuse materials or curricula.
Digital platforms like Edraak make it easier to share and reuse materials or curricula. (Photo credit: Edraak)

The MENA labor market has so far been unable to address its enormous digital skills gap which undermines the region’s potential for digital growth. Digital skills, implemented through digital competency frameworks, have become a critical component of building the human capital MENA countries need in order to capitalize on economic transformation and generate workers and entrepreneurs capable of thriving despite shocks like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Coding, programming and computer science are disrupting learning in the Arabic-speaking world already. But large disparities remain in digital skills development across MENA. Most initiatives to teach or improve digital skills operate as boutique interventions rather than national-level programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the need for digital skills, therefore education and training need to become more affordable, relevant, context-vigilant and inclusive. There are five elements to consider when designing digital learning interventions.

1: Skills development reforms should aim to prepare the youth for the future of work and be integrated at all levels of education.

Digital literacy needs to be packaged with foundational skills, language and non-cognitive skills to help graduates succeed in digital labor markets. But the Internet Society says that the MENA region has not yet built up regional repositories of content, which makes the sharing and reusing materials or curricula more difficult.

Momentum is, however, increasing with platforms like Edraak, SkillAcademy and Rwaq. Universities could embrace MOOCs (massive open online courses) and mainstream their use. Governments are investing in modular digital literacy and ICT training. For example, the One Million Arab Coders platform equips people with fluency in "the language of the future" — coding and programming — by teaching skills that will contribute to the digital economy. Free programs such as these will be especially important as learners and workers try to adapt to the post-pandemic marketplace.

2: Comprehensive reforms should focus on policy (regulatory) and programs. Policy interventions could include national strategies, establishing industry councils, and reforming and updating curricula; or, instituting new standards, accreditation, and certification for digital competencies and trades. The range includes integrating digital skills into extra-curricular activities and the classroom from Kindergarten to 12th grade. It could also extend to public-private partnership bootcamps, teacher training, and competitive training funds, such as those being set up under the Youth Technology for Jobs in Jordan project.

3: Top-down vision and commitment need to be present to enable ecosystems and content. Many, if not most, governments in the region have set policies or strategies for school-based ICT in education, and most Arab nations have established institutions that oversee ICT integration. Initiatives in Jordan, Oman and Qatar are frequently cited as good practice — all call for basic computing, specific digital curricula and concrete objectives related to ICT literacy at the primary (elementary), lower secondary, and upper secondary (high) school levels. In Egypt and Palestine, ICT learning first begins in lower secondary (middle school) education.

4: Capacity, commonly seen as teacher readiness, can help determine the failure or success of an education system’s ability to instill digital opportunities. The Internet Society argues that this is a pivotal factor. Surveys in Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia show that teacher’s ability to use digital skills is crucial. Yet, teachers across the region are given few incentives and little time to integrate ICT into their classes. Jordan is making it easier for teachers to transition to distance learning, though, during the coronavirus pandemic through a new platform.

5: ICT infrastructure is vital for delivering digital skills to students. In a study on the drivers of student performance in MENA, McKinsey found that the availability of ICT equipment in classrooms in the two GCC countries (UAE, Qatar) that took the global PISA test were comparable to countries in the European Union (EU). The availability of ICT infrastructure in Jordan and Lebanon classrooms was roughly equivalent to that in parts of Latin America. But the level of penetration of technology in classrooms in Algeria and Tunisia was low.

Digitization is rapidly transforming economies and societies across MENA, radically shaping the "what" and "how" of education and training at all levels, in all arenas.  Focusing on the five elements above will help MENA countries move forward with their plans to improve digital skills for their students and position themselves for rapid digital growth.

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