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Edtech promised to transform education in the Middle East. But did it deliver?

Despite edtech’s popularity and potential, one in every five children in MENA is uneducated. How do we lead from here?

Edtech promised to transform education in the Middle East. But did it deliver?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Afrah is a six-year-old who is learning about the galaxy in school. Instead of a book or a board, her teacher asks her to wear the VR glasses on her desk. In a 5-minute demo, she not only learns about the solar system but gets to touch and interact with Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the planetary system. In a crisp lesson, she knows of intricacies such as Uranus’ tilted axis. This is not a story out of an Isaac Asimov novel but everyday learning at some of the best education institutions in the Middle East.

Virtual Reality (VR) has challenged the boundaries of immersive learning. Experts agree no other methodology draws close in impact. The fact that no physical or geographical boundaries stand in the way of this technology is why it is popular. VR and its growing adoption rate in the Middle East have cemented its position as a potent technology for STEM subjects that lend themselves to critical thinking and applied knowledge. 

Take, for instance, VRXOne, a VR-based classroom format founded by extended reality (XR) specialist Dr Sana Farid, which is popular in schools in the Middle East. It offers an extensive library of VR/AR/AI lessons available in Arabic, covering a vast range of STEM subjects. This tech seeks to play the role of a science lab for students seeking to understand a concept thoroughly. Every VR class provides students with pedagogically sound, engaging content for proper exploration and understanding. 

Accordingly, VR technology eliminates the need for a microscope to examine an organism or study DNA sequencing. The VR lab provides complete immersion for further exploration of DNA and the atom at the molecular level – something inconceivable in a physical lab.

AR and VR emerged as promising tools still gaining traction in the region in the two years of COVID-19. “Immersive learning tools like Virtual and Augmented Reality provide autonomy beyond the school premises. The world is a big classroom where everyone is a learner. Not limiting the student’s learning scope and syllabus, immersive experiences introduce them to real-world concepts, rather than rote learning,” says Dr Sana Farid, President, MENA, VR/AR Association. 

Like every crisis, the technology presented the perfect gateway for edtech providers to disrupt the industry formerly dominated by brick-and-mortar institutions. While many metropolitans leveraged the opportunity to better their curriculums and systems, larger sections of the MENA region remain largely uneducated – a concern that should be spoken about more widely in any conversation that addresses education.

Education came to a halt for the parts of the region that did not have access to the internet. Millions of schoolgoers questioned their future as any break meant a diversion in future college plans. At the same time, others had to sit before a screen amidst the distractions at home. 

Teachers bore the brunt of judging their pedagogy’s effectiveness with nodding digital faces or thumbs-up emojis. Zoom nurseries for kindergartners, additional lectures for junior high, and summer classes for senior school or grad students all boiled down to adjusting to online learning. 


COVID-19 turned education around for the better, questioning what lay at the heart of the process. “After the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, with closures of institutions and wider adoption of online education, the demand for edtech products increased multi-fold. As a result, the whole edtech sector witnessed exponential growth,” says Janice Butterworth, Director of Learning, Citizens School. 

“Post-pandemic, the ability to scale up quality instruction, facilitate personalized instruction, expand opportunities for practice, monitor and increase learner engagement and the use of digital assessment will remain relevant,” says Andrew Robinson, Vice-President, General Manager International Higher Education, Cengage Group, a global education technology company.

Edtech offers a multitude of advantages to educators. “Broadening educators’ toolkits is the first advantage. It’s vital for any education specialist to not only share all required knowledge as best they can but also make sure that the students are engaged and enthusiastic about learning. That’s where edtech kicks in with its nearly limitless capabilities, providing educators and students with every tool imaginable. It has encouraged creativity, ensuring students are always engaged and accessible for all,” adds Butterworth. 

Robinson says edtech companies within EMEA will increase on an “unprecedented scale” and technology such as 5G, Machine Learning and AR/VR will transform traditional teaching and learning.

While humans and machines are today’s pragmatic reality, Dr Farid says, “Intuitive, immersive technologies (VR/AR) strengthen the learners’ confidence and bolden their skills and knowledge. These technologies make the learners more autonomous so that they can take charge of their learning and their tutors can easily monitor them.” 

“One of the many benefits of immersive learning is to help with abstracts that could be tricky for students to visualize or grasp; they are great for storytelling and for students to see advanced concepts they couldn’t have experienced. Immersive tools such as virtual or augmented and mixed reality are improving experiences beyond physical and time boundaries, empowering students to excel and explore unhesitantly,” she explains.


The Middle East and Africa’s edtech market is expected to reach $7 billion (AED 26 billion) by 2027, as schools across the region adopt technology solutions and products in the classroom.

“Digital learning tools will make education more accessible and prevent future learning losses as we embrace future events that may disrupt the global education sector much like the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said Geoffrey Alphonso, CEO of Alef Education, in a statement.

Classrooms are now being re-designed to fit the evolving needs of the 21st-century learner. With nearly two decades of experience, Butterworth says the future-forward Citizens School has classrooms designed to engage students optimally. “Leveraging digital technologies in classrooms is vital in connecting students to the real world, as well as preparing them for technologically-advanced jobs in the future. By integrating technology into the educational curriculum, students will become better prepared for the modern workplace.” 


Unlike the millions of children like Afrah, who have access to the most advanced technology in education, consider Rizwana. She is a six-year-old raised in a village in Tunisia. She has access to a school set up by an NGO. In her lesson on planets, she learns about the solar system through a book. The next day, her mother asks her to stay home to help with manual work.

Rizwana is not alone. According to UNICEF, one in every five children in MENA is not in school, and of these out-of-school children, an estimated number of over 3 million should have been in school if the crisis never happened. 

To understand edtech’s real reach and its prowess in overcoming obstacles compared to educators without a digital edge, it’s time to shift our focus away from the metropolitans. 

UNICEF is among some NGOs that have worked to develop programs designed for no internet and low-resource homes. A pilot project by UNICEF in Tunisia is a case in point. In a country where 100,000 children drop out of school each year, UNICEF, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, has set up the Second Chance Center for Guidance and Reintegration in Bab El Khadra. The situation in Tunisia is just one case study that points to the fragility of the education and employment sector in the region. 

Local startups such as GOMYCODE and Sghartoon that have recently secured funding filled the gaps by gamifying the learning model. The popularity of the global Khan Academy, one of the world’s most popular educational sites, has only caught on in the region. But edtech providers like Khan Academy cater only to the English-speaking population, a minority in the MENA region. 

There is much to be done to boost the burgeoning population of uneducated youth in the region. 

Outside the traditional schooling system, players such as Power League Gaming and Logitech G launched Stream School recently, an initiative to develop the next generation of streamers. Stream School is accessible on YouTube with a series of six episodes taking gamers through a step-by-step process to start a career in gaming. The series hosted by Saudi gaming influencer BodeGamer involves a master class on becoming the next top streamer. Gaming is becoming an increasingly popular career choice yet to be integrated into traditional schooling curricula. Stream School aims to assist aspirants in entering the field by honing the skills needed to start a successful streaming career. 

“The streaming and gaming space is significant and growing in popularity, yet notoriously difficult for young content creators to get a foot forward in. Stream School is structured as a series which can be viewed and digested repeatedly — a playbook for everyone starting and a springboard to success,” says Matthew Pickering, CEO, Power League Gaming. 

Inclusivity aside, a major deterrent in the edtech sector is it remains largely untapped by innovators. “There’s big chunks of the economy that haven’t been completely digitized, one of which is edtech. When you look at the size of the opportunity, very few software and internet companies have been participating in edtech. There is a big arbitrage. In edtech, very few companies have any meaningful scale,” says Walid Mansour, Partner, Middle East and Venture Partners. 

While there are many successful edtech platforms in place both globally and regionally, there lies an opportunity to develop integrated, immersive curriculums, which utilize gaming at the core, to acquire and retain the minds of young education audiences, according to Pickering. “Successful education providers understand the opportunity and potential of leveraging the popularity of gaming to engage their students at a deeper level, with salient content and curriculum that is both interesting and relevant within a hyper-growth industry space,” he says.

“We are focused with our education partners toward building technical environments and accredited programs which transfer the skills required to succeed in the gaming industry – design, social media strategy, production, editing, content creation and ultimately monetization and financial modelling,” he adds. 

“Edtech is not a stop-gap solution or a temporary arrangement until we return to the previous teaching methods. It is a solution to provide a quality learning environment and empower teachers to reduce their non-teaching workload,” says Butterworth. 

“It is clear that tech-based learning solutions are the future of education. What was optional until now is rapidly transforming into a mandatory need for creating a learning environment that helps learners acquire industry-relevant skills. With the edtech wave fast-penetrating into the global education scenario, it is safe to say that governments, educational institutions, teachers, parents, and students are becoming more inclined towards digital technologies. Edtech is mainstream and the future of education,” adds Butterworth.

“The first step for educators striving to stay at the sharp end of education delivery is to recognize that the gaming industry is far wider than ‘playing’ video games. It is a rich, hyper-growth sector that spans content creation, entertainment, sponsorship, production, and strategy – a larger segment than the box-office and music industries combined, says Pickering.  

“Once the sector’s importance is acknowledged, it becomes a process of selecting an expert partner to create gaming education programs, develop environments — both on and offline — and the curriculum to ready their students for entry into this industry. The development and delivery of a robust, futureproof curriculum are necessary to ensure the skills and program delivered are structured to give the students the best possible experience and entry point for their potential careers in the space,” he adds.

While the lessons of edtech in various countries across MENA leave us with reflections on the future of a smarter, more digitized workforce, the pandemic worsened the gap between the ultra-tech school in a bustling hub with the latest tech tools as opposed to a remote village without electricity, let alone WiFi. The biggest lesson is for edtech providers to make a social impact an uncompromisable part of the business. 

Read more related impact articles in our impact section here.

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More