Four years on from the Arab Spring, what challenges face North Africa's youth and how can technology help transform its education systems? The British Council's Chris Neil looks at the issues.
The Maghreb region (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) faces especially difficult and unique challenges when it comes to education. With one of the highest population growth rates in the world, and almost 40 per cent of its population below the age of 15, there are massive pressures on young people, who face a lack of education and employment opportunities.
Around 40 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds in Tunisia are unable to find employment. What's more, university graduates in North African countries are more likely to be unemployed than their peers who only have secondary-level education. It’s not merely a lack of opportunities that is the issue – employers also complain about a lack of soft and technical skills in graduates.
Education woes have a major impact on almost all aspects of life. It’s no wonder then that education issues are cited as a major factor of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. According to a newly published report on education in North Africa, '[...] deep frustrations over education and unemployment – with such overwhelming impact on social betterment, personal prosperity, life-chances, marriage and happiness – are one of the main themes running through the uprisings of 2011'.
Four years on from the Arab Spring, the focus now for the Maghreb countries is on education and economic reform. As with the UK and many other countries, there is renewed emphasis on providing quality education leading to a skilled workforce ready for a global economy.
How technology can transform education in the Maghreb
Using technology is one way to improve education in diverse learning environments and in a relatively affordable way. The launch of an English language and culture massive open online course (MOOC) last year demonstrated huge demand for online and distance learning in the Maghreb. Algeria recorded the ninth highest number of registered learners worldwide – ahead of India (16th), Egypt (19th) and Indonesia (26th). Learners today are 'digital natives', and adapt easily and enthusiastically to e-learning when it is available.
Current e-learning initiatives in the Maghreb include the successful Université Virtuelle Tunis (UVT) in Tunisia, Morocco’s early steps in developing MOOCs using the EdX open platform, and Algeria’s Centre de recherche sur l'information scientifique et technique (CERIST) programme of higher education interconnectors.
While technology is not a panacea for all problems facing education systems, e-learning has the potential to transform education by widening learning opportunities in formal education systems as well as in lifelong and vocational learning. In addition, it stimulates interaction among peers in the classroom, and extends the horizons of the learning space to the virtual world. We have seen how online and digital skills have become essential skills for employability and life in general, and it is vital that education systems equip learners for the road ahead.
What does the future hold?
Although the Maghreb remains less attractive as a region for investment than perhaps the Gulf or China, recent large-scale private investment in Maghreb tertiary education by foreign providers demonstrates firm interest in tertiary education from abroad, and will spur national institutions to look towards digital technology to boost efficiency. This will in turn move e-learning in North Africa away from state-led initiatives towards private sector funding and digital learning projects and services suited to local needs
The British Council held a conference on e-learning in the Maghreb in Tunis in December 2014. Some of the conference ideas will be presented at the Education World Forum 2015 taking place in London on 18-21 January 2015.