(Washington, D.C.) – Egypt's education system is the largest in the Middle East, but also one of the worst performing in the world, ranking 131st out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum's latest report on global competitiveness. As computers and internet access become more available and affordable, private sector innovators are trying to address Egypt’s educational shortcomings by offering free online educational platforms intended to augment the Egyptian school curriculum. But despite the progress that has been made, questions remain about the viability of information and communications technology (ICT) to bring about effective and equitable development in the education sector.
In an MEI event held February 20, Ahmed El Alfi of Sawari Ventures and Nafham Education, Sherif Kamel of the American University in Cairo, and Simon Thacker of the World Bank’s Education Global Practice, emphasized the importance of investing in online education initiatives and encouraged greater partnership between the public and private sectors. With a rapidly growing population, a high unemployment rate, and an internet penetration rate of only 50%, Egyptian society faces many challenges in improving the quality of education for its young population.
Kamel identified four pillars of the education system in need of reform, including teacher training, curriculum, pedagogy, and educational funding. While a proponent of integrating technology into education to improve learning outcomes, he emphasized that e-learning should be viewed not as a solution to the challenges plaguing classroom learning, but rather as part of a broader economic and developmental ecosystem.
At the forefront of the effort to launch online education platforms in Egypt is Ahmed El Alfi, who founded a free online educational video platform called Nafham geared toward students from kindergarten to 12th grade. The videos are reviewed by volunteers and organized by grade, subject, term, and academic schedule, making it user friendly and easy to navigate. El Alfi highlighted the role of the private sector in addressing education reform and emphasized the need for greater innovation in online education initiatives.
Coming from a background in international development and education, Thacker argued that online education can be helpful only if governments invest in this sector early and smartly, and if they are able to extend the impact to everyone. Calling for greater investment and development of ICT in the MENA region, he claimed that the potential for technology to affect the education sector is hindered by the gaps between those who know how to use the technology and those who do not. In the end, Thacker remained skeptical of the ultimate impact of online learning outcomes, while El Alfi maintained that such tools were critical in expanding the scope of and access to Egypt’s existing education system. Kamel emphasized that technology was a tool rather than a comprehensive solution, and concluded that Egypt’s education system was in need of holistic reform, with online learning being only a small piece of the puzzle.
Summary by Kirstie Murr.
Ahmed El Alfi is the founder of Sawari Ventures, a Cairo based Venture Capital firm established in 2010 with the goal of transforming Egyptian and MENA region economies through creation of high-impact businesses. In 2011, Sawari created Flat6Labs, its own startup accelerator. Flat6Labs immerses startup entrepreneurs into real-world challenges of creating and managing sustainable enterprises, supported by a dedicated staff, mentors and has launched 57 companies in Egypt and Saudi over the past 3 years. He also founded Nafham, the top online video educational platform covering the Egyptian public school curriculum. Nafham currently offers over 100,000 video lessons per day. In 2013 he established TATP, which took over a large part of the American University Cairo's downtown campus to form the GrEEK Campus, a 250,000 square foot office park near Tahrir Square where over 100 startups work and collaborate. He has extensive experience in creating and nurturing early-stage companies, as well as structuring international M&A transactions. He is or has been a member of the Board of Directors or Advisors of Waqf Endowment, Polytechnic School Pasadena, Claremont Graduate School of Religion, several for-profit corporate boards. and is also an avid collector of Islamic coins.
Sherif Kamel is professor of management information systems and former founding dean of the School of Business at the American University in Cairo, where he led a major repositioning of the school by focusing on entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, and responsible business. Kamel created the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the university’s Venture Lab investing in Egypt’s young promising entrepreneurs and future leaders through supporting start-ups, business plan competitions, bootcamps, and mentorship becoming Egypt’s primary university-based incubator and the main educational partner in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. He was associate dean for executive education (2008-2009) and director of the Management Center (2002-2008). Before joining the university he was director of the Regional IT Institute (1992-2001) and training manager at the Cabinet of Egypt Information and Decision Support Center (1990-1992). He is the executive VP of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt; board member of the Egyptian American Enterprise Fund, member of Egypt-U.S. Business Council, and founding member of the Internet Society of Egypt. His research and teaching interests include management of IT, IT transfer to developing nations, electronic business, decision support systems and entrepreneurship. His work is broadly published in IS and management journals. He is the editor of three books and the associate editor of the Journal of IT for Development and the Journal of Cases on Information Technology.
Simon Thacker is an Education Specialist in the Education Global Practice in the Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank Group where he works on a number of initiatives, some involving ICT. Before joining the Bank, Mr. Thacker was a teacher in Japan, several countries in Africa, France, and the US. A Canadian national, he holds an Ed.M in International Education Policy from Harvard.
Kate Seelye (Moderator) is senior vice president of The Middle East Institute, where she oversees MEI's programs and communications. Prior to joining MEI, Seelye worked as a radio and television journalist covering the Arab world from 2000-2009 from her base in Beirut, Lebanon. She reported on the region for NPR, BBC's The World, PBS' Frontline/World and the renowned Channel Four British investigative news series, Unreported World. Prior to that she worked as a producer for the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.