The shift from traditional to unconventional teaching methods, including online and blended learning, was extremely timely for educational institutions and their teachers as it helped them finally step into the new learning methods of the 21st century. Prompted by the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown, educational institutions realized the importance of this digital shift so that they are no longer lagging when it comes to adequately preparing the youths with skills that include learning agility and working in teams remotely to name a few. In our fast-paced and everchanging world, rethinking the way we learn is the only way we can keep up with it. As e-learning guru Debadrita Sengupta says: “A quintessential skill in the modern business world is to be able to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Education gear shift
The current pandemic took the world by storm, especially schools who have been fixated on traditional teaching methods for a very long time. While technology has changed a lot of industries drastically and even demolished some, such change has been particularly slow in the educational sector. Despite the fact that many educational institutions and schools have integrated technology in their teaching methods, conventional and traditional teaching methods were still very much dominant. Face-to-face interactions between students and their teachers have always been deemed essential for effective learning. It is safe to say, however, that the pandemic shifted the whole system and gave schools, teachers, and students no other choice but to adopt remote learning. This shift incentivized the educational sector as a whole to catch up with the rest of the world and ride the wave of digital transformation. Despite the fact that many people criticized this shift for various reasons, we believe that using unconventional teaching methods will do the students good in the longer term. Innovative and blended teaching methods were introduced because of the pandemic but are here to stay after it. Why? Because they offer students a skillset that is otherwise not learnt, the most important of which is being agile. Today, these skills, among many others, can make or break one’s career.
There is a wide consensus that entrepreneurship is an effective solution to rising youth unemployment in the Arab World. In the Middle East and North Africa, according to WEF, the profession “entrepreneur” has risen by 37 percent in five years only. So we all tend to agree that we need more innovators and entrepreneurs. But are our educational institutions adequately preparing youths to become the entrepreneurs of the future? Youths need to be equipped with 21st century skills that will better prepare them for an ever-changing job market. In addition to agility and critical thinking, some of the soft skills now sought after by top firms include possessing an innovative and an entrepreneurial mindset. Furthermore, embracing change and dealing with challenges as opportunities is more important than ever. With a declining economy, the labor market has become very competitive. Days where employees would punch in and out of a job are over; having a mindset of life-long learning and continuous self-development, especially in an online environment, is crucial to one’s success. Possessing this trait early on will better prepare the students for the labor market. Other skills include the ability to execute remote and diverse teamwork successfully, presentation and pitching skills, and an advanced sense of community engagement. While the latter are soft skills, some of the most in-demand digital skills of the future include artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, robotics, mobile and web-app development, and many more.
In-roads into 21st century skills
In order to bridge the gap between the education system and the needs of the new job-market, Riyada for Social Innovation SAL launched Shabab Lab in July 2021, the first social innovation elearning platform in the Arab world. Shabab Lab provides schools and educational institutions with a unique opportunity to complement their efforts to provide a high-quality education through validated and tested hands-on self-paced online programs that integrate technology, entrepreneurship, and the social good in a coherent and seamless way. Designed by professors at the American University of Beirut, the platform has already partnered with prominent international schools in Lebanon and the Arab region. Some of the Lebanese schools which have tested the platform and signed-up for 2021-2022 programs include International College, American Community School, Brummana HighSchool, College des Saints Coeurs Ain Najm, and Rawdah High School. Shabab Lab’s programs provide highschool students with a head-start preparation for the future of jobs as they require them to engage in team-work, design thinking, market research, ideation of solutions to social and environmental problems in their communities, business planning, solution prototyping using a newly learned technology, and pitching. By undergoing these action-based programs, the youths transform into responsible global citizens that help make the world a better place. Through the project-based programs offered in both English and Arabic, students are provided with a life-change experience as they create technology solutions for the social good and become the changemakers that their communities need. In addition to schools, many corporations, such as mobile operators, and iNGO’s, such as UNICEF and other United Nations (UN) agencies, are paying more attention to youth empowerment and upskilling as part of their agenda to prepare a skilled pool of talents. Moreover, many governments in the Arab world, especially GCC countries that have outlined their strategic vision and which include innovation and developing the knowledge economy as priority areas, are investing money and resources to provide their youths with similar opportunities to strengthen their entrepreneurial and digital skills and to become responsible and innovative citizens in their countries who can transform challenges into opportunities and flip social frustrations into solutions.
Schools subscribe to the Shabab Lab platform to provide their students with access to the fullfledged programs that are present on the platform for high-schoolers starting with Grade 10. Through programs titled “Web for Change” for Grade 10 (already on the platform), “AR for Good” for Grade 11 and “AI for Good” for Grade 12 (launching in Fall 2021) students learn to develop new technology that is in demand by the job market. Moreover, they identify a problem under a specific social/environmental theme based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and develop a prototype and a business plan to prove that their project idea to solve this problem is indeed feasible and sustainable. Some of the main outcomes include an enhanced entrepreneurial mindset and a skillset that includes both hard and soft skills such as technology development, teamwork, communication skills, community engagement and business planning. The created pitch decks are assessed by expert jury members where all teams compete in a regional competition over valuable in-kind and monetary awards. So far, over 50 social and environmental projects have been created and pitched through the Shabab Lab platform in 2 editions of the “Web for Change” program with over 180 student participants coming from more than 15 schools.
In addition to the school offering, Shabab Lab is currently expanding its free content available to anyone who signs up on the platform. This content includes courses on social innovation and design thinking, and in the making is a series of online courses/videos on career orientation, neuroscience and learning, and open innovation to name a few. These courses expose students to areas that are normally emphasized in the curriculum and are being prepared in partnership with world-renowned experts in their domains and will enable Shabab Lab to become the “Coursera for high schoolers in the Arab world.”