22 June 2018

Digital Literacy in Qatari Schools: Education to Support a Knowledge-Based Economy


According to Kaminski and Bolliger (2012) a lack of technology skills remains one of the main concerns of employers around the world. If the global workforce is increasingly dependent on technology (Adams, 2002; Karkouti, 2016) and the point of education is to ready the next generation for employment, schools must consider the impact that digital competencies will have on their level of readiness for the world of work in a global society.

Education has always made this provision in terms of a basic level of literacy necessary for communication. However, if we consider literacy as not only the ability to read and write but also to have education and knowledge enough to operate successfully, then we need to rethink what literacy means in today’s digital world. With particular reference to Qatar's Educational System in the Technology-Driven Era: Long Story Short (Karkouti, 2016) and What Motivates and Engages Students in the Education Process - An Examination of Qatari Students' Mindset and Attitudes toward Going to School, Learning, and Future Aspirations (Lee, 2016), this paper examines the levels to which the curriculum standards of Qatar’s Public Schools address digital literacy. With a lens focusing on the extent Qatari learners are being prepared to take their place in a knowledge-based, self-sustainable economic workforce, it analyses the technological and educational reform strategies of the country and considers ways alternative curricula on offer within Qatar could enhance these standards.

Knowledge Economy for Tomorrow’s Workforce

To create a knowledge-based economy, citizens must possess not only the necessary skills and competencies but also the desire and willingness to participate and contribute to their society. If Qatar are to be successful in their desire to ‘Qatarise’ their economy and reduce dependence on foreign workers, the country needs to embrace “modern innovations and information technology systems” Bahgat (1999). Qatari children therefore need to be provided educational opportunities that will allow them to take ownership of the learning required to build that knowledge economy (Stiglitz, 1999); as such, Qatar’s national vision places importance in “national human capital development through education” (Lee, 2016).

When it comes to the ‘skills and competencies’ required to create a knowledge-based economy, Qatar, “still lags behind many other advanced nations because many lack the necessary digital skills and knowledge common among their peers in other developed nations” (Qatar's National Digital Plan, 2015). This failure in education means that Qataris are missing “key opportunities to participate in the global digital economy” (Qatar's National Digital Plan, 2015). In terms of ‘desire and willingness’ to participate and contribute in a knowledge-based economy, research conducted in Qatari public schools found that in the attitudes and motivations among students in towards learning, school, and future aspirations found that “Qatari boys least value education” (Lee, 2016). These feelings in turn contribute to attitudes regarding “Qataris’ current and future education and career choices” all of which is “problematic in the development of a knowledge economy, particularly when these are the future leaders of the society” (Lee, 2016).

To meet the country’s changing needs and ensure that “Qatari citizens can contribute positively to the development of their socioeconomic system” (Stasz et al., 2007), Qatar has recognised the need to reform their education to address outdated methodologies that “mainly emphasized transmission and reception of knowledge through memorization and replication of revealed concepts” (Rostron, 2009; Weber, 2010). As such, the government embarked on an educational initiative intended to meet the country’s changing economic and social needs. This decision arose from an understanding for the need to develop students’ critical thinking skills in order to prepare a new generation of skilled professionals” who will be able to take place in a competitive global economy (Rostron, 2009; Stasz et al., 2007).

Educational Reform in Qatar

Qatar’s educational system provides fully financed public schooling for the vast majority of local citizens. However, in a country with a highly transient expatriate workforce, there are also a large number of private and international schools. All schools come under the control of the Ministry of Education (MoE) but whilst all Public Schools in Qatar are required to use the Qatar National Curriculum Standards, private schools can operate educational curricula from specific countries in order to serve the diverse population.

Realising that that the oil and gas reserves currently fuelling the economy are finite resources, the government of Qatar recently sought educational reform for their public schools in order to invest in a knowledge-based economy and cultivate a long-term sustainable evolution as a worldly nation (Al-Sulayti, 1999). The government was concerned that the country’s educational system was “not producing high-quality outcomes and was rigid, outdated, and resistant to reform” (Brewer et al., 2007) and consulted RAND Corporation, a nonprofit American institution that assists organisations in policy making decisions (Romanowski & Nasser, 2012; Rostron, 2009). They wanted an analysis of their current education system and help in building “a world-class system that would meet the country’s changing needs” (Brewer et al., 2007). Not only did RAND find that graduate students were not academically qualified to meet employers’ expectations but more significantly discovered that Qatar’s educational curriculum is “unchallenging” and “emphasized rote memorization” (Brewer et al., 2007; Rostron, 2009) rather than twenty first century and higher order thinking skills..

This backs up wider research in the region that suggests the quality of education in the Gulf still lacks the elements that prepare students for the job market because technical training, science, and information technology curricula are not emphasized in their academic programs (Bahgat, 1999; Wiseman & Anderson, 2012). One reason for this in Qatar is due to the fact that it is a “country in transition, trying to embrace new opportunities while at the same time seeking to re-assert its conservative Muslim, Arab, Bedouin identity” (Rostron, 2009). This is problematic because the inadequate use of modern technologies and limited access to information have widened the gap between existing traditional and religious type of learning and modern educational systems (Bahgat, 1999). For example, in 2014, Nasser et al. compared the alignment of teacher-developed curricula with the National Standards provided by the Supreme Education Council (SEC) (now the MoE). Nasser et al., (2014) found that when planning lessons, many teachers in public schools state that they only “sometimes” use the Internet. This is backed by annual school surveys, conducted by the MoE, where seventy percent of students report “using computers in their classrooms on most days or more frequently” in a leading International School, as opposed to thirty eight percent in schools nationwide. This lack of use of technology can only contribute to a lack of engagement, particularly from Qatari boys, in a region that has “continued to be significantly below international averages” (Lee, 2016). As a result, Qatar’s National ICT Plan (2015), understands that “without a strong commitment for advancing ICT” their 2030 vision of creating an “advanced society capable of sustaining its own development” cannot be fully realised.

Twenty First Century Skills Integration

Today, employers in Qatar are in need of skilled professionals in the fields of technology in order to sustain the nation’s economic development (Al-Jaber & Dutta, 2008; Stasz et al., 2007). To address this need, Lee (2016) suggested that if policy makers want to improve both students’ engagement with school and learning outcomes, greater emphasis on the importance of learning needs to happen by developing a “more relevant 21st century curriculum” that grounds education in authentic experiences that students can see contributes to the development of their country in the long-run.

In an effort to address these issues and to develop a knowledge-based society, the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR) was established in 2004 with the aim of creating an advanced information and communication technology infrastructure that promotes ICT in schools, therefore enhancing Qatar’s human capital (Nasser et al., 2014). The intention of the “e-education initiative” was to support teaching and learning by creating “flexible learning environments through technology” and “transform classrooms into global learning centers” (Al-Jaber and Dutta, 2008). By 2010, ninety eight percent of Qatari public schools had internet access, ninety three percent with broadband, and seventy one percent of K-12 teachers had received ICT training” (ictQATAR). The MoE states that they continue to “develop curriculum digital content for the K-12 schools” (ictQATAR) but standards for this cannot be located with the other published National Standards. Qatar needs to acknowledge that simply putting technology into schools is not enough; they need to move beyond the traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning.

If literacy is no longer simply about words on a page and technology itself is a literacy, then teachers have to provide curriculum standards that directly address these skills. Qatar is at an advantage in that a diverse curricula is on offer in the international schools operating next door to its own public schools, many of which deliver a “technologically infused curriculum [that] develop multiple essential literacies” (Bedard & Fuhrken, 2013). Fifteen schools in the country, for example, offer one or more of The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) programmes, all of which seek to “encourage students to become creative, critical and reflective thinkers” through the “development of skills for communication, intercultural understanding and global engagement”. The main aim of this curriculum framework is to develop “essential qualities for young people who are becoming global leaders” ("Principles into practice", 2017), directly addressing Qatar’s goal to drive a knowledge based global society.

In addition, there are a number of schools in Qatar that also offer the American Common Core Curriculum, which directly addresses ‘College and Career Readiness’ skills. In promoting ways to ‘Research to Build and Present Knowledge’ for example, standards require skills in gathering “relevant information from multiple print and digital sources” and through using “technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8 and W.6). Other standards specifically address skills for the ‘integration and presentation of knowledge and ideas’, by requiring learners to be able to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7), as well as “make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5). Any of these standards could be adopted into the Qatar public schools curriculum.

Equally, any curriculum can adopt the 21st Century Skills (P21.org, 2002) framework, which was founded to “create a successful model of learning for this millennium that incorporates 21st century skills into education” (Roblyer & Doering, 2013). To help educators “integrate skills into the teaching of core academic subjects, the Partnership has developed a unified, collective vision for learning” , which addresses specific “knowledge, skills, and expertise” that learners need to “succeed in work and life in the 21st century” (P21.org, 2002). A knowledge-based economy requires such opportunities for learners to communicate across a spectrum of formats and it is essential that learners be masters of technology as much as any other literacy if they are to operate in a digital world.

The Qatar National ICT Plan (2015) goes some way in addressing this need by seeking to enhance “digital literacy and develop the skills to enable innovation”. However, nowhere in the plan does the strategy address K12 education beyond “modernising learning spaces and promoting the use of ICT to enhance the learning experience”. Qatar National Standards do not directly address the use or development of such ICT skills in K12 schooling beyond one line in the Grade 10 English Advanced curriculum standards that states, “They [sic] use of common word processing software to plan, compose, edit and present writing” (SEC). Whilst there are over 300 international curriculum schools, little consultation takes place to use these diverse ways of teaching and learning to inform the ways the public schools of Qatar operate.

Conclusion


In Qatar, there are some technological and educational strategies and initiatives that seek to address the educational outcomes and gaps in K12 schools that jeopardise the aim of cultivating a knowledge-based sustainable economy. ictQATAR (2015) introduced an “awareness campaign promoting ICT at the K-12 and postsecondary levels” with a “sweeping K1-12 initiative to build a world-class public education system” where “ICT is an integral part of this transformation”. However, little evidence exists of the actual implementation of these initiatives in terms of standards within the public school system. A major factor may be that only three percent of Internet content is Arabic, despite it being the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world (ictQATAR, 2015). In addition, a lack of Arabic-based educational technology tools represents a major challenge for Public School teachers who are trying to integrate technology into their instruction (Karkouti, 2016).

Barriers in language may exacerbate the digital divide but evidence shows that access itself is not the issue when looking at Qatar. ictQATAR (2015) has a Digital Inclusion Strategy to address the digital divide in the nation, and has identified “target groups of people who are yet to understand the benefits of the Internet and ICT” including “young people with low ICT skills” (p.5). The strategy acknowledges that “technology is the way forward for the people of Qatar” as it “moves towards becoming a knowledge-based economy”, and it seeks to ensure that “all members of society have the ability to access the technologies and gain and understanding on how to use those technologies”. However, closing the digital divide alone is not enough to transform learning, and Qatar needs to ensure that all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive, life-long learning.

Currently, educational policies present a “mismatch between traditional and modern education” (Bahgat, 1999) and this is, in some part, due to “cultural and religious norms that define all facets of people’s lives” (Breslin & Jones, 2010; Romanowski & Nasser, 2012; Rostron, 2009). However, ictQATAR is “committed to developing a digitally literate population” and addresses the need to “partner with educational institutions at all levels to develop relevant ICT curriculum” (p.26). At the same time however, Qatar is failing to address how its public school system should be the first port of call for these reforms to truly take shape.

Forty percent of the Arab Gulf region’s population is under the age of 15 (Lee, 2016). If their educational experiences are not readying them for the workforce, a huge proportion of the potential target will remain underprepared in terms of the policies, initiatives and reforms of Qatar. The availability of educational technology resources is not translating into technology integration in Qatar Public Schools, and teaching remains essentially traditional, where instruction is mainly teacher-centered focusing on developing students’ lower-order thinking skills (Wiseman & Anderson, 2012; Lee, 2016). Qatari students who express a desire to contribute to their society in the future, or at least understand the importance of country’s future development, are also more likely to be engaged with school and the learning process (Lee, 2016). Therefore, by forging stronger collaborative relationships with schools already versed in the use of twenty first century skills, the integration of various technology-infused curricula into the Public School system of Qatar could address these needs and create a curriculum that matches the vision of the future of the country in the development of the knowledge-based global workforce it seeks to cultivate.




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