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Education in the ‘New Normal’

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The education sector in Bahrain has come a long way since it was first established over one hundred years ago. Villas converted into classrooms in the latter half of the 20th century have been replaced with state-of-the-art purpose-built sites and the abundance of higher and professional education study options available has boomed in the last twenty years. Combine this with an increased effort to partner with leading higher education institutions around the world, and it’s clear that the need to seek out an overseas education has reduced significantly. Today, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, the University of Salford, the University of Strathclyde, DePaul University and Bangor University all have a presence in the Kingdom.

Education is changing

But now, education across the region is facing its biggest disruption in living memory. Precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have forced college students to switch to studying online – and therefore (in some cases) switch their academic focus. In a recent webinar discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on the Saudi Arabian economy, socio-economist Mark C Thompson highlighted a recent trend that has emerged among the region’s young people: a shift towards ‘service-led’ university majors, such as business studies and ICT. At the same time ongoing travel restrictions have considerably increased the likelihood that most students will experience some form of blended learning, if not a full switch to online learning.

Digital education hub

A highly digitised nation with 99% of its population connected to the internet, Bahrain ranked in fourth place in the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness report. Clearly digital nations with a rich higher education landscape such as Bahrain have the capability to move more learning online in the longer-term, as well as develop attractive alternatives to traditional overseas opportunities – most likely at a much more palatable price. Moreover, when students are largely learning online, is there even a need to tie them to one particular school, let alone an overseas school with a hefty price tag that could have significant financial implications for students?

The rise of the guerrilla teacher

Indeed, it is not just how students learn that is evolving, but also how teachers teach. The “Guerilla Teacher” is a new phenomenon, fast growing in popularity in recent years. Guerrilla teachers don’t fit into the established education institutions – they have no real hierarchy or set curriculum, and often no fixed place of learning. They work online or in extra-curricular clubs that convene outside of traditional working hours. They make learning fun. They may be volunteers or act as freelancers. Due to their flexibility, they can adapt their teaching to the individual needs of a student far more readily than a classroom teacher adhering to a set curriculum.

Emerging opportunity

It is true that in some cases expensive resources are required for practical lessons – most households do not have access to chemistry laboratories, for example. It’s not hard to see the benefits of creating chemistry, physics or technological education hubs, rather than expecting each university to provide its own labs. This is an exciting new opportunity for private sector collaboration.

New normal

COVID-19 has disrupted lives drastically, but it has also offered us a new way forward. Empowering higher education students with more options than just a traditional college degree is an approach Bahrain is poised to be able to deliver. There is no doubt that demand for this type of learning will increase as employers and students alike realise that there could be real value in pursuing non-traditional education. The pandemic has proven to be a catalyst for a trend that shows no sign of slowing. The ‘new normal’ of education may already be upon us.