Education in Oman is breaking free from the centuries-old tradition of schools and towards modern forms of learning that are taking students away from the four walls of a classroom to the open-world that is the internet.
Change is inevitable across all spheres of life – especially given our proclivity towards technology, which seems to advance by the day. If there ever exists a time to focus our sights on the tides of change, it’s now – the future is here.
Whether it’s advancements in the field of medical or space research, the coming of new telephony such as 5G, or artificial intelligence to create a ‘smarter’ smartphone, there comes a point where technology interweaves itself to create a strong statement on its own behalf.
Case in point: education.
It’s a phase of life long-believed to be enclosed within the four walls of a school. A part of life that most children between the ages four and 18 must experience if they’re to come out of it with their heads held high.
But this is a mindset that’s quickly changing, and schools are no longer being confined within a classroom – all thanks to one advancement in technology: the internet.
Today, home-schooling through e-learning is quickly replacing traditional schools, and Oman is also witnessing this change.
Amal al Harthy, a 13-year-old Omani girl from Seeb, is one among many children who are attending online schools. The grade 7 student has been taking classes online for four years.
While there are several Omani schools in the city, her parents – both Omanis educated abroad in the UK – believe that she can receive the same standard of education through an online school even though they’re pleased with the ever-developing local systems.
In an interview with Y, Amal’s father Salim, says: “Education is one of the many things in life we give importance to. It’s like food or water – it’s that important in shaping your child’s view of life.
“While both of us [Amal’s parents] believe in the importance of going to a local school and interacting with teachers and students, there’s a level of flexibility that you just can’t receive there as you do in an online school.”
Signed up with OMTUT – a first-of-its-kind e-learning website that provides more affordable alternatives for home-schooled students in Oman – Salim says that they can tailor Amal’s education based on her interests.
“Back when we were in school, we had to take up subjects that we weren’t interested in. But with online schools, we can choose packages that are a bit more inclined to what the child wants.
“Then, there’s the matter of co-curricular activities. Amal’s schooling hours are set based on the subjects she chose, so she has enough time for her swimming classes and playing games on her PlayStation.”
It’s a valid point Salim makes; the average hours for regular schools is between 6.5 (in the West) and 8 hours (in Asian countries). It would be difficult to gauge a global average due to the sheer number of schools and curricula they follow.
However, the average tutoring time with an online school stands at a mere 4 hours – thereby giving children added time for other activities.
Perhaps that’s what’s making online schools more lucrative in the region. And with education curriculums such as K12 – one set in the United States – being recognised around the globe, achieving students can also use their certificates to apply to colleges or universities around the globe.
In a previous interview with Y, Mohammed al Lawati, the founder of OMTUT, said: “Unlike schools, e-learning is known for its flexibility, since students can access these [educational] videos at any time and place. In addition, the videos can be viewed repeatedly, which improves the student’s understanding of the topic.
“E-learning also acts as a platform for enhancing the student’s research and knowledge skills through acquiring additional information from online academic resources that would not usually be covered in the syllabus.”
Today, more than six million students are a part of e-schools, colleges, and universities around the world – a mere drop in the bucket when compared to standard-format schools around the globe.
As of 2018, Oman alone had 700,000 students enrolled across various traditional bricks-and-mortar schools as per statistics revealed by the Ministry of Education (MoE); though, the numbers in online schools haven’t been determined yet.
Yet more parents of young students are inclining themselves towards it due to the ease of signing up and the overall cost.
OMTUT, for example, offers affordable schooling solutions where students can opt for packages, which will determine the number of subjects and, ultimately, the cost which can range anywhere between RO10 (Bronze Package), which is for one course from a total selection of 15, and RO30 for five subjects (pricing from 2018).
At first glance, these are small numbers, but it must be kept in mind that e-schooling is a profitable business. In fact, Forbes projects that the e-learning market will be worth US $325 billion by the year 2025.
That’s a two-fold jump from the US$ 165.36 billion that was clocked in 2014(!)
People in Oman are seeing other benefits to e-schools – benefits such as stronger interaction with tutors, cutting down long travel times, and curbing issues such as bullying in schools.
Preeti Thakur, a 15-year-old expat student in grade 11 with Edukart – an online school based out of India – strongly advocates her school. She says: “One of the concerns for expat families in Oman is planning out their holidays.
“When we all leave for our holidays, our school vacation dates must coincide with our parents’ leave dates. This means we can only take off between June and July every year.
“But, with online schools, I don’t have to worry about that. The best part is that I can carry my school in my pocket.
“And because the curriculum is set earlier, I can use my laptop or even my smartphone to learn on-the-go. There’s no concern for me at all – except when the internet gets a bit choppy.”
But, as per a mathematics teacher from an Indian school in the Sultanate, who wishes to remain unnamed, the cons of e-schools outweigh its positives. She remarks: “It’s hard to justify why one would opt for an online school when there are so many good schools in Oman.
“The country has done a great job in setting the educational framework. Everything from the local schools to the international schools have excellent teaching standards.
“More importantly, there are schools everywhere.”
As per MoE data, Oman has 1,125 public schools serving some 579,024 local students.
“So, why should we focus our attention on a newer form of education? And, if we do, we must address the concern of standardising the internet connections across the country.
“Online classrooms work by setting a peer-to-peer network that connects students with teachers. This means students are directly linked to a feed – either video or audio – from the tutor’s laptop.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong if there’s a loss of transmission. You could have several hours of downtime and lost hours if one of the parties lose their internet.”
The teacher makes a strong case, but it’s not one of great concern, says Salim (Amal’s father).
He explains: “While the teacher is correct about how Oman has a strong educational network and how learning depends on the internet connection itself, I think she needs to accept that this is the future.
“A few years down the line, even she may be offering her courses online – one can never be too sure.
“As for her concerns on online schools cutting out due to bad internet connections; it’s not really valid anymore. e-schools offer strong archive systems that you can use to retake classes you missed, or even go through before an exam.
“It’s very convenient, and I think it offers a level of intuitiveness that no other physical classroom can offer.”
Salim’s prediction on the teacher offering classes online could ben reality sooner than expected as the Board of Indian Schools in Oman showed off a new Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) portal to the public.
Expected to ‘empower teachers by creating virtual classrooms’ and allowing students to access learning resources and interactive videos around the clock, the portal is the first of its kind for Indian schools in the region.
The portal, isovle.net, was inaugurated by Dr. Hamoud bin Khalfan Al Harthy, Undersecretary of Education and Curricula, Ministry of Education, earlier this year.
In an interview with local media, Dr. Baby Sam Saamuel, Chairman of the Indian School Board, was quoted as saying: “The ISO VLE portal will serve as an online platform that will give teachers and students access to the best of our school resources.
“With this, the Board aims to create learning solutions that exist beyond the confines of the classrooms where the strengths of each school are accessible to all our students throughout the Sultanate.”
To further strengthen the initiative, a VLE coordinator was appointed for every school to coordinate access to the portal for staff and students, while also giving everyone workshops and training in the pursuit of implementing the technology.
The portal is flexible. It can be accessed via different devices such as smartphones, tablets, or PCs – and it offers several hundred hours of videos and learning resources.
That said, accessibility of stable internet in rural areas is still a matter of concern for e-schooling companies.
Oman spans over 309,500 sq km and internet services are not accessible over all corners.
But Mohammed remains optimistic, “It might be true that the availability of internet in rural areas across the Sultanate is very limited, however this shouldn’t act as an obstacle to OMTUT’s objectives.
“Technology is constantly evolving and so will the development of these areas in the coming years.
“In fact, e-learning will be the future of education in the Sultanate of Oman and competent authorities will seek to develop these regions once education starts to rely on technology.”
Salim reiterates Mohammed’s point, adding: “It’s companies like OMTUT and BYJUS (an Indian learning app) that are making e-learning more accessible than it already is in the Sultanate.
“It’s won over a lot of students and continues to add more as the days go by. And if that isn’t a testament to the success of e-schools, then I don’t know what is.
“Everyone knows that the world is moving towards a technology-driven future. We’re giving up books and papers in favour of smartphones and e-readers. And while we’re in pursuit of that, if the very basis of a child’s well-being isn’t developing, then we aren’t creating a sustainable future at all.
“This is why e-schools are the future of learning. It’s a modern extension of the classroom.”