RIYADH: Classes in Saudi Arabia will be held online for at least the first seven weeks of the new academic school year as part of a drive to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with an estimated 6 million students and half a million teachers across the Kingdom signing in to the new Madrasati platform to join virtual classes every morning.
Madrasati, or My School, a free platform that has been operating since the last week of August, will facilitate students’ evaluation and communication between teachers and students as well as their parents.
The platform imitates a normal school day that begins with the national anthem and physical exercises before students start their classes.
Madrasati allows teachers to create virtual classes and offers students a variety of content, including presentations, educational videos, textbooks, exercises and courses for different levels: Elementary, intermediate and secondary. The cutting-edge system is one of the Saudi government’s many initiatives to enhance distance education nationwide.
The Education Ministry is working closely with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to ensure that all students have the necessary tools and resources to complete a successful school year via distance learning.
In an interview with Arab News, Auhood Alfaries, general director of the Education Ministry’s e-learning and distance learning directorate, discussed the launch of Madrasati in the context of government measures to keep students and teachers safe during the pandemic.
“If you have such a large system, no one can say that they will be 100 percent (successful) with no technical issues,” Alfaries said. “What the ministry has offered and developed is a robust system, a strong system that has different capabilities and abilities, different tools and technologies, and different learning resources. This is (supplemented) a number of (backup) channels to give 24-hour support to its stakeholders or users.”
The ministry has set up a 24-hour hotline and an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot for students, parents and teachers, as well as several TV channels for use by students with poor internet connection.
“Now there are 23 channels broadcasting live TV specifically for each level,” Alfaries told Arab News.
“We are aiming for live broadcasting of each level during school time — either in the morning or the afternoon — to cater for students who lack access either to the internet or who don’t have the computer resources to access the Madrasati platform.”
Commenting on the ministry’s pledge that students unable to afford computers will not be left behind, Alfaries said: “There are a number of initiatives and collaborations between the ministry and other organizations such as Takaful to help students who cannot afford the basic equipment to access the platform.”
Clearly, the pandemic has forced the ministry to think on its feet and come up with a system that offers a blueprint for a different future. The objective is to “ensure that there is minimal learning loss across the education sector,” Alfaries said.
“I think this is an important strategic decision — to offer the best solution to ensure the continuity of education. Also, we must think about the future, how we can design and improve the current solution to cater for the current needs of learning, the demands of teaching, and the necessity of imparting skills to students of the next generation.”
After the pandemic initially forced Saudi schools to switch to remote teaching, Dr. Hamad bin Mohammed Al-Sheikh, the education minister, hinted that distance learning could eventually be a strategic choice for the Kingdom and not just a stopgap arrangement.
In similarly future-focused remarks as the new academic year began, he said: “We must adapt and live with the new normal, and estimate future risks that can affect students and that all faculty members may face in various settings.”