GEOFFREY ALPHONSO

Abu Dhabi 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Geoffrey Alphonso, CEO of Alef Education, about partnerships with the Ministry of Education, the use of AI, and establishing a knowledge-based economy.

What does resilience mean to Alef Education, and what helped the organization remain resilient in the last few months?

Resiliency to me is defined by how one copes with unplanned events. Being in a digital education space meant we were able to ensure that learning continued for students, schools were supported with technology, and we as an organization would be able to shift to working from home and give people the right tools to be resilient as an organization to fulfill our obligations to our customers and ministries. Typically, a large part of our work here is done with government entities. It was a real test for Alef Education, though given that we have a hybrid model in place, where people had the flexibility to work remotely, we saw productivity increasing at the initial onset. Resiliency was more about how to sustain that.

How did Alef's use of e-learning and technology position it during the pandemic, and where are you right now?

We saw little to no disruption to students being able to learn from home. In addition, our teachers who were using our program were also able to measure progress with a real-time assessment and feedback engine to make sure they mitigated any learning loss that students would face. We responded by also offering our products and services for free. We coined our learning for all initiative, which is our part to help schools and other institutions that needed access to digital tools to help their learners. This initiative was also recognized by UNESCO, which shared the initiatives of various countries and what they were doing to help schools cope.

How did you transform your technologies internally?

Alef Education's core learning platform “The Alef Platform” was predominantly for middle to high school, namely grades 5 to 12. We recently launched a K to 4 Arabic learning product called Abjadiyat mostly for Arabic learners. In January 2021, we will launch a new B2C innovative Arabic learning application that will serve learners at all levels. This period has made us look at some of the other areas in the market that we can innovate our products and services to offer them and grow our business. We will try to expand on those things; for example, virtual tutoring can be a complementary service for perhaps math or science instruction.

Where do you see yourself contributing to the transformation of education today and tomorrow?

Recently, we announced a partnership with the Ministry of Education to roll out the Alef Platform to more than 200 schools across the Northern Emirates. This was a real turning point for us in terms of our partnerships, growth, stabilizing the actual platform, and offering to nationalize education with the digital strategy for the education sector in the UAE. We have also seen continued growth in our charter school market in the US. In December, we signed a landmark deal with the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs that will see more than half a million students using our program for math instruction. These are some of the things that really push the boundaries, and we have been able to experience significant growth during this period.

Can you tell us about the process of reopening the schools and your opinion of the government's response?

The UAE government's response has been world class. It has enabled both private and public sector schools to access the tools with digital tools, connectivity, and in some cases devices to help schools that were impacted by all these closures. The UAE has been a case study for the rest of the world in how it handled the pandemic for learners in this country. From a school opening perspective, preparing some of the schools, including the Northern Emirates expansion, means we have had to equip schools with the right tools and so on. We ensure the right infrastructure is there and that we are following the protocols, such as making sure that when classes go back in January, students who do elect to go back are given an option to learn with minimal disruption.

How has your experience been regarding collaboration with public-sector authorities?

We work with the ministry and the likes of ADEK and have various committees that meet on a regular basis with the relevant authorities to explore the lessons learned. We also talk about other public sectors and recently signed a partnership with Arabic Learning Center in Abu Dhabi, which is part of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. This partnership was more broadly to discuss ways to innovate Arabic-language in both the UAE and other Arabic-speaking countries.

How do you incorporate AI into your education technologies?

AI will drive a new way of learning understanding the unique learning styles of each student to determine areas of interest and find alternative ways for students to reach levels of mastery that were not possible before. We are trying to augment the learning experience to understand where students are struggling and how to fill those gaps. AI can help teachers assess students by streamlining the grading process through the added benefit of providing deeper and real-time insights for teachers. They can then understand strengths and weaknesses and really focus on more targeted intervention and class interaction with students. This could be every month or every term. As AI evolves, I see a future where machines along with human intervention will help ensure students drive the right future secondary and career choices based on their skills and abilities. There is a great deal of work to be done, but this will be transformative in many industries, especially education.

How will this tie into creating a more diversified knowledge-based economy?

There are many ways to connect education with the needs of a diversified knowledge-based economy. Building a knowledge-based economy will rely on innovation and the education sector. Therefore, there needs to be greater emphasis on educating the youth on their future career choices and bridging the gap between K to 12 and higher education and ensure learners and their learner profile drives their future career choices. This is extremely relevant to the times that we live in today, and Alef Education is constantly working with local ministries to explore affirmative ways to build and foster a culture of creativity.