DR. LILAC A. AL-SAFADI

Saudi Arabia 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Lilac A. Al-Safadi, President of Saudi Electronic University (SEU), about pandemic responses, changing demand trends, and e-learning.

How have things changed for SEU since the pandemic began?

SEU was established nine years ago as an electronic university, and adopted e-learning strategies, methodologies and technologies in education with the mission to provide flexible and quality education to students, efficiently, and to scale education beyond time and geographic barriers. So we have always invested in building digital infrastructure, faculty member e-learning skills and strategies. We already had courses that are digitalized and electronic. We have been doing remote learning for years. The sudden halt of face-to-face activities due to COVID-19 was not a huge disruptor for SEU, and we seamlessly switched to a completely virtual environment. During this period, we saw a sudden increase in demand for our programs and services, and trust in the resilience and reliability of this new model of education and its ability to ensure education continuity during crises. Our role has not only been to provide services to students, but also to other educational institutions that have always had a traditional environment and are now moving toward a virtual one.

SEU has significant expertise in e-learning that gained new relevance when lockdowns became a way of life. How have you worked to share knowledge to benefit the nation?

We have been working with the universities as well as the Minister of Education on assessing the online learning experience through providing daily reports on the performance of universities in this new digital environment. We have also worked with the technology companies and commissions on increasing the communication bandwidth and the number of servers to meet the sudden increase in usage. When it comes to students, our students were already familiar with a remote learning environment, so we did not face issues. One issue that yet to be resolved to date is online assessment. Assessing students electronically while maintaining a reliable proctoring system that ensures there is no cheating is a challenge. However, we are currently working on testing best practices in this area, which involves both human and AI proctoring in a hybrid model. Recently we have launched a center of innovation in e-learning to gather and package our nine years experience in e-learning and offer services to others in the form of training, technology, and consultancy.

How has the pandemic affected demand for your courses?

SEU was always providing high quality learning. 84% of SEU graduates are employed, 85% of employers are highly satisfied with SEU graduates, more than 40% of graduates received promotion after graduation, are ranked second place in KSA standardized exams. E-learning and distance learning can achieve high quality learning, affordable and reliable when controlled with the proper quality criteria. With the pandemic, trust and acceptance have significantly changed, while the quality of our systems have persisted. Government, students and employers are now perceiving electronic learning as the future of learning, which created an increase in the demand for SEU programs and services translated in many and various strategic partnerships with government and semi-government institutes, and positioned SEU as an electronic learning house of experience and center of excellence in KSA.

How has the uptake in demand for your services and courses changed your strategy? Are you in the process of scaling up to accept more applicants?

SEU has developed a completely new strategy to adapt to the new normal. The strategy focuses on expanding horizontally to cover new market segments and regions, and vertically to offer academic programs that meets the fast changes in labour market driven by emerging global and local trends and the pandemic. SEU is taking a firmer stance on promoting quality e-learning, adopting advanced technologies and innovation in learning to ensure education sustainability and support economic development of KSA various regions, and building international and local partnerships to support delivering quality education efficiently and effectively. In addition, our new business model focuses on increasing SEU revenue streams and optimizing current operations to achieve financial sustainability.

Do you believe that the future of education will be more digital, and what does that mean for your business?

Prior to the pandemic, the education sector was one of least disrupted by technology. COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation in almost all sectors including higher education, and it will redefine the mission of the university and the philosophy of education. There is no doubt that digital transformation in education is here to stay, and there is no better time for rethinking the future of higher education than today, as the world seems to have realized that quality and affordable education are not associated with buildings but with the digital infrastructure that supports scalability, efficiency and resilience and reliable , and with the global and local partnerships that supports sharing, producing and exchanging knowledge and skills. The pandemic has created awareness and trust in electronic learning which will shape SEU's new strategy and change its role from being only a digital consumer and service provider of education, into a digital creator and enabler to other educational institutes in their transition to online learning, and the importance of staying ahead of the curve in digital education, to fulfill its mission in providing access and guaranteeing opportunity to quality and efficient education to all market segment.

How much of this shift on e-learning will be permanent?

The world after COVID-19 is unlikely to return to the world that was before. The rise of digital behavior such as remote learning, working, shopping, socializing, telemedicine, and delivery services, will most probably shape the society and businesses. Businesses have learned a big lesson during COVID-19. The economic impact and the change in user behaviour caused by COVID-19 will force business to rethink their business models towards being more productive, efficient, accessible and sustainable. Adopting fully featured, enterprise-wide and resilient reliable technology strategy is no longer an option for businesses. We are doing the same. The future carries many opportunities for SEU, and we plan to capture them.