Covid-19: Need for Agility in Islamic Finance Education in Saudi Arabia

14 Jul, 2020

The world of learning and education is changing. The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on organizations, individuals, economies and societies. Universities, educational institutes, and learning providers have had to respond to a rapidly evolving landscape, changing how and where they operate, as well as reconsidering the services they offer (CIPD, 2020).

Education and professional training are undoubtedly having their watershed moment. We have witnessed changes in the past 20 years, but these changes will be insignificant compared to the change that is coming after the Covid-19 pandemic. Technology is becoming even more sophisticated and soon we will all be working with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Fintech, Blockchain and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies on a day-to-day basis. The whole culture surrounding the workplace and the idea of jobs in general are changing; people are working remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and ‘in person’ group learning activities are limited. Education and learning are not just for a specific qualification; it will soon be much more an idea of ‘learning is for life’ (Avado Learning).

As Islamic finance industry expanded and developed over the past years, Islamic finance education has stimulated a lot of scholarly interest all over the world, especially after the financial crisis of 2007 (Belouafi, Belabes & Trullols, 2012). Muslims and non-Muslims alike want to learn more about Islamic Finance, which is seen as a more ethical alternative to conventional finance. For example, Saudi Arabia is reinforcing the role of Islamic finance in the economy. This is evident from the fact that seven universities and 25 educational institutions offer a specialized education degree in Islamic finance.

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the passion of workers, students and Islamic finance practitioners towards remote education and training, especially after the imposition of lockdown measures and home quarantining. The situation has driven many, if not all, universities and educational institutions in Saudi Arabia to make tremendous efforts to continue their education through online educational platforms and provide various training programs.

In this context, several questions deserve to be thought about: are universities, educational institutes, learning providers, companies and even students themselves ready for such a dramatic change? We often assume that the use of new technologies is the way forward. However, is this reflected in the students’ wishes for their education and training? How do learning and education providers see the future of their educational programs, degrees and classroom activities? Are they prepared to respond to all the changes that have happened so far in the world of education and professional training as a result of the pandemic?

Since the decision to suspend classroom studies in Saudi Arabia on 8 March 2020, universities have been providing online and distance education, making available more than 1.421 million lectures and discussion sessions. Attendance has recorded more than 453,000 students since the suspension of studies, and the number of visits to the educational resources of the Ministry of Education reached more than five million visits during the same period, as reported by Al Riyadh newspaper.

Some of the initiatives of the Saudi Ministry of Education immediately after the suspension include, for example, in public education, the launching of the unified education system, the national education portal “Ain عين”, as well as the “future portal”. The Ministry also launched platforms for governmental and private university education, in addition to providing many free remote training courses in various fields and with accredited certificates.

Officials in universities offering Islamic Finance courses believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has given them a clearer vision about the future of education after the pandemic, both in terms content, delivery and reception. In a report by Al Riyadh newspaper, Dr. Omar Al-Saleh, Dean of the Electronic Learning and Communications at the King Saud University, noted that in view of the experience during the pandemic, it has become imperative for universities to change their mode of study to focus on e-learning. Similarly, Dr. Saad Al-Wadani, Dean of E-learning and Distance Education at the Qaseem University, emphasized that the experience of delivering distance education during Covid-19 will lead to changes both in the education framework as well as in the administrative work with emphasis shifting to remote working. Furthermore, Dr. Walid Al-Jandal, Dean of E-learning and Distance Education at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, maintained that e-learning in this period has underscored the need to give greater impetus to teachers and students to pay more attention to developing tools of self-education.

Even though several institutes offering Islamic Finance education in Saudi Arabia have provided training programs and online courses during the pandemic, it is clear that the target audience of these institutes has been relatively limited to the Saudi market. Another interesting example is the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), a pioneer in Islamic finance research and training, and a member of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group based in Saudi Arabia. IRTI has been delivering training courses in this field for nearly four decades since its establishment in 1981. In the first three decades, most of the courses were delivered through face-to-face training while some were conducted through the distance learning mode. These trainings have been pioneering successes in the field of Islamic Economics and Finance. However, with technology advancing fast, the opportunity has been growing to utilize newer technologies to reach wider audiences and achieve a much bigger impact.

In response to the emerging technologies, IRTI in 2015 took a pioneering step to transform access to knowledge and education in Islamic Finance by introducing massive open online courses (MOOCs) in Islamic Economics, Banking and Finance, through the leading online learning platform edX. To respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, IRTI offered eight free online courses on the edX platform. The courses are available on the edX platform from April 15 until 31 December 2020. All eight courses are self-paced, allowing flexibility to learners to complete the modules at their convenience. The courses and the enrolment numbers are as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Number of participants in IRTI training courses on the edX platform
Source: edX

Within a span of only two months since the programs were  launched on the edX platform, more than 10,000 learners enrolled in the courses from 151 countries, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. The enrollment in the online courses compared to traditional training methods was tremendous. It seems from the experience of IRTI with MOOCs that students are ready for such a change.

Figure 2: Enrolment for IRTI MOOCs in 151 countries around the world. Source: edX

Conclusion

In this fast-changing world, Islamic finance education and learning need to evolve to be accessible, agile and flexible. Moreover, the emerging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence and mobile solutions are enabling personalized and targeted learning that impacts performance. While universities, educational institutes, learning providers and business leaders focus more and more on productivity and adaptability, they need to be much more agile in responding and providing learning solutions that support these outcomes directly.

It is clear that the Saudi Ministry of Education and universities in the country have already invested in the infrastructure for online and distance learning. This greatly helped in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the learning platforms and facilities are themselves not a sufficient condition for adaptation to the new realities. The education process and the agile leadership by the deans and faculty members are very important factors. This adaptability made sure that the education processes continued smoothly in the country. The force of change circumstances with lockdown in place also helped.

Going forward, universities need to invest in the learning and development of their workforce to stay future-fit in a complex and competitive world of education. Creating a supportive environment for learning is an important part of ensuring professors, deans and faculty staff have the right capabilities to adapt and respond to challenges in an agile and effective way.

As compared to other fields of knowledge, Islamic Finance programs in the universities and training institutions based in Saudi Arabia showed a moderate degree of agility in responding to Covid-19 pandemic. However, in the period after the pandemic, these institutions need to change by increasing the flow of learning via digital technologies by creation, harnessing and curation of knowledge content. The programs also need to use technology sensibly to assist teachers, trainers and practitioners. The classroom of the future would be one where the AI, Blockchain and FinTech are performing as an assistant to the teachers and learners, and it is an education where people are taught to build their skills, abilities and knowledge in a way that is not easily automatable.


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