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Saudi Schools Open Doors to Foreign Publishers

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Ian Purdon
2 April 2016

On this particular project, I was a freelance consultant, responsible for project managing and leading content development for an ELL (English Language Learning) course aimed at upper secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. However, for this design narrative, I will focus on the editorial aspects of my role.

As lead content developer, I was also responsible for:

  • overseeing content development
  • carrying out research
  • training teachers in the Kingdom


In 2009, the Saudi Ministry of Education (MoE) issued a tender for foreign publishers to supply English language learning content nationally into state education. Previously, the Saudi government had created its own materials with mixed results. The Saudi government had recognized the low language proficiency levels within the Kingdom and the need to improve in order for its citizens to engage with the wider world community both culturally and economically, both at home and abroad.

The Saudi Arabian school system reflects the conservative nature of Saudi Arabian society. For example, boys and schools attend single sex schools, Islamic education plays a central part of the school curriculum, and certain topics are proscribed (e.g. music, film, etc.), restricted (e.g. certain, certain food, etc.) or deemed irrelevant (e.g. birthdays, non-Islamic holidays and observances, etc.). Furthermore, although all students are required to learn English at school, it is important to note that not all parts of Saudi society wish to learn English for various personal and cultural reasons. There is concern among more conservative Saudi citizens that learning English may erode their indigenous culture.

Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country, but schools differ from region to region in terms of resources, space, and quality of teaching. For example, some schools can be well equipped and spacious, whereas others in the same town can be cramped and have limited or underutilized resources.


As lead content developer, I was tasked with delivering two six-level, multi-component English language programs within 12 months, comprising:

  • student books (print)
  • teacher books (print)
  • sets of PowerPoint presentations
  • eBooks
  • audio CDs
  • online self-access and VoiP courseware

However, in order to do this in the available time, the materials were not completely original works. The project involved adapting and localizing an existing publisher course to ensure it met MoE curriculum requirements, teacher/student needs, and local sensitivities. As lead content developer, my success was to be measured by helping students to improve their English proficiency; helping to motivate students to learn English; and improving teachers’ knowledge of modern teaching pedagogies and use of ICT.


The actions spanned three different phases: planning, production and rollout.

In the planning phase, I reviewed and audited:

  • MoE and student/teacher requirements
  • cultural sensitivities required for localization
  • my contracting organization’s source content and requirements

And this lead to several outputs:

  • a detailed development plan explaining all aspects of the localized course pedagogy at course, stage, and unit levels
  • a revised localized syllabus
  • a series of editorial checklists, rubric lists, and content templates
  • a set of project briefs for writers, editors, designers, and developers
  • specifications for new tests, new reviews, and new task-based learning exercises

In the production phase, I briefed writers and editors, and then oversaw and quality checked their work in accordance with the agreed standards/outputs listed above.

I also managed the internal Saudi MoE review process, and this lead to adjustments to the development plan and to the actual programme materials.

In the rollout phase, I delivered teacher training in several regions in workshops and lead demonstration classes in schools with students.


As a contractor, I was not able to see the project beyond the pilot so it is not possible to say whether my work actually helped students to improve their English proficiency in any significant way. Also, outside of the meetings and classes I had with students, and the training events and meetings I had with teachers, it’s unclear how much long-term impact I had on teacher’s knowledge of modern teaching techniques and ICT.

Also, during the production and rollout phases, I oversaw user-testing by carrying out teacher and student questionnaires and face-to-face meetings with teachers and students. The initial feedback was generally positive, with teachers and students claiming to be being more engaged in their lessons, positive about the blend of digital and print materials, and having a more positive attitude towards learning English. 


I believe all of the insights I gained into planning, product development, and rollout have helped me to appreciate the complexities of educational publishing for Saudi Arabia in particular and Islamic countries in general. I understand what topics are and are not appropriate, and how to make courses that are relevant to the local context.

The project also caused me to reflect on the issues of objectivity and personal relations in User Testing and market research. Often content developers actively participate in these forms of research while working on a project (for reasons of cost-saving or a belief that they know the project better than everyone else) but it’s possible or probable that their involvement may affect the results. A separation between the interviewees, and the content developer and his/her organization may be necessary in order to obtain truly objective feedback. I had built up a relationship with students and teachers during the pilot and this may have affected their responses to my user testing research.

Extra content

Embedded Content

CompendiumLD unit design map

CompendiumLD unit design map

added by Ian Purdon


Really interesitng Ian, you developed a broad range of different resources for this particular client. Do you find it difficult not getting to see the long term results of your hard work?

Ian Purdon
4:09pm 7 April 2016

That's a good question. In the past, working purely within print publishing, I
wouldn't have cared so much about seeing a project beyond publication.
Typically, I would finish a project and move on to something else. Any amendments usually occurred 4 years later when a course was refreshed.

These days however, working in elearning, the relationship between materials developer and end user (teacher or learner) is a lot closer and development time lines have contracted. It's far easier to update and improve content based on user feedback whenever there is a need. So, when working in elearning, yes, I prefer to (and need to) maintain contact with learners and teachers in order to maintain their interest, keep products fresh and relevant, improve outcomes, and take account of improvements in technology.

Denise McDonough
6:41am 11 April 2016 (Edited 6:42am 11 April 2016)

I really admired the scope of your project and plan. Must have been a daunting prospect with the culural aspect in the mix. You could expand this into a small book with your interpersonal contact which as a reader I was very interested in.

Being in and from the west, it would lend itself to an indirect way of other teachers learning a lot about Saudi students they might have in their own classrooms, though not sure how to shoehorn it in.

Hard to find any room for feedback and it occurs to me, were there any assumptions about the level of English the teachers and staff - was there some measure of their proficiency before using the course?

How would any of your plan change with technology added in?

Ian Purdon
5:48am 12 April 2016

Thanks, Denise. As this was a government tender, the goverment specified the language level entry and exit points for their students. This proved a challenge as their understanding and aims for students weren't particularly accurate. As a result, we launched a second pilot to address students' needs (lower level entry point, slower progression). I did make the project more complicated, but this can happen when government ambitions don't match reality on a national level. 

Also, the project did include a lot of technology as students had access to 1500 hours of self study content and there were plans for online classes via Adobe Connect. We had to make sure that the adaptations to the print materials were supported by similar changes in the online and digital materials. Very tricky. 

Ruth Findlater
2:42am 14 May 2016

Hello Ian,

This was a very interesting project to read about, and one that may have caused you lots of headaches as well as a sense of achievement.    I think that you explained yourself very well, and showed a high degree of insight into the cultural aspects you needed to consider during the design and implementation of your work.

during the planning phase did you use any Learning design tools to help garner your thoughts?  I am wondering if you found the Compendium useful?  Personally, i found your narrative much easier to form the picture in my head than the compendium flowchart..

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