Saudi Schools Open Doors to Foreign Publishers
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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
- 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.