ChatGPT offers Gulf countries an opportunity to close the educational gap

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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The Gulf countries have been behind their Western peers in education for decades, and they are struggling to catch up. ChatGPT raises the possibility of a revolution in education that will temporarily level the playing field, allowing Gulf countries to jump the line. Doing so requires a fundamental change in their educational policy mindset.

International indicators of educational quality, such as the Program for International Student Attainment (PISA), paint a grim picture for the Gulf countries, especially when compared to countries with similar living standards. Moreover, there is scant evidence of rapid improvement by the Gulf states, despite committing billions of dollars to education.

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One of the most concerning consequences of the Gulf countries’ underwhelming educational systems is their subpar levels of innovation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are making genuine progress on that front, but when it comes to technological advancements produced by homegrown researchers, all six GCC states have significant room for improvement. Given the centrality of innovation to their economic visions, any avenue for boosting innovation must be explored.

The artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT offers the Gulf countries an opportunity to swiftly reverse this chronic deficiency. At present, it seems like the software poses an existential threat to many long-standing elements of the educational system, including instructional tools and assessment methods. Even teachers must be wondering about their future role given that ChatGPT can frequently outperform them in responding to student queries or even formulating learning paths.

However, the reality is that we have an extremely limited understanding of what the future of education will be in a world where ChatGPT can be consulted by students in a matter of seconds, anywhere, anytime. If it turns out that slates will be wiped clean and we will have totally new educational systems, if they make the right calls, the Gulf countries can quickly transform themselves from laggards into leaders.

How can they ensure that they correctly anticipate the optimal direction? Two elements are critical: the first is structured experimentation with ChatGPT in the educational workplace; and the second is rigorous analysis by scholars well-versed in the science of education.

In this regard, Finland is ideally situated to maintain their hard-earned reputation as global leaders in education. Its schoolteachers are education scholars who are required to continually evolve their curricula based on cutting-edge pedagogical research. Even in the pre-ChatGPT era, Finnish teachers experiment with new techniques. They share their findings with their colleagues in academic conferences, refining their methods and disseminating them to the rest of the community. We should expect a continuation of this approach now that ChatGPT is available on every smartphone.

For the Gulf countries, the need to emulate the research-intensive Finnish approach to education is presently more acute than ever. Teachers in the region should be exploring how ChatGPT can enhance learning with open minds, and they should be using professional academic structures to ensure that the lessons learned spread quickly across the Gulf’s educational systems.

Given their modest track records in teacher-led educational research, the Gulf countries need to take bold steps in retraining teachers, and in integrating research, teaching, and policymaking in the educational realm. Ministers of Education need to regularly meet with educational scholars who are spearheading local research about ChatGPT.

Moreover, these meetings cannot be perfunctory rendezvous where the minister observes a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation and then just thinks: “Well that all sounds very exciting, but let’s just stick with what requires minimal organizational change, and what will minimize the likelihood of teachers getting angry”. They especially need to avoid the tempting but regressive step of just banning ChatGPT and hoping that everything can continue as is.

The UAE has recently been able to make rapid improvements in its defense capabilities by exploiting similar changes in military technologies. Producing advanced fighter jets is highly complex, but the drone revolution has decreased the value of traditional workhorses such as the F-16 and F-18. By being an early mover in the drone industry, the UAE has avoided the need to catch up decades of fighter jet knowledge.

The same mindset needs to be adopted by educational authorities in the region. Normally, it would take decades to produce a Harvard or Oxford University, but if ChatGPT is smarter than your average Stanford professor, then this necessity might become a frivolous luxury.

The key is understanding the limits of our existing knowledge about ChatGPT, and resisting the seductive overtures of an international consultancy falsely claiming it knows how education will evolve. There is no substitute for educational scholars working with teachers on the ground, grinding out intelligently designed experiments that use ChatGPT, and reporting back to attentive Ministers of Education. That’s why the renaissance master Michelangelo once quipped: “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

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