The reason why Eummena is a non-profit is not because it’s not an ambitious organization. The opposite is, in fact, true for the Belgium-based provider of Open Source Learning Management System solutions to the Middle East and North Africa.
“Our mission is to bring digital transformation.“
I sat down with Jad Najjar, Co-Founder and CEO; and Guillermo García, leader of the Eummena-Naace Digital Readiness Assessment team. We discussed the challenges in bringing effective elearning solutions to the eclectic and highly auspicious student population in the MENA region. We covered everything from the global challenges the coronavirus continues to impose for education systems, to the wide arrange of infrastructural concerns, down to teachers’ sense of comfort with LMS interfaces. It reflects the more extensive set of variables available in the Eumena-Naace Self-Review Framework, available to any organization interested in assessing their elearning maturity stage and devise ways to improve it; and for which I got an exclusive peek for this article.
Facilitating the distribution of R&D outcomes since 2011
Eummena was born in 2011 as a spin-off from a project in the Human-Computer Interaction Group at Belgium’s KU Leuven Computer Science Department. Given Najjar’s affinities with the Middle East, he saw a unique opportunity not just to provide elearning solutions to a region with a digital gap begging for satiation. He realized that technology transfer would be essential for the sustainable development of digital and elearning skills in the region. Leveraging the HCI Group’s research network, Eummena was born, initially as a consultancy for large institutions, with governments and national ministries of education following suit.
Eummena is responsible for some of the largest LMS setups in the MENA region. Achieving nation-wide rollouts required ambitious planning, fast deployment and close engagement at several levels, most of which Najjar has been involved with first hand. Policy-making, infrastructural analysis and demand requirements, cultural change and teacher upskilling are only some of the most salient. Bold efforts, which the advent of the coronavirus would shake up. “From estimating 15 to 25% of concurrency —number of students active simultaneously active on the LMS— at a given time, today the figure can range anywhere from 30 to 70%.” The game plan was all but thrown off, but as a Middle East insider should know, situations are expected to change in a whim, and time doesn’t necessarily flow in a linear fashion.
In any event, Eummena has been able to bring order and solutions to the vibrant MENA educational community. It has adapted to assist in infrastructure, offer cloud services, or provide on-premise deployments. It has helped organizations and governments reign over the computational needs of schools of various sizes, and ventured into integrations such as BigBlueButton. Last year, it became a Certified Moodle Partner, the first non-profit organization to do so —the only one to this day— for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This was made possible after following Eummena’s clear and strategic vision, to “Create solutions that enable better learning experiences for everyone,” put forward by Najjar, Partner & Chief Technologist Tasos Koutomanos, and Eummena’s experienced EdTech team.
When NGO stands for Knowledge Sharing Organization
Understanding the organizational model that allows Eummena to deliver on the transfer of technological knowledge at the multi-national scale is an exercise likely to subvert common assumptions about innovation. It is common to believe, especially within market-based cultures, that capitalism and innovation go hand in hand at all times, for instance; or more daring still, that they are inherent to one another. It is easy enough to look back in time and discredit the much touted symbiosis of such a relationship, especially in the presence of cultural considerations.
One of Eummena’s earliest insights, once the opportunity in educational technology transfer became clear, was how the real challenges in the digital world, and therefore the rewards, lied in the use and facilitation of content, rather than IT investments. Despite the notable economic disparities in the region, students are comparatively well connected, but as it is common in most parts of the world, online time means more social media and less elearning. The strategy was clear: To provide sources of content under open arrangements and flexible licenses, for teachers to tweak and students to embrace. Learning resources and Information exchanges were in fact the founding activity in the international research network the HCI Group was involved in, which would ultimately lead to the creation of the company.
Open content coupled with a high interest in connecting teachers resulted in a winning combination, and one that keeps on giving. Where the basis of most Moodle partnerships involve the LMS company providing technology to the Partner, Eummena has in fact supported the technological innovations of the Australian company. Eummena is one of the most active partners in the development of MoodleNet, the federated social network for educators.
Najjar is adamant about the key elements that such a platform should feature, to avoid the hollow fate of the social media sites that gobble up our time, productivity and dopamine. “A language of classroom practices must be established. Pedagogies must be comparable and contrastable, despite regional differences. Incentives must be in place that encourage teachers to run experiments in the classroom, and share outcomes in scientifically valid ways.” Only a sophisticated enough language can make more productive relationships the M.O. of the network. The message resonates far and high: Eummena is working with governments, who have expressed a great deal of interest in decentralized, yet interconnected education networks of international reach, where content that can be exchanged, contextualized, and evaluated in ways that offer edge insight.
The science of experience
Najjar knows that network innovations are compounding innovations, as they promote a higher depth and volume of interactions between people, leading to new ideas and models of thought. So in a way, expanding a network is the beginning chapter. Coming up, widespread discussion on learning and predictive analytics, and chatbots, will be promoted across the network, to speed up advances, proofs of concept and developments.
While the networks have been active for many years, and still aren’t fully deployed, they are expected to lead to new innovations sooner than you might think. If anything, the coronavirus has catalyzed the mix of problem identification with potential solutions, and provided massive groups on which to test them at scale.
There is a great deal of excitement in the air, but Najjar is cautious. “We have many questions that still are not easy to answer in a way that is scientifically founded.” They are not impossible, of course. At the end of the day, the vast universe of responses around the world to ensure the continuity of the school year is in fact a wealth of data waiting to be analyzed.
More generally, this is the beauty of being part of diverse networks that strive to speak a common language. They all have a story to tell. In the aggregate, they make up a robust sample.
The importance of auditing digital maturity, post-corona edition
To counter the long-term effects of the pandemic on schools, Najjar is aware of the challenges, but he’s also keen on where the main efforts must go: “Our schools need to learn how to ‘map’ their experiences, transferring them from the classroom to online settings, understanding that the experiences may be radically different, but that they must maintain the same depth. New teaching skills gain focus —Najjar calls them the ‘Four C’s’—: Communication (mediated and asynchronous), Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking.”
At the end of 2019, Eummena became the first international partner of Naace, an UK-based educational technology organization that pools resources to bring knowledge and solutions to its members. While Naace’s member benefits are varied —early access to a peer-reviewed journal, exclusive surveys, partnership opportunities and a year-round networking calendar, among others—, for many, Eummena included, the organization’s selling point is the Self Review Tool, a digital platform where schools can validate their elearning maturity level. The SRF tool is the gateway for the Digital Readiness Assessment services, through which organizations can procure capacity building services, apply for accreditations and awards, and more generally find the support needed to remedy weaknesses identified by the SRF tool. Initially aimed for the MENA region, the model is piquing interests throughout the globe.
A tour around Eummena-Naace Self Review Framework
The SRF tool is part of the Naace membership elearning organizations from the MENA region and the world can apply through Eummena. Based in the UK, Naace is an accreditation body and also a community of support, with consulting and partnership advisors. Eummena is the first Naace partner, in an attempt to grow the community beyond the Kingdom’s borders.
The affordable membership gives organizations access to many resources and services, including the SRF tool. As its name implies, the tool involves a self-administered process, lead by the organization’s elearning leadership but which requires input from all stakeholders.
The SRF tool is designed to provide a critical and evidence-based assessment of the digital readiness of the organization. It’s made of six “Elements,”
- Leadership and Management;
- Teaching and Learning with Technology;
- Assessment of Digital Capability;
- Digital Safeguarding;
- Professional Development;
- Resources and Technology;
each with a series of “Strands” and “Aspects,” totaling over 60 unique questions. The elearning leadership must classify the organization in one of four possible levels of maturity for each Aspect, and provide the required evidence that proves the level of proficiency stated.
Given the complexity and detail of the SRF tool, the platform is designed to save progress, add annotations and provide resources that help organizations make sense of each element. If the organization finds itself lacking on any of the elements, Eummena and Naace are equipped with a team of advisors ready to assist and provide additional support. Case studies, examples and sample roadmaps are also available to speed up the accreditation process.
When the self-help exercise has a positive outcome, the organization can apply for the NaaceMark evaluation, a process conducted by an independent body within Eummena-Naace who will conduct an in-person visit to the organization to validate the results of the SRF tool. While the use of the SRF and its accompanying supporting services —including a complete online course on the Framework— are free throughout the membership, NaaceMark is and added-value service.
If the organization passes the NaaceMark Evaluation process, it can apply for the Third Millennium Learning Award, a recognition on outstanding improvement and regional achievement in digital maturity and elearning readiness.