This autumn, officials from Jordan's Ministry of Education visited somewhat chillier climes, Minnesota, to help put the finishing touches on what will be the most advanced computerized storage facility for test questions in the Arab world.
Working with a team from Pearson Research and Assessment and Pearson VUE, the electronic testing arm of Pearson, the Jordanians will soon have a version of VUE's CERTS® test development system which has been enhanced to support creation of test items and tests in Arabic - replacing a paper-based exam system. The project began last year when a Pearson team paid a visit to Amman, the Jordanian capital.
"Pearson is funding this, with the idea that this will work for any part of the world," says Lance Blackstone, Pearson VUE's product manager for test development services. "The work we're doing for Arabic will work in Japanese or Russian or other languages. It's a win-win situation."
The CERTS® project for Jordan reflects Pearson's broader business in the Middle East, a region with a young and fast-growing population hungry for information and technology. It's no accident that the latest edition of the Financial Times is a Middle East edition, launched earlier this year.
The region is important for Pearson because of its impressive economic growth, buttressed by rich oil reserves, its diverse population and its status as a global transport hub that has developed world-class airlines. The Middle East and North Africa region had average economic growth of 5.7 percent in 2007, a 12-year high, while foreign direct investment totalled $30.5 billion, more than half of it to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and United Arab Emirates, says the World Bank.
At the same time, the region's growth confronts policymakers with complex issues such as ensuring adequate infrastructure and public services. "Education is the biggest challenge," Khalid Abdulla-Janahi, the chairman of Bahrain-based Ithmaar Bank and co-chair of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, told a World Economic Forum meeting in Egypt earlier this year.
In meeting Jordan's need for a state-of-the-art bank of test questions for its school testing program, Pearson is tapping expertise it has developed for a larger market, the U.S., and then adapting it in a way that could serve not only Jordan but other parts of the world. It's a formula that Pearson also applies to textbooks, educational software and other learning tools.
Take, for example, Edexcel, Pearson's academic and vocational testing unit, which works with about 200 schools and 50 vocational centers in the Middle East and the Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Bahrain.
Results of the academic tests, including the GCSE tests also used in Britain, are available to students via ResultsPlus, a two-year-old system developed in the U.K. that allows students to see their scores online - from anywhere in the world. That comes in especially handy for the large number of expatriates who attend school in countries like the United Arab Emirates, who tend to escape the scorching heat of the Gulf in August - when the GCSE results are announced.
On the vocational side, Edexcel administers qualifications in the Middle East in engineering, information technology, hospitality and other sectors, and works with international and local oil companies to help fashion on-the-job training systems.
These skills are much in demand given the rapid growth - and constant construction - in countries like the United Arab Emirates, though prices recently have declined in Dubai's property market.
Blink and You'll Miss It
"What really surprised me was the pace of change here," says Mark Andrews, who has headed Edexcel's Middle East business for four years, based in Dubai. "You go to work one day and you go the next day, and quite literally the roads have changed."
Pearson Research and Assessment is working with the Abu Dhabi Education Council to test mathematics, science, English and Arabic to about 95,000 students in 260 schools. Pearson is in discussions about extending this testing program throughout the Emirates, which would cover about 200,000 students.
The roots of Pearson Education in the Middle East run deep. A distribution relationship with the Beirut-based Sayegh family dates back 60 years, and other partnerships also are decades old, giving Pearson a leadership position throughout the region - including the Gulf.
"Pearson have been successful in the Gulf and we will be going up against them," a top official of Cambridge University Press said two years ago in announcing its plans for the region.
That success has continued. The curriculum arm of Pearson Education in the Middle East is involved from kindergarten through post-graduate work. Currently, Pearson Education supplies about 70 million books a year in the region - mostly English, mathematics and science - through contracts with eight education ministries, in addition to millions of books sold through private institutes or the Higher Education market.
"There's an amazing opportunity for us because the region is such a melting pot" of nationalities, says Christine Ozden, the head of Pearson Education for the Middle East. "We provide materials from the U.S., from Australia and everywhere in between. I don't know of any other region that has such an openness."
This is shown by the success in the Arab world of a children's course, called Let's Learn English, that was developed by Pearson in Hong Kong under the name Welcome to English. In addition, Pearson's "content-plus" solutions that weave textbooks with educational software have taken firm hold in the region. For example, Pearson's new digital mathematics program developed for the U.S., called enVisionMATH, is now being sold in such markets as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition, Pearson has through a project with the Abu Dhabi Education Council created United Arab Emirate versions of 39 titles from science and mathematics curriculum developed by Pearson Australia for the Australian state of New South Wales. Called the Pearson Reader, the books incorporate about 11,000 changes from the original versions, and are being distributed in about 100 schools.
Growing Sophistication in Consumer Books
For Penguin, Pearson's consumer book business, the Middle East poses opportunities owing to the area's fast-growing population, the increasing growth of the English language, the region's booming economy and the rise of Dubai as a regional travel hub. In addition, large international retailers such as IKEA and Carrefour have opened stores in the region, providing new sales outlets.
"The Middle East is a very wide-ranging market for us," says Sophie Piquemal, Penguin's international sales and marketing director. "You have the very sophisticated market of the United Arab Emirates, including some huge bookshops in places like Dubai, and this compares to Lebanon and Egypt where the emphasis is on schools and educational markets."
Last year, Penguin's sales in the Middle East grew by around 20% over 2006 levels. The United Arab Emirates was the area's largest market for Penguin, followed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The fastest growth was in Oman and Iran, albeit from low bases.
Titles from Penguin's Dorling Kindersley illustrated reference arm are the strongest of all Penguin's lists in the Middle East, with top-selling DK titles this year including "Illustrated Family Encyclopedia," "Successful Manager's Handbook" and "First Aid Manual (8th Edition)." Other popular Penguin titles in the region include self-help book "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle and "Devil May Care," the new James Bond novel by British author Sebastian Faulks.
As a sign of the region's promise, the first Emirates Airlines International Literary Festival will be held in February 2009. Among the Penguin authors slated to attend the event in Dubai are Margaret Atwood, Lauren Child and Rageh Omaar, according to the provisional list on the festival's website.
Dedicated FT Edition
The Financial Times has been printed in Dubai since 2003, and the new Middle East edition began publishing in April to meet reader and advertiser demand in a region that has emerged as a top center for banking, finance and commodities. In the six months since the edition began, circulation has already doubled.
"It's nice to see that the FT is dedicating more resources to this dynamic region," says Dennis Tuckwell, the Dubai-based group director-international for the OMD marketing agency, part of Omnicom Group, who is currently exploring partnership and sponsorship opportunities with the FT for a client, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways. "We're looking at ongoing involvement" with the FT, he says.
The new edition includes a dedicated page on the Middle East on Tuesday and Thursday, which replaces the arts page found in the European edition of the FT. Roula Khalaf, the newspaper's London-based Middle East editor, manages a team of three full-time journalists in Abu Dhabi, who complement other correspondents in Dubai, Cairo, Tehran, Jerusalem and Beirut.
A recent edition included a front-page photograph of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and stories on the dedicated page about inflation in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, global investment houses putting down roots in Saudi Arabia, and how the Gulf banking sector had largely dodged the credit crunch.
At a launch party for the new edition in Abu Dhabi, guests arrived on little boats known as Abras. Lanuch events also included a panel discussion hosted by FT editor Lionel Barber. Panelists included executives of Etihad Airways, carmaker Ferrari, the Abu Dhabi Basic Industries Corporation and the Mubadala Development Company.
"A key question before the panel was whether the Gulf's infrastructure will keep up with the phenomenal growth," says Adrian Clarke, publisher of the FT's Middle East edition. "The answer was that they have a plan, and while it may not be perfect it's doing pretty well."