Middle East discovers value of the virtual classroom amid coronavirus threat

Middle East discovers value of the virtual classroom amid coronavirus threat
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Workers spray a classroom in a school in Lebanon, left. A school closure notice, above, and (below) an empty classroom in the Netherlands. (AFP)
Middle East discovers value of the virtual classroom amid coronavirus threat
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Many institutions in Saudi Arabia intend to ensure uninterrupted education through digital learning methods in tandem with other measures. (AFP)
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Updated 16 March 2020

Middle East discovers value of the virtual classroom amid coronavirus threat

Middle East discovers value of the virtual classroom amid coronavirus threat
  • Educational institutions in Saudi Arabia intend to ensure continuity through digital learning
  • Experts believe digital learning methods are the answer to delivering uninterrupted education

DUBAI: In an attempt to minimize the risk of the spread of the new coronavirus, which has infected more than 160,000 people in at least 150 countries, many educational institutions are advising students to stop attending classes, closing campuses and canceling fields trips and after-school events.

The spread and treatment of the highly infectious COVID-19 respiratory disease has become an accelerating health, economic and governance concern worldwide.

At a community level, concerns about the virus have disrupted education systems in more than 30 nations during the second half of the academic calendar. Safety precautions being taken by countries in the Arab region and beyond will keep children at home for a month if not longer.

In the UAE, where more than 80 coronavirus cases have been reported so far, the Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all schools and universities for a period of four weeks starting from March 8.

Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry announced the closure of all educational institutions, including public and private schools as well as technical and vocational training institutes.

Many institutions in the Kingdom intend to ensure uninterrupted education through digital learning methods in tandem with other measures to reduce the spread of the virus through movement and public interaction.

School closures have also been reported in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Japan, Hong Kong, Italy, the UK, and Iran. Many states in the US are also said to be weighing the option along with event cancellations, social distancing and creating employee plans to work remotely.

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In the age of high-speed internet and advanced digital technologies, temporary class suspension or school closure does not mean giving students an impromptu vacation. Many of these institutions have quickly adopted and implemented the concept of “distant learning” by utilizing various online educational programs.

The rapid pace of developments has understandably raised doubts about the viability and value of virtual or e-learning.

Atif Mahmood, founder and CEO of Teacherly, a collaborative lesson-planning platform, said distance-education programs could provide students with extended learning projects in all core subjects as well as practical classes that covered the daily school hours.

Teachers could assign lessons to students for independent learning and, at the same time, use available features to enhance and personalize the assignments, he told Arab News.

“One of the unique features includes embedding voice notes and video messages into your lessons, which is useful for teachers who would like to further explain concepts, tasks, ideas or simply maintain a face-to-face connection with students,” Mahmood added.

In addition to providing real-time feedback, online learning platforms enable teachers “to create schedules and check-ins” so that they can monitor the precise time students log into their lessons and the progress they are making.

Through the Teacherly platform, for example, teachers could work on expanding “students’ knowledge development and understanding from a distance” by embedding quizzes within a lesson, the chief executive said.

“Different schools will do this in different ways, but most schools will try and stick to the normal timetable, so students feel it is a school day and experience the feeling of normality and support.”

Mahmood noted that the value of distance learning had been known long before the restrictions linked to the coronavirus outbreak were put in place.

“The only way to embrace this change (technology) is through appreciation of the value of teachers. They must get the training and time to develop the confidence and skills necessary to deliver remote lessons or face-to-face learning, not only from schools but co-working spaces too.”

Mahmood’s optimism was shared by Ibrahim Naji, chief executive officer of RealEDU Academy, a digital workspace.

He told Arab News that the use of technology and e-learning as a “complementary tool,” and possibly as a framework, could result in a much wider choice of learning approaches.

“Technology and virtual tools have democratized the learning curve, allowing different students from different backgrounds of life to learn and develop new skills without necessarily having to sit in front of a whiteboard or read a textbook,” he said.




Ibrahim Naji, chief executive officer of RealEDU Academy, a digital workspace. (Supplied)

Naji pointed out that a study conducted by Pew Research Center, a US-based think tank, found that 51 percent of YouTube users said they relied on the video-streaming platform to figure out how to learn new things.

“Does that mean that YouTube is replacing classrooms or educational institutions? No, of course not. But it opens up the conversation about introducing these platforms, that are so frowned upon, to help us teach our future leaders,” he added.

According to Naji, virtual learning was a “sustainable form of learning as long as it is a controlled environment.”

However, a “one size fits all approach” was not practical for all students, and he recommended diversifying teaching methodologies and aligning them with the demands of the marketplace.

“With the introduction of platforms such as Coursera, RealEDU and Udemy, and tech giants such as LinkedIn launching new virtual-learning platforms, schools have realized that they have to adapt and adopt,” he said.

Noting the trend set by Google and Tesla of ignoring the academic backgrounds of applicants in their hiring process, Naji said more companies were becoming aware that individuals could “develop extraordinary skills through virtual-learning platforms.”

He added: “Schools from around the world have adopted new online learning programs and technologically advanced tools in order to stay ahead of the curve.”

This could be seen in the successful application of distance learning even to practical classes such as lab work and physical education (PE), Naji said, adding that the use of video and audio as well as interactive apps had encouraged “explorative learning,” which was useful for developing skills in complementary subjects such as PE, art, drama and science-kinesthetic learning.

Virtual tools had also facilitated seamless interaction and engagement between students and online learning, said the RealEDU CEO. “From a science perspective, virtual reality and augmented reality allows you to practically undergo experiments without any hazardous risks.

“From a PE perspective, dynamic cameras have been developed to monitor and track students’ performances while taking part in sports.” Such technologies were not replacing lab or PE classes, “but simply complementing them.”

Similar to schools, universities are going to face a number of challenges as the coronavirus outbreak prompts campus closures and makes professors dependent on e-learning and the use of virtual reality to deliver educational content.

Dubai-based Heriot-Watt University has developed a study contingency plan to make sure that students can continue studying off-campus, with faculties providing remote support.

Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of the university, told Arab News that staff and students would continue using the virtual learning environment (VLE) program known as “Vision” — which is accessible on a PC desktop and by phone — every day to receive tasks and post assignments.

“It allows us the ability to deliver live and recorded video content, set quizzes, surveys and assignments, encourage online discussion and track progress and manage grades,” he said.

As for Saudi Arabia, many of its universities already had an advanced integrated online education infrastructure in place. Now authorities are taking measures to expand that system.

Dr. Noura Al-Marri, vice chairperson of the Shoura Council’s educational committee, recently told Arab News: “Integrated and remote education was one of the proposed plans (even) before the spread of the coronavirus.

“The health situation facing the world has pushed the Kingdom to use the learning alternatives and accelerate the e-learning process through its known and accredited platforms.”


Policeman killed, 7 wounded in Houthi drone attack in Yemen’s Taiz

Policeman killed, 7 wounded in Houthi drone attack in Yemen’s Taiz
Updated 07 March 2021

Policeman killed, 7 wounded in Houthi drone attack in Yemen’s Taiz

Policeman killed, 7 wounded in Houthi drone attack in Yemen’s Taiz
  • Two of the seven injured people are in critical condition
  • Al-Eryani said the militia will not stop its practices unless it becomes under military and political pressure

DUBAI: One policeman was killed and seven others were wounded in a Houthi drone attack targeting a police station in Yemen’s Taiz province, state news agency Saba News reported.
Two of the seven injured people are in critical condition, the report said.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Information Minister Muammar Al-Eryani said the Iranian-backed Houthi militia will not stop its practices unless it becomes under military and political pressure.
“The Houthi militia won’t yield to the calls for de-escalation and engage in peacebuilding based on the three references unless they come under military and political pressure, something which the international community should understand,” Al-Eryani said.
He further said that even during negotiations, the Houthis did not show willingness to reach a peaceful solution to end the conflict in the country.
“Their engagement was a mere maneuver to take a break and then regroup and recruit and brainwash more fighters,” he added.
Al-Eryani urged the international community and the United Nations to avoid wasting more time and efforts in convincing the militia to reach peace, as the country’s people are suffering due to their military escalations.
The country’s civil war kicked off in 2014 when Houthis seized the capital, leading the internationally recognized government to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia.


Oman café stops serving beverages in baby bottles, UAE’s Ajman shutters shop for violating COVID-19 measures

Oman café stops serving beverages in baby bottles, UAE’s Ajman shutters shop for violating COVID-19 measures
Updated 07 March 2021

Oman café stops serving beverages in baby bottles, UAE’s Ajman shutters shop for violating COVID-19 measures

Oman café stops serving beverages in baby bottles, UAE’s Ajman shutters shop for violating COVID-19 measures
  • This practice has received condemnation from people in Oman who called for legal measures against the cafe
  • Ajman emirate in the UAE has shut down a retail outlet and imposed a fine of $1,361 for violating COVID-19 measures

DUBAI: A cafe in Oman’s Al-Buraimi province has suspended serving coffee to customers in baby bottles to prevent the spread of this phenomenon in the Sultanate, local daily Times of Oman reported.
News and pictures of this practice has been spreading over social media, where some cafes across the Gulf region served beverages in baby bottles.
This practice has received condemnation from people in Oman who called for legal measures against the cafe to prevent the spread of this phenomenon from the country.
Dubai authorities on Saturday also banned local cafes from serving drinks in baby bottles to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Dubai Economy said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, Ajman emirate in the UAE has shut down a retail outlet and imposed a fine of $1,361 for violating COVID-19 measures, state news agency WAM reported.
The Emergency, Crisis, and Disaster Management team coordinated with Ajman Police and the Department of Economic Development to close the shop which was overcrowded by customers who failed to maintain social distancing.


LIVE: Pope Francis visits Irbil, Mosul on third day of Iraq apostolic tour

LIVE: Pope Francis visits Irbil, Mosul on third day of Iraq apostolic tour
Updated 2 min 58 sec ago

LIVE: Pope Francis visits Irbil, Mosul on third day of Iraq apostolic tour

LIVE: Pope Francis visits Irbil, Mosul on third day of Iraq apostolic tour
  • Pope Francis spent much of Saturday in the air, touching down in three Iraq cities

DUBAI:  Pope Francis spent much of Saturday in the air, touching down in three cities during the second day of his apostolic visit in Iraqi.

He left Baghdad early for Najaf, where he had a historic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, one of the leading figures in Shiite Islam.

The meeting marked a landmark moment in modern religious history and in terms of Pope Francis’s efforts to deepen interfaith dialogue.

Pope Francis then returned to the sky to head to Nassiriya, where he traveled by car to Ur – traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a central figure in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths – where he made an impassioned plea for ‘unity’ after conflict in a gathering Iraq’s religious communities.

He then flew back to Baghdad, and after a brief rest celebrated the Holy Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph.

Follow live coverage of his third day itinerary below (All times GMT)

WATCH: Residents of the Iraqi Christian enclave of Qaraqosh wait for the arrival of Pope Francis. Click on Twitter link below.

People arrive to attend a mass to be held by Pope Francis near the Grand Immaculate Church in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq. (Reuters)

0804: Pope Francis has left Mosul and is off to the small Christian village of Qaraqosh north of Iraq to visit the Immaculate Conception church.

Iraqi Catholics wait for Pope Francis inside the restored Immaculate Conception church. (Screengrab)

READ: Pope Francis’ visit provides moral support to Christians of Iraq’s Qaraqosh

0733: Pope Francis prays for “victims of war” outside a centuries-old church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, heavily damaged by the Daesh group.
The 84-year-old pontiff said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind.”
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis — who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism — and others forcibly displaced or killed,” Francis said.
The Rev. Raed Kallo, the only priest in Iraq’s second largest city, shared his story among the crowd and before the pontiff. He fled along with most of his congregation of 500 Christian families when Daesh overran the city in June 2014.

Pope Francis releases a white dove during a prayer for war victims in Mosul. (Reuters)


But he said he returned three years ago, after the extremists were defeated by Iraqi and international forces in a grueling campaign that left much of the city in ruins. He said: “My Muslim brothers received me after the liberation of the city with great hospitality and love.”
But he said only around 70 Christian families reside in Mosul today. The rest are afraid to return and many have emigrated abroad.
Also addressing the crowd was Gutayba Aagha, a Muslim and the head of the Independent Social and Cultural Council for the Families of Mosul. In words welcomed by Francis, he said: “In the name of the council I invite all our Christian brothers to return to this, their city, their properties, and their businesses.”

Pope Francis prays for war victims at Hosh Al-Bieaa (Church Square) in Mosul. (Reuters)

0709: Pope Francis is now at the Hosh Al-Bieaa (Church Square) in Mosul, where he will lead a prayer of suffrage for the victims of the war.

Pope Francis arrives at the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in Mosul. (AFP)

0655: Pope Francis arrives via helicopter in Mosul, once a stronghold for Daesh and where Christians now number little more than a few dozen families.

MOSUL WAITS FOR POPE FRANCIS

Iraqi children dressed in costumes wave national flags near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in Mosul on March 7, 2021. (AFP)
Iraqis gather in the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in the northern city of Mosul ahead of the Pope Francis’ visit on March 7, 2021. (AFP)

WATCH: Preparations at Hosh Al-Bieaa (Church Square) in Mosul, where Pope Francis will lead a prayer of suffrage for the victims of the war. Click on Twitter link below.

0523: Pope Francis arrives in Irbil, and is welcomed by Prime Minister Mansour Barzani of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and other civil authorities of the region.

READ: Pope Francis’ visit brings Iraqi Kurdistan’s safe-haven status into sharp focus

Pope Francis gets a warm welcome from Iraqis dressed in traditional outfits upon his arrival at Irbil airport on March 7, 2021. (AFP)

 


Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh
Updated 07 March 2021

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh
  • Under tight security, he will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul
  • He will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns

BAGHDAD: Pope Francis, on his historic Iraq tour, visits on Sunday Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Daesh group until the jihadists’ “caliphate” was defeated three years ago.
The 84-year-old, traveling under tight security, will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul, an ancient crossroads whose center was reduced to rubble by fierce fighting to oust the Daesh, or also known as ISIL.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace.”
“We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people,” Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. “We hope that it will lead to better days.”
The Christian community of Iraq, a Muslim-majority country of 40 million, has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the population.
“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said an Iraqi Christian leader, Father George Jahoula.
Back in 2014, when IS militants swept across one third of Iraq, Pope Francis had said he was ready to come to meet the displaced and other victims of war.
Seven years later, after a stop early Sunday in the Kurdish north of Iraq, he will see for himself the devastated Old City of Mosul and efforts to rebuild it.
Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns.
It was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
To honor the pope, local artisans have woven a two-meter (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ that is still used in Qaraqosh.
Security will be extra-tight in the north of Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS remnants and sleeper cells.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed the country, taking planes, helicopters and armored convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in-country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, as Iraq has recently been in the grip of a second wave, with a record of more than 5,000 cases in a day.
Iraqi authorities have imposed lockdown measures to control crowds, but thousands of faithful are expected to flock to a stadium later Sunday in the northern city of Irbil to hear the pope.
Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s oil-rich northern Kurdish region, has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.
Several thousand seats in the Franso Hariri stadium will be left empty to avoid creating a super-spreader event when Iraqis come to hear the Catholic leader, known here as “Baba Al-Vatican,” deliver the holy mass.


Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader
Lebanon's Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi greets supporters ahead of a speech on February 27, 2021 at the Maronite Patriarchate in the mountain village of Bkerki, northeast of Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 07 March 2021

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader
  • Hezbollah ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) on Saturday issued a “categorical rejection” of the media report, saying it constituted “an assault” on the position of the patriarch

BEIRUT: Lebanon has summoned the Iranian ambassador over a media report on the country’s Maronite leader.
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi was the focus of a report on the Iranian Al-Alam News Network website that accused him of supporting normalization with Israel.
Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said on Saturday that Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi had been summoned for a meeting on Monday.
The minister said the conversation with the ambassador would be “frank and sincere, based on the existing friendship between the two countries.”
An apology from the Iranian side had reached the patriarch, he added, and Lebanon’s ambassador to Tehran had been asked to provide details of what was reported by Al-Alam. “He informed me of an apology and condemnation issued by the Iranian government,” the minister said.
Earlier this month at a rally in Bkerke, north of Beirut, the cleric had called for a UN-sponsored international conference to deal with Lebanon’s economic collapse and political stalemate.
He urged neutrality so that the country would no longer be the victim of regional conflicts. But his comments drew anger from Hezbollah, as well as the critical report on the Al-Alam website.
The report said that Al-Rahi was “plotting today against the weaponry of the resistance and describes it as a militia loyal to Iran. He claims to be prudent and objective and talks about neutrality in the war for existence with global Zionism. We will definitely see him tomorrow in the arms of Israel.”
The patriarchate condemned the “insulting” report and said that, since it was issued by a foreign media organization, it was considered as “interference” in Lebanon’s internal and national affairs as well as interference in the church’s affairs.

FASTFACT

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi’s call for neutrality embarrassed the Free Patriotic Movement, whose supporters did not participate in the Bkerke rally.

It demanded the channel “back off and apologize” so that it did not cause internal and external unfortunate repercussions, especially since Al-Rahi’s words were clear.
“The TV channel is trying to fabricate a headline to mobilize people against Bkerke, which called a spade a spade, put the finger on the wound and spoke about the situation of all the Lebanese, without exception,” it added.
The Maronite League in Lebanon, headed by former MP Naamatallah Abi Nasr, denounced the report’s accusations about Al-Rahi and said it retained the right to “resort to the competent judiciary.”
It called on the Foreign Ministry to summon the ambassador and inform him of Lebanon’s rejection of such attitudes.
Hezbollah ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) on Saturday issued a “categorical rejection” of the media report, saying it constituted “an assault” on the position of the patriarch.
Al-Rahi’s call for neutrality embarrassed the FPM, whose supporters did not participate in the Bkerke rally.
After a meeting of its political council on Saturday, the FPM said that Bkerke “was and still is a beacon for open thought and an edifice of convergence.”
“Patriarch Al-Rahi has always advocated adherence to the roots of this East, and solidarity with all its components in the face of the dangers and enemies that lie in wait. It has never been a conduit for plotting against its people.”