Pandemic school closures inspire a Middle East e-learning revolution

This picture taken on March 23, 2020 shows Palestinian teacher Jihad Abu Sharar presenting an online class from her home in the village of Dura near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, after schools were closed as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 10 October 2020

Pandemic school closures inspire a Middle East e-learning revolution

  • COVID-19 caused the biggest disruption to the education system in history, forcing governments to get creative
  • With the onset of the new school year, some MENA countries intend to continue with e-learning as a primary tool

KUWAIT: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was quick to adopt and adapt to an online learning model — even as the pandemic was at its height. Now, with economies opening up, the region has an open-ended view on school closures.

According to a UN policy brief released in August 2020, the the coronavirus outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption to education systems around the world, affecting almost 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries. In the MENA region alone, the pandemic was responsible for shutting down learning facilities for almost 100 million students aged between 5 and 17.

Governments in the more affluent countries of the region have been quick to opt for several multi-modal approaches, mostly online, to make up for lost classroom time. Many countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia promoted the use of e-learning platforms, with the Kingdom opening up its national education portal Ain for more than 6 million users and providing 30,000 devices for students in need.

In Egypt and Palestine, governments provided free SIM cards for students and professors to access learning platforms, while telecom operators in Tunisia and Morocco offered free access to online educational portals.




Even as schools have started to reopen across the globe, most countries in the MENA region have opted for a more cautious approach. (AFP/File Photo)

Jordan, one of the first countries in the region to respond to the crisis by closing all educational institutions, developed a learning platform called Darsa, and dedicated two TV channels to facilitate classes and lectures for students lacking access to online facilities.

For now, these efforts are impressive, in the sense that they facilitate a temporary learning environment for millions of students who would otherwise have lost out on schooling.

Even as schools have started to reopen across the globe, most countries in the MENA region have opted for a more cautious approach — to continue with an exclusively online model or to go hybrid with smaller class sizes in order to reduce the physical presence of students as much as possible.

Parallel to the online model is the shadow of cybercrime as students and teachers join Zoom or Microsoft Team sessions, exchanging details and personal information. While adults are aware of the risks associated with online engagements, students need guidance and monitoring, even as they adapt to this kind of learning model.




According to a UN policy brief released in August 2020, the the coronavirus outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption to education systems around the world, affecting almost 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries. (AFP/File Photo)

Countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have basic security and confidentiality laws with special emphasis on social media and defamatory behavior online.

The UAE has released an official manual titled “Students’ Behavior Management,” listing what can be regarded as online offenses and outlining the responsibilities of all stakeholders.

As the new school year starts in the region, some countries have opted to reopen with health measures in place, while others such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia plan to continue with e-learning as a primary tool.

With the online model here to stay, some countries have also introduced supplementary add-ons, such as Rawy Kids (Egypt) or Kitabi Book Reader (Lebanon), to diversify distance-learning tools. Partnerships such as the agreement between UNESCO Beirut and Education Cannot Wait will to ensure remote continuity.

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READ MORE: UNESCO praises Saudi Arabia for keeping education going during COVID-19 lockdown

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The UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority has launched “In This Together Dubai,” a collaboration between the government, private organizations and institutions across the globe that will deliver free access to websites, apps and other educational resources.

Bahrain’s education ministry has set up a dedicated platform in conjunction with international cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services that will cater to about 146,000 students and more than 18,000 teachers, according to Oxford Business Group estimates.

Eventually, all schools are expected to reopen. For now, as the region braces itself for the fallout from the dip in oil prices, the implications of a post-pandemic economy and the approaching flu season, countries have opted for a more conservative mode of teaching in lieu of taking risks.

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

Updated 6 min 33 sec ago

Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

  • Majority of respondents to Arab News/YouGov survey consider neither candidate good for region
  • Findings show strong Arab support for Trump on Iran but not on Jerusalem embassy move

RIYADH: Nearly half the respondents in an Arab News/YouGov poll conducted in 18 Middle East and Africa (MENA) countries believe neither candidate in the upcoming US elections will necessarily be good for the region.
Of the rest, 40 percent said Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden would be better for the region while 12 percent said the same thing about incumbent President Donald Trump. But a key takeaway of the poll is that if Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama until 2017, wins the White House race, he would be well advised to shed the Obama administration baggage.
When asked about policies implemented in the Middle East under the Obama administration, the most popular response (53 percent) was that the Democratic president left the region worse off, with another 58 percent saying Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies.
The study surveyed a sample of 3,097 respondents online to find out how people in the MENA region feel about the Nov. 3 US elections.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Containing Iran was found to be one of the top four issues that respondents wanted the next US president to focus on. Strong support for Trump both maintaining a war posture against Iran and imposing strict sanctions against the Tehran regime was noticed in Iraq (53 percent), Lebanon (38 percent) and Yemen (54 percent), three countries that have had intimate regional dealings with Iran.
President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem proved overwhelmingly unpopular, with 89 percent of Arabs opposing it. Surprisingly, in contrast to most other Arabs, Palestinian respondents inside the Palestinian Territories indicated a greater desire for the US to play a bigger role in mediation with Israel.
Arab opinion was largely split on the elimination this year of Iran’s regional “satrap” Gen. Qassim Soleimani, with the single largest proportion of respondents from Iraq (57 percent) and Lebanon (41 percent) seeing it as a positive move, as opposed to those in Syria and Qatar, where most respondents — respectively 57 percent and 62 percent — saw it as negative for the region.

Iran also figured in the list of perceived threats to US interests, although well behind white nationalism (32 percent) and China (22 percent). The other critical challenges for the US as viewed by Arabs were cybercrime, radical Islamic terrorism and climate change.
For a country that touts itself as an ally of the US, public attitudes in Qatar were found to be surprisingly out of sync with US objectives in the Middle East. The perception of radical Islamic terrorism, Iran and Islamist parties as the “three biggest threats facing the region” was much softer in Qatar compared with the region as a whole.
It came as little surprise that three quarters of respondents want the next US administration to make it easier for people from Arab countries to travel to the US. The figure for Lebanon, for instance, was even higher, 79 percent, underscoring concerns that many young Arabs are actively trying to leave the region.
Among other findings, Arabs remain overwhelmingly concerned about such challenges as failed government (66 percent) and the economic slowdown (43 percent).
Close to half of the respondents (44 percent) would like to see the next US president focus on empowering young people in the Arab region and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44 percent), followed by containing COVID-19 (37 percent), reining in Iran and Hezbollah (24 percent), quashing radical Islamic terrorism (24 percent) and tackling climate change (17 percent).