Why a hybrid of online and classroom learning may be GCC schools’ way forward

Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (AFP)
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Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (AFP)
Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (Supplied
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Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (Supplied
Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (Supplied
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Today’s students are demanding more flexibility in their learning, one education official says, as polls show that parents are divided over their preferred learning model. (Supplied
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Updated 26 December 2021

Why a hybrid of online and classroom learning may be GCC schools’ way forward

Why a hybrid of online and classroom learning may be GCC schools’ way forward
  • Blended learning, or hybrid learning, has gained popularity since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Parents are divided over the benefits of remote learning, fearing their children are missing out on life skills

DUBAI: Remote learning, where the student and the teacher are not physically present in a traditional classroom environment, has become the norm in most parts of the world that have been in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020.

Information is relayed through discussion boards, video conferencing and online assessments. Educational activities have assumed a variety of formats and methods, most of which use computer technology over the Internet.

Now, with new variants of concern emerging such as the omicron strain, and infections again on the rise in many parts of the world, it increasingly looks as if remote learning, instead of being a stopgap, is here to stay.




Iraqi pupils wearing face masks attend class on the first day of the new academic year in Mosul. (AFP)

Disrupting the school year for more than 1.7 billion students across the world, the pandemic has accelerated an existing trend toward digitalization, changing the way in which people study, work and interact.

What began as a temporary solution to allow schools and universities to complete the academic year while conforming to stringent social-distancing regulations has become a fixture of the education system.

Online education is now tightly woven into models of schooling, overturning the past reliance on traditional classroom teaching. As a result, a new hybrid model of education that combines both online and in-person teaching has emerged.

Many educators in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries say that the combination is a more “practical” and “economical” approach to learning in the 21st century. Jeffrey Smith, director of school partnerships at iCademy Middle East, believes blended learning, or hybrid learning, is the way forward.

“Today’s students and families are demanding more flexibility than a traditional education model can support,” Smith told Arab News, highlighting the evolving demands of the modern workplace as one of the main factors driving this change.

“They need quick and affordable access to information and classes to acquire skills.”

Developments in the education technology sector, known as EdTech, also reflect the new trend. Demand for online learning solutions has skyrocketed during the pandemic. The EdTech sector, which was valued at $227 billion in 2020, is forecast to grow to $404 billion by 2025.

Demand for online and hybrid courses at GCC universities had already been growing well before the pandemic. “Online learning produces better retention rates, which means higher graduation rates and more revenue for the universities,” Smith said




Teachers and lecturers have also had to adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)

In Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s biggest education market, some 77 percent of teaching was conducted remotely over the course of the pandemic, according to a study by cloud computing company Citrix Systems published in June.

The study, which surveyed a sample of C-level executives, IT managers, teachers and administrators at Saudi universities, showed that a majority (81 percent) believe the hybrid learning model will improve the learning experience over the next academic year, with half agreeing the new method will significantly improve learning.

Leading academic institutions in the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait have also committed to digitalizing their education sectors.

Unsurprisingly, the Middle East and Africa’s EdTech and smart-classroom market is projected to soar to $7.1 billion by 2027, according to a study by The Insight Partners.

Europe currently has the largest EdTech community, with more than half of the continent’s top 20 EdTech companies based in the UK — one of the largest suppliers of smart-education solutions to the Gulf region.

One example is Firefly, a portal used by more than a million students, teachers and parents, available in more than 600 schools in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia.




The Middle East and Africa’s EdTech and smart-classroom market is projected to soar to $7.1 billion by 2027. (AFP file photo)

The growing popularity of online learning is evident at the Applied Science University in Bahrain, where students were given the choice to either return to campus after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions or to continue their studies remotely for the 2021 academic year.

“We had 25 percent of our students who decided to study on campus and 75 percent who decided to study from home,” Ghassan Aouad, ASU president, told Arab News.

While negative “psychological” impact of the pandemic on students is a major concern, Aouad says, online learning has major advantages.

“We have delivered the learning outcomes to our students in the highest quality and, in fact, it may have been advantageous by having all the lectures recorded for them,” he said.

The shift online has also enhanced IT skills, improved time management and increased independent learning among students, he said.

INNUMBERS

1.7 billion - Students who had their education disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

460 million - Young people worldwide who cannot access remote-learning programs.

$404 billion - Global value of the EdTech sector by 2025, up from $227 billion in 2020.

To be certain, the hybrid model is not without its drawbacks, considering that nearly half the world’s population does not have ready access to the Internet. For institutions lacking the right online infrastructure, problems with technology, accessibility and communication between teachers, students and parents are fairly common.

A high number of schools and universities were not prepared for the transition when the pandemic struck, but were forced to adopt the distance learning model as a way to stay afloat.

In fact, according to a recent UNICEF report, at least 460 million students worldwide cannot access remote learning programs because they lack the necessary devices or infrastructure.

In the interests of inclusivity, schools and universities are working hard to return students to classroom learning. In the UAE, recently announced safety protocols have been designed to facilitate a return to 100 percent in-person learning from Jan. 2022.

Similarly, the Saudi government has spent more than SR1 billion on upgrading facilities in accordance with safety protocols to ensure the smooth return of students and staff to schools and universities.

The Saudi Food and Drug Authority has also approved the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11, which will allow pupils in that age group to return to the classroom.

Although online models of learning have provided a practical solution to meet the needs of the pandemic, few believe traditional classroom learning has had its day.




Almost half of the world’s population has no internet access. (AFP)

“I can’t imagine the hybrid model being 50-50,” Aouad said. “On-campus, traditional learning will be dominant with an element of online learning. This will become the norm, especially for general studies types of courses. For practical courses, however, students will have to be on campus.”

Furthermore, according to him, the interpersonal, analytical, and critical-thinking skills that students need to succeed in many professions cannot be taught over a webcam.

Parents naturally are divided over the benefits of in-person and remote learning. A recent UAE government poll involving 28,171 participants found that 59 percent of parents would rather their children learn remotely, versus 41 percent who were in favor of in-person classes.

George Tharakan, whose 10-year-old child attends the Apple International Community School in Dubai, believes learning from home has improved family interaction, eliminated school bullying and allowed parents to help with assignments and activities.




Interpersonal, analytical, and critical-thinking skills that students need to succeed in many professions cannot be taught over a webcam. (Supplied)

On the other hand, he admits that his child may be missing out on formative interactions with other students, neglecting their writing skills in favor of typing and verbal communication, and suffering disruptions caused by technical issues.

Aaliyah Khan, a mother of two, was impressed by the rapid and smooth transition to online learning during the pandemic, but remains a supporter of traditional classroom learning.

“Online learning should only be out of necessity, not out of choice. I am not a big fan of a hybrid model either, as it includes exposure to screen time, which I do not support,” Khan told Arab News.

“With face-to-face learning, students socialize and build healthy connections. That is why we humans are called social animals. Apart from social skills, the children can concentrate better and participate more actively in classroom learning.”


Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
Updated 23 sec ago

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
  • Cross-border agreement set to expire on July 10, with Security Council members already sparring over whether it should be extended
  • Number of Syrians facing hunger has almost doubled since 2019, as Ukraine war pushes up prices, and hits wheat and fuel supplies

NEW YORK: With the current UN Security Council’s exceptional authorization for humanitarian aid delivery through the last remaining border crossing into northwest Syria set to expire on July 10, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned that it would be a “failure of the highest order” if the council failed to extend the life-saving operation.

“As the country faces its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict, the international community must safeguard existing, life-saving cross-border assistance and increase their funding pledges to support this aid,” said a commission statement, which also expressed alarm at what it called a “trajectory of consistent narrowing of the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery.”

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one, Bab-al-Hawa.

Moscow argues that international aid operations violate Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

Opposing views among council members last week on the need to extend the cross-border mechanism have sparked concern among humanitarian agencies, as the crossing so far has guaranteed access to desperately needed aid for millions of Syrians since 2014.

“It is a moral abomination that a Security Council resolution was in itself deemed necessary to facilitate cross-border aid in the face of consistent violations — by the government of Syria and other parties — of their obligations under international law to allow and facilitate humanitarian relief for civilians in need,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Syria Commission, said.

The July 10 renewal vote comes as humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest since the start of the war 11 years ago.

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians are now in need of aid. Across the war-ravaged country, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, a staggering 51 percent increase since 2019, amid a conflict in Ukraine that has sent food prices skyrocketing and threatened supplies of wheat and other commodities.
 
In opposition-held northwest Syria, conditions are deteriorating due to continuing hostilities and a deepening economic crisis. About 4.1 million people there, mostly women and children, depend on aid to meet their basic needs.

Cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council allow aid to reach around 2.4 million people every month.

The commission said in its latest report that this lifeline is vital to the population in northwest Syria, adding that while some aid is delivered cross-line from within Syria, these deliveries contain much smaller, insufficient quantities and are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route that crosses active front lines.

During its 11 years of investigating the conflict, the commission has documented that both the government and armed groups have repeatedly used humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip, often deliberately withholding it for specific populations, particularly those under siege.

The commission also maintains that across all territories of Syria, staff members of humanitarian organizations constantly run the risk of being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained.

Commissioner Hanny Megally said: “Parties to the conflict have consistently failed in their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. It is unconscionable that the discussion seems to focus on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.”

Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organizations sounded the alarm at an EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria.

“The funds for humanitarian assistance are simply not sufficient to address the needs and protect the Syrians right now,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community cannot now abandon the Syrian people. They have endured 11 years of devastating conflict that has inflicted unspeakable suffering. They have never been more impoverished and in need of our help.”


Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
Updated 5 min 15 sec ago

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
  • The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions, which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls

BEIRUT: Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical personnel rallied on Thursday outside the Central Bank in the Lebanese capital of Beirut after declaring a two-day general strike to protest rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.

The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions — The Syndicates of Doctors in Beirut and the North and the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners — which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls and other restrictions.

During the strike, which ends on Friday, only emergency cases and dialysis patients would be admitted to hospitals, the unions said.

Lebanon’s medical sector, which up until few years ago was among the best in the Middle East, is on the brink of collapse, barely surviving the country’s unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.

The crisis that started in October 2019 has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value to the dollar, wiping out salaries and savings.

The hardship has led to the emigration of thousands of doctors and nurses and the closure of a large number of pharmacies, as well as severe shortages in medicines and medical equipment.

A number of hospitals have been warning they will have to close because they can no longer pay for their expenses or pay their employees’ salaries.

“Hospitals will close because there is no way they can continue. We have to pay cash when we have no access to cash,” said Suleiman Haroun, head of the private hospitals’ union, who joined the protest in Beirut along with a few hundred other colleagues.

He blamed Central Bank policies for destroying the sector.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound continued to hit new lows against the dollar, which was selling at around 35,600 pounds on the black market Wednesday.

The Lebanese currency was pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar for 22 years until the crisis erupted in late 2019.


Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30
Updated 22 min 33 sec ago

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30
  • The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details

ADEN: At least four people were killed and more than 30 injured at a Yemen fish market when an explosive device planted in a trash can detonated, police in the port city of Aden said on Thursday.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said on Twitter that its trauma hospital in Aden received 50 wounded patients, five of whom had died while six were seriously injured.
The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details.


Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel
Updated 35 min 6 sec ago

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel
  • The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president
  • Iraq has never recognised the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s parliament approved a law on Thursday that will ban normalizing relations with Israel, at a time when several Arab countries have established formal ties.
The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president and forming its own government, prolonging a political standoff.
Iraq has never recognized the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948 and Iraqi citizens and companies cannot visit Israel, but the new law goes further, specifically criminalizing any attempts to normalize relations with Israel.
The law was proposed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr whose party, which opposes close ties with the United States and Israel, won more seats in parliament in elections last October.
“Approving the law is not only a victory for the Iraqi people but to the heroes in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said Iraqi shi’ite lawmaker Hassan Salim who represents Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Lawmakers from Sadr’s party said they proposed the law to curb any claims by Iranian-backed rival parties that Sadr is making coalitions with Sunni and Kurds who may have secret ties with Israel.
Some Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are forging ties with Israel against a backdrop of shared concerns about the threat that Iran may pose to the region.
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has made it a condition of any eventual normalization with Israel that Palestinians’ quest for statehood on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war must be addressed.


UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice
Updated 26 May 2022

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice
  • Council members condemn Israeli violence at slain journalist’s funeral and repeat demands for independent investigation into her death
  • Israel again called on to halt settlement expansion, and rescind Palestinian property demolition and eviction orders

NEW YORK: The killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin in the West Bank and the subsequent excessive use of force by Israeli police against mourners at her funeral were again a key focus of a UN Security Council meeting held on Thursday to discuss the latest report on the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Council members condemned Abu Akleh’s killing, and reiterated their calls for an independent and transparent investigation into her death, while Tor Wennesland, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said that “those responsible must be held accountable.”

US permanent representative to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield described Abu Akleh’s “heart-wrenching killing” as a “tragic loss and an affront to press freedoms everywhere.”

She strongly condemned the killing, and called for “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation,” adding: “And upon the conclusion of an investigation, we expect full accountability for those found responsible.”

Thomas-Greenfield said that Abu Akleh’s death was compounded by the violence at her funeral procession.

“We have directly shared our concern with Israel regarding the troubling footage of Israeli police intruding on the procession,” she said.

The US envoy called on all parties to honor Abu Akleh by “redoubling” peace efforts.

Former and current European members of the Security Council also reiterated their call for an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing and expressed shock at “the violence exercised by the Israeli police toward mourners at her funeral.”

In a joint statement issued after the Security Council meeting, EU members France, Ireland and Estonia, joined by Albania, deplored the decision by the Israeli Higher Planning Council on May 12 to advance plans for the construction of more than 4,000 housing units in the occupied West Bank.

The statement urged Israel to rescind that decision, as well as abandon planned demolitions and evictions, especially in Masafer Yatta area, which alone could result in the forced transfer of 1,200 people.

Condemning all attacks against journalists, Wennesland said that Abu Akleh’s death “brought Palestinians and countless others around the world together in grief and anger, while serving as another reminder of the devastating human cost of this conflict.”

The special coordinator also lamented “the familiar pattern of daily violence, including armed clashes, settlement expansion, evictions, demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures, as well as a deadly terrorist attack in Israel.”

The daily violence has left 10 Palestinians, including a woman and three children, dead and 346 Palestinians, including 24 children, injured.

Those deaths and injuries at the hands of Israeli security forces occurred during demonstrations, clashes, and search-and-arrest operations, said Wennesland.

He said that Israeli settlers and other civilians have carried out 57 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in one Palestinian child being killed, 24 injuries and damage to Palestinian property.

Meanwhile, four Israeli civilians and one Israeli security personnel were killed and 22 civilians and 20 security personnel injured by Palestinians in shooting and stabbing attacks or clashes involving the throwing of stones or homemade incendiary devices.

Wennesland also called for urgent attention to the Palestinian Authority’s “dire” financial situation, “compounded by the constraints of the occupation, the absence of serious Palestinian reforms and unclear prospects for donor support.”

He said: “Without meaningful policy steps on the part of Israel, bold reforms on the part of the PA and increased donor support, these economic challenges will continue.”