Learning in the pandemic era
KUWAIT | Jethu Abraham
According to a UN Education Policy Brief released in August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created the largest disruption of education system in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and across all continents. In the MENA region alone, the pandemic was responsible for shutting down learning facilities for almost 100 million children aged between 5 and 17 years.
Governments in the more affluent countries of the region were quick to opt for several multi-modal approaches, mostly online, to make up for the lost time. Many countries such as UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia promoted the use of digital education platforms, with KSA opening up its national education platform, ‘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 provided free access to online educational portals. Jordan, one of the first countries in the region to respond to the crisis – by ensuring lockdown and closure of all educational institutions – developed a learning platform called Darsak and dedicated two TV channels to facilitate classes and lectures to cater to those students without access to online facilities.
For now, these efforts, primarily online platforms, are impressive, in the sense, that it facilitates a temporary learning environment for the millions of children, who would have otherwise lost out on classes at school.
NAVIGATING NEW WATERS
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 online model exclusively or go hybrid with smaller class sizes, so as to reduce the physical presence of students as much as possible.
Parallel to the online model is the overshadowing risk of cybercrime as students and teachers participate in ZOOM or Microsoft Team sessions, exchanging details and information. While adults are in the know of the risks associated with online engagements, students need guidance and monitoring, even as they adapt to this kind of learning model.
Countries such as the UAE and KSA have basic security or confidentiality breach laws in place with special emphasis to social media or defamatory behaviour online.
The UAE, for example, released an official manual titled, ‘Students’ Behaviour Management’, listing what can be regarded as online offences and outlines the responsibilities to be taken by all stakeholders involved.
ONLINE EDUCATION—A NEW REALITY?
With the onset of the new school year in the region, some countries have opted to open with careful health measures in place, while others such as Kuwait and KSA have plans to continue the year with online learning as a primary tool for education.
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) as a means to offer choices in distance learning tools. Partnerships such as the one with UNESCO Beirut and Education cannot wait (ECW) have been made to ensure continuity of education via distance learning.
UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority has launched “In This Together Dubai”, a collaboration between the government, private organisations and institutions across the globe, to offer free access to websites, apps and other educational resources. Bahrain’s Ministry of Education (MoE) has set up a dedicated platform in conjunction with international cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services, to cater to some 146,000 students and more than 18,000 teachers, according to Oxford Business Group estimates.
Eventually, all schools are expected to open ‘brick and mortar’ style someday. For now, as the region is bracing itself for the economic effects of the dip in oil prices and the health implications, if any, of a post-pandemic economy and the approaching flu season, countries have preferred to opt for a conservative mode of education in lieu of the associated risks involved.