Out of school, Arab pupils turn to internet and TV

The United Arab Emirates could offer a free education to 50 million Arab schoolchildren with its digital teaching platform madrasa.org.
Monday 20/04/2020
Children continue their school curriculum online via a computer screen at their home in Kuwait City, March 23. (AFP)
Staying motivated. Children continue their school curriculum online via a computer screen at their home in Kuwait City, March 23. (AFP)

TRIPOLI--Either on television, as in Libya, or on tablets in IT-savvy Gulf monarchies, in the time of novel coronavirus millions of schoolchildren around the Arab world are learning lessons at home.

Governments across the region shuttered schools to combat the virus but at the risk of deepening a worrying educational divide. In many countries afflicted by poverty and patchy internet access, teachers, parents and pupils have been scrambling not to lose the rest of the school year.

Conflict-plagued countries such as Syria and Yemen face a greater challenge, with infrastructure and modern telecommunications in tatters.

More than 3 million children in the Arab world were deprived of schooling before the coronavirus crisis, with more than 8,850 schools either damaged or destroyed in fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

In Libya, despite its protracted war, the Education Ministry struck a deal with local television stations to broadcast “compulsory” lessons for middle and secondary schoolchildren. “It’s as if the pupil was in class with his colleagues and teacher,” said Libyan Education Minister Mohamad Amari Zayed.

Mahdi al-Naami, a secondary school teacher in the Hay al-Andalous district of Tripoli, said: “Children must study at home and it’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure they do so.”

As bank employee Salima Abdel Aziz pointed out, that responsibility falls mainly on mothers.

‘Not like school’

In Jordan, where a 24-hour curfew is in effect, a sports channel refashioned itself as an educational broadcaster. Schools in Jordan are also using WhatsApp, a multiplatform internet service, to send and receive homework and return it marked with corrections.

Government figures in 2018 indicated that approximately 9.1 million of country’s total population of 9.5 million has internet access.

However, “this system will never be the same as lessons in school where pupils can ask questions and interact with their teachers,” said Saif Hindawi, a 40-year-old father of four girls.

Haneen Farouq, a college professor in Baghdad, said authorities instructed teachers to turn to electronic media after schools were closed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Her private college opted for the schoolwork app Google Classroom for its remote learning during the coronavirus lockdown. “Lessons are sent out each day in PDF format,” she said.

She acknowledged after months of anti-government protests since October, that the virus was a further blow to her students.

“They’re not motivated at all,” she said, admitting that “there’s a high chance we’ll just have to redo everything when schools and colleges reopen anyway.”

In the West Bank, under lockdown by Palestinian authorities, teachers in government schools are using the Zoom app to teach up to 100 students at once, with many using mobile phones.

Such interrupted schooling could have lingering effects. A report from the UN children’s agency UNICEF — before the virus fully emerged — said about 63% of children across the Middle East could not read or understand simple text by the age of 10.

‘TV remains main tool’

The Education Ministry in Morocco, which has some 8 million schoolchildren, is operating a digital platform for lessons on television and the internet.

Television “remains the main tool of remote learning for families that don’t have computers even if they have internet access,” said a teacher at a rural school near Marrakech.

In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, where less than half the population has access to the internet, the Education Ministry said it would use television broadcasts but did not give a starting date.

There are some 22 million schoolchildren in Egypt’s public school system, the ministry said.

The Education Ministry recently opened a new website with different lessons for all classes. However, lack of internet access means millions cannot take part in such online schooling.

Closures in Algeria and Tunisia coincided with spring school holidays that have been extended without alternative schooling arrangements as yet announced.

At the other end of the IT scale, schools and universities in gas-rich Qatar have ample access to virtual learning platforms.

The United Arab Emirates, a country that prides itself as a new technology hub, could offer a free education to 50 million Arab schoolchildren with its digital teaching platform madrasa.org.

(Agence France Presse)