The coronavirus circulated without detection in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) beginning in February 2020. By March 2020, Iran’s epidemic was by far the largest in MENA, with 137,724 cases, followed by the Gulf states Saudi Arabia (74,795 cases), Qatar (45,465 cases), and the United Arab Emirates (30,307 cases) and; as well as Kuwait (21,967 cases), Egypt (17,967 cases) and the number kept on increasing day-by-day.
MENA region have had to prioritize prevention and containment with the fear of not being able to cope up with the foreseeing situation. Therefore, alike others, MENA region too followed school and university closure policies. Jordan’s Ministry of Education, was one of the first in the region to close all institutions.
By the time, you probably would have got an in idea of what are we focusing on.
In this article, we will shed light on what COVID-19’s impact on education in MENA region.
According to reports, in the Middle East and North Africa, one in five children is not in school. Additionally, an estimated 14.3 million children cannot attend school due to conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And at present, the COVID-19 pandemic is impeding the progress of education in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank have promoted programs for children to learn safely at home and are still working onto it.
UNICEF has advised ministries to produce national curriculum, complementary materials and guides that develop life and foundational skills. Furthermore, UNICEF supports schools’ reopening by distributing hygiene kits, providing catch-up programs and preparing plans for the future.
With the help of its Edtech team, World Bank, have created learning guides for children in low-resource regions. It also assists in systemic education reforms to ensure that children return safely to their educational environment. Additionally, the World Bank has developed a five-pillar educational approach that includes: preparing and motivating students, providing skilled teachers, equipping classrooms, ensuring safe and inclusive school spaces and establishing well-managed educational systems.
Furthermore, the World Bank’s EdTech team provides updates on the educational policy changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic among different regions.
Impact on Education in Middle-East and North Africa:
Most MENA countries have their own distance learning universities or are members connected to regional distance learning universities, and while some private universities in the region are well equipped for online teaching and learning through earlier investments in electronic platforms and content, the majority of countries and public universities are struggling with the sudden necessity of providing large-scale online teaching and learning. However, the case is different in countries like Iraq and Libya. They have been forced to terminate the school year early, due to a lack of e-learning technological infrastructure.
There are several other key challenges governments and universities in the MENA region are facing with regard to moving courses online, they are:
Lack of access to internet/WIFI and lack of sufficient bandwidth in many student households.
Lack of hardware such as tablets and laptops for student use at home.
Limited availability of online course content/limited possibility of moving courses online.
Lack of online platforms for teaching and learning.
Limited digital and pedagogical skills of instructors for online teaching, student assessment, etc., and no training in these areas.
Limited digital skills of students to access and learn online and/or lack of focus due to online and other distractions.
Limited face-to-face and social interaction with instructors and classmates, which can lead to decreased student motivation and learning, affecting disadvantaged students more.
Despite these graving concerns, MENA countries have made an enormous effort, and have largely succeeded, in implementing distance education. They moved most of their courses online almost overnight and are providing as many students as possible with course content through various channels.
Several stakeholders too, have come up, and are working together in a hope of enhancing the future coordination in higher education, if sustained beyond the on-going crisis. For example, in Tunisia, approximately 110,000 students have already signed onto the Virtual University of Tunis online learning platform to take classes. Similarly, 18,000 professors are involved in online teaching activities. In Saudi Arabia, universities have achieved unprecedented results with over 1,200,000 users attending 107,000 learning hours in more than 7,600 virtual classes. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is currently in the process of establishing a COVID19 window under the competitive fund to provide financial support for distance learning at tertiary institutions under the ongoing Tertiary Education for Employability Project (TEEP).
Similarly, in Morocco several distance education channels are being used to reach as many students as possible: (i) the national sports TV channel has been dedicated to broadcasting lectures for university students 12 hours a day, (ii) national and university MOOC (massive open online course) platforms are also providing course content online for a number of university courses, (iii) some universities/faculties are using Microsoft teams/Google classrooms, and (iv) local radio broadcasts course content for four to eight hours per day to reach students without internet access in more rural regions. • Internet providers/telecommunications firms have agreed to provide students with free internet access and large bandwidth. • Lessons useful for other countries: University presidents, but especially teaching staff, are highly committed to ensuring quality instruction and have embraced online courses, but also public engagement (for example, weekly TV roundtables are presented on different aspects of the COVID-19 situation; and research is underway on projects related to COVID-19, such as developing medical masks by the engineering school).
In Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, there is a temporary lifting of a ban on communication via the VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to facilitate the organization of virtual classes, suitable pedagogical approaches are used (Else, distance education might actually inhibit development of soft skills). The crisis can also provide an opportunity to build capacity and strengthen system management for universities and higher education institutions
iCademy Middle East, UAE-based Edtech firm is one of the few accredited majority online schools in the region. It caters to more than 600 students yearly and, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the school has seen a surge in both, parental and kids interest. So , is the case with other educational start-ups based in MENA region.
Besides this, in an interview to us, Springring, a Bahrain based Edtech Platform shared about their offerings to students, especially during COVID times. This platform brings school admin, teachers, parents and students together. In addition to linking people, Springring aims to link all Edtech platforms used within the school.
With Springring, school admin can instantly send out alerts and notices to the entire school. Teachers can provide daily updates on the classroom, assignments, and teaching. Teachers can also chat directly with parents without having to share their personal mobile number. And uploads all class assignments at one place. To be precise, Springring brings a more visual approach to school communication.
Alike others, Springing too had various detours and blockades in reaching to the needy students.
Moving along, as per the reports of Center for Global Development and World Bank, less than 25% of low-income countries currently provide remote learning and about 90% of high-income countries provide remote learning opportunities. As a result of income and technology discrepancies in the regions, COVID-19 is likely to have negative impact on education in the Middle East and North Africa.
The difficulties highlighted are nothing new, Middle East and North African region have been facing such issues since decades. COVID-19 is just an additional issue impacting education in the Middle East and North Africa. However, organizations like UNICEF and the World Bank , governments and start-ups have put in mammoth efforts in providing unique opportunities to implement technological advancements and remote learning to reduce the educational gap in low-income and war-stricken territories, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a significant challenge posed in this region is the digital divide that COVID-19 and domestic conflicts continue to widen,and is known to all. It is hampering the education system more than any other issues. Many MENA countries have made considerable changes to the educational system, like switching to online learning, providing resources etc. Yet, the region is having a more challenging time adapting to the academic challenges faced by COVID-19.
Although there is much to be done regarding improving the literacy rate, creating more opportunities for girls and ensuring safe learning conditions in the region, international humanitarian organizations and governments are actively working to diminish COVID-19’s impact on education. Thus, organizations and nations must continue to work in solidarity to improve the educational system and decrease the digital divide. By providing children with educational resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Middle East and North African region reduce infant mortality rate, increase life expectancy and generate more opportunities for future generations.