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Palestine’s Universities Scramble to Move to Online Learning During Coronavirus Shutdown

(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education.”)

HEBRON—West Bank universities are making a hurried transition to distance learning after the Palestinian Authority temporarily closed all educational institutions to help stem the spread of the new coronavirus. Students are not thrilled about the sudden change.

President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency for 30 days in the West Bank on March 5 after 16 cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed in Bethlehem. As of Thursday, March 12, there were 30 confirmed cases in the Palestinian territories, according to the World Health Organization.

As a result, the Palestinian Authority shut all 24 universities, colleges, and junior colleges until early April.

To serve the 181,786 students affected by the shutdown, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is turning to distance learning, with lessons to be broadcast via Youtube, radio, and television for students from the first through 12th grade, officials said.

For higher education, the ministry has asked all universities to conduct  classes online beginning March 14. The universities plan to use different strategies such as blended learning, e-classes, and virtual classrooms. Various applications such as Zoom and Google Hangouts will be deployed.

In the past, Palestinian universities have not been able to offer any accredited online courses. But universities generally did have students’ e-mail addresses and gave students ways to, for example, upload assignments in what were called “e-classes.”

A Hasty Switch to Online Leaning

Now, universities are mobilizing.

Mustafa Abu Safa, vice president for academic affairs at Polytechnic University in Hebron, which has about 6,000 students, said that the university has created an emergency plan to implement distance learning, starting with a format that will gather students into a virtual classroom using an online tool twice or three times a week, then, give students a week off to work on homework assignments and projects.

“Technology, mainly the Internet, is available everywhere in Palestine,” he said. “The applications we are using are free and easy to use. Hence, distance learning is easy to implement.”

Abu Safa said that distance learning is the best way to minimize the shutdown’s impact.

“Not all professors, nor all students, agree with this teaching method, but the situation forced us to use distance learning,” he said. “There are 1,000 graduating students this year and they are very concerned about the situation. But, with distance learning, we can support students to complete their academic year and also bring psychological comfort.” 

“Distance learning is a temporary solution that we have to adapt to in order to deal with the current situation regarding the coronavirus.”

Belal Younis
 Head of Palestine Technical University, Branch–Khadoury in Al-Aroub

At Al-Quds University in Abu-Dis, East Jerusalem, officials said the university would turn to its “e-class system” to teach its 13,000 plus students though lectures, readings, and assignments. The system will also allow professors and students to communicate with each other.

The university has been holding virtual meetings with its professors to teach them how to use the online-learning applications. And it has already sent students instructions on how to use the system via email. Meanwhile, it’s working on expanding the system with Zoom,  a video conferencing application,  and other free or inexpensive software.

Can Professors Adapt to Online Learning?

At all universities, administrators are trying to make sure professors learn how to use distance-learning programs effectively.

“Distance learning is a temporary solution that we have to adapt to in order to deal with the current situation regarding the coronavirus,” said Belal Younis, head of Palestine Technical University, Branch–Khadoury in Al-Aroub.

“This month is a trial to see the benefits and challenges to e-learning, and to evaluate and attempt to improve it,” said Abu Safa, of Polytechnic University.

He said his university, which has 8,622 students distributed among its three campuses at Ramallah, Tulkarem, and Al-Aroub in Hebron, has started conducting training courses for teachers to instruct them on how to use an online system that have been recently enhanced with Zoom.

“The main problem we encounter is technical issues due to the poor Internet service we have in Palestine.”

Ahmad Awwadeh
 A first-year student studying human rights and international law at Al-Quds University

He added that the university conducted meetings and training courses for the heads of each department so they can help those within their departments. Younis also said the university is keeping a computer center open to give professors and students technical help. 

Lack of Internet Blocks Access for Some

Still, teachers are concerned about the basics—in particular Internet access for all students.

One lecturer at Al-Quds University who asked that her name be withheld was concerned about students’ access. “With the poor Internet connection most of my students have, I cannot teach in an effective way,” the lecturer said. “Many students did not show up in my e-classes. They sent me messages saying that they could not log in due to several reasons, mainly the Internet connections.”

Students are also concerned about Internet access and the lack of in-person communication.

“The main problem we encounter is technical issues due to the poor Internet service we have in Palestine,” said Ahmad Awwadeh, a first-year student studying human rights and international law at Al-Quds University. “Face-to-face communication is way better and more effective. Unfortunately, the only option open to us in this situation is distance learning.”

Shyama Zain, a psychology student at Hebron University, said that distance learning lacks the educational activities that keep students active and focused.

“Exams are my main concern so far,” said Zain. “I am not sure how they will evaluate us using distance learning.”

In Palestine, as in other Arab countries, online learning is viewed as being vulnerable to cheating.

For disciplines that require practical exercises, the situation is even more negative, students say.

“As a pharmacy student, our discipline requires practical practice by using labs and doing experiments,” said Rinad Raed, a second-year-student of pharmacy at Hebron University. “Distance learning does not allow us to do that. This affects students’ skills and knowledge.”


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