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The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality

The attempt to shift university education online during the coronavirus pandemic has amplified inequality in access to education in the Arab world, sharpening the distinction between those students who have high-speed access to the Internet and to phones, tablets, and laptops and those who do not.

Those who often have weak access to education—refugees, children of the poor, residents of rural areas, girls in socially conservative families—are now getting weaker access, if they have access at all.

So sharp is the “digital divide” that some professors are calling for a halt to the attempt to move higher education online. “I was thinking of starting to offer some lessons online, but I backed off,” said Abdul-Qader Hammoudni, a professor of mathematics at Tunis Public University. “There must be equal access for everyone.” Many of his students, he said, did not have laptops or phones.

The attempted transition to online education highlights the huge economic spread in the Arab world, from tiny, rich countries like Qatar, which has 100 percent Internet coverage, to sprawling Sudan which has 30 percent coverage. (Inevitably, Internet coverage is better in urban areas and weaker in rural ones.)

At the student level, the experience of online education is similarly split.

Dima Mohammed, an architecture student at the University of Applied Sciences, in Bahrain, says “E-learning is a wonderful and useful opportunity. We are safe at home and the academic content is in our hands all the time and there are many applications that can be used to communicate with teachers and students alike.” Mohammed has her own laptop and no problem with the speed or cost of the Internet.

In Khartoum, Zainab Al-Hawari, a pharmacy student at Al-Neelain Public University, has a different perspective. Sudan has routine power outages and inadequate mobile phone networks.  “The Internet is bad, the electricity is cut, and most students don’t have a personal computer,” said Al-Hawari. “We have colleagues in Darfur who can’t even communicate with their families on the phone.”

“The Internet is bad, the electricity is cut, and most students don’t have a personal computer,”

Zainab Al-Hawari  
A pharmacy student at Al-Neelain Public University, in Khartoum

Online learning does have strong advocates in the Arab world, who see it as a useful modality that could reach more learners and leverage the best teaching. (See a related article, “Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education.”)

No Internet in Half of Arab Households

But Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has sounded the alarm about the attempted global shift to online education, saying in a new report that 826 million students globally don’t have computers of their own.

In Arab countries, 48 percent of households don’t have home Internet, according to International Telecommunication Union’s 2019 data.

Mobile phones can’t serve as a backup for the absence of broadband Internet: About 56 million people of school and university age live in places not covered by mobile phone networks, according to the Unesco report.

Mobile phone coverage in Arab countries is somewhat better than the Internet access. The Arab region has more than 304 million mobile phone subscriptions, according to a report released by the Hootsuite social media management platform in early 2019. But those phones don’t necessarily have any Internet access, or access with enough speed and capacity to learn online.

Data were not available for Yemen and other Arab League countries not shown. Source: Internet World Stat. Map: InfoTimes

The United Arab Emirates is first among the Arab countries in terms of Internet speed, ranking 30th globally among 177 countries, according to Speed Test, a website specializing in such measurements. Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan are all at the bottom of countries in such tests.

Learning’s Financial Burden

When Internet speed is sufficient, cost of access and hardware kick in as a factor.

Online learning is often heavily dependent on uploading and downloading files and watching videos, for which broadband Internet that is piped into the home is often needed. A 2014 World Bank study found that broadband Internet becomes popular when households only have to pay 3 to 5 percent of their monthly income for it. That is true in some Arab countries, but in others, like Djibouti, Syria and Yemen, the cost of broadband far exceeds 5 percent of one’s income. This is particularly true among the poor.

In Tunisia, the poorest 41 percent of the population need to spend more than 40 percent of their income to obtain fixed or mobile broadband services. In Yemen, the poorest 40 percent of the population would need to spend more than 51 percent of their income just for mobile Internet services, according to the World Bank study.

Chart: InfoTimes
Chart: InfoTimes

The additional costs associated with online learning are coming at a time when many parents are facing a loss of income. “These additional expenses that were not planned increase the financial burden on hundreds of families under critical economic conditions,” said Ben El-Shehaib, a Moroccan researcher and consultant at the Ministry of Labor. The Moroccan government did make access to some educational websites free, a policy also implemented in Jordan. But that policy doesn’t fix everything, El-Shehaib says, since teachers often want to use social networks such as WhatsApp or YouTube, for which access is not free.

The costs make an impact on the lives of students.

Mahmoud Sa’eed, a law student at Assiut University, lives in Al-Madwar village, 40 kilometers south of Assiut, with his family of eight. His father works as a teacher and earns a salary of 2,820 Egyptian pounds per month ($180). Sa’eed does not own a computer and uses his phone to access the Internet.

“When you need 10 percent of your father’s salary to get Internet at home,” he said, “education becomes a kind of luxury I cannot achieve.” (See a related article, “Egypt’s Universities Adopt E-Books in Move Toward Digital Education”).

In Yemen, torn by a long-running war that has left the country poor and vulnerable to disease, any attempt at transitioning to online learning is also viewed with skepticism. The country has been sealed off diplomatically for years and its only airport is closed, all of which worked in its favor in the beginning of coronavirus pandemic. But five cases of

“There is no real scientific and educational benefit from the continuation of the current attempt to shift to distance education in light of the weak infrastructure and the lack of training necessary for the parties in the educational process.”

Abdul-Azim El-Gammal
 A professor of immunology and microbiology at Suez Canal University.

Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, have been reported, and authorities, fearful that the disease could spread quickly, have imposed a two-week lockdown of mosques and shops. Nightly Ramadan celebrations are proceeding normally.

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But professors say if online learning were adapted, it could make the gender gap in access to education worse. Tariq Al-Marhabi, a lecturer in applied sciences at Hajjah Public University in Yemen, has tried to use WhatsApp groups to communicate with his students and do some exercises, but the attempt was not successful.

“Most female students do not have smartphones,” he said, “and whoever owns them cannot participate in WhatsApp groups due to customs and traditions, and so communication is only used by male students.” (See a related article, “Coronavirus School Closings Around the World Will Hit Girls the Hardest.”)

‘We Are Not Prepared’

The conclusion of many professors and students outside of the elite private universities is that online education is not working.

“We are not prepared for this sudden change,” said Abdul-Azim El-Gammal, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Suez Canal University. “There is no real scientific and educational benefit from the continuation of the current attempt to shift to distance education in light of the weak infrastructure and the lack of training necessary for the parties in the educational process.”

Broad groups of students are also opposed to the transition. “We are not against technological development in the field of education if the principles of social justice and equality are adhered to,” said Warda Atig, secretary general of the Tunisian Students’ Union. But, she added, “This shift is sudden and we are not ready for it.”

Most educational institutions in the Arab region finish the academic year by the end of May. Several governments, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria have already announced that students, except for seniors, will move forward automatically without taking final exams, but instead may have to review material and be tested in the fall.

The reality is that at many institutions and in many countries, the transition to online learning is shaky at best. At those institutions where the transition does proceed—with a few elite exceptions—many students could easily be left behind.


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