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.